Last month the Hobart night sky was pierced by a giant beam of light shining up high towards the stars, part of a Dark Mofo exhibit called ‘Beam in Thine Own Eye’. The name of the exhibit references a quote from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says to his disciples:
‘Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam [log] out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye’
It’s an apt reminder given the recent state of Australian politics, particularly the repeated allegations by the Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott that ex-Prime Minister Julia Gillard ‘lied’ about the carbon tax, and his constant references to the importance of holding the government to account and applying scrutiny to its policies. Given that Abbott has stated ‘the next election will be a referendum on the carbon tax’, it is surely past time that the veracity of Abbott’s own statements around the carbon tax are examined, that his party’s own policies should be scrutinised, and he and his colleagues should be held to account for their actions on the issue of climate change that they say is central to their campaign to win government.
From day one of gaining the Liberal leadership in 2009 Abbott was opposed to the Rudd government’s proposed carbon tax, saying ‘we’re looking forward to fighting Labor’s great, big new tax, that’s what we’re looking forward to’. When Gillard won the Labor party leadership and uttered the fateful sentence ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’, then implemented a carbon tax as part ofthe negotiations required to form minority government, Abbott stepped up the intensity of his fight dramatically. The carbon tax was a ‘toxic tax’, a ‘shambolic tax’, a tax that ‘hurt business and families’. The carbon tax would be a ‘wrecking ball through the economy’, it would force the price of electricity ‘up and up and up’, and would ‘wipe Whyalla off the map.’
Where Abbott really hit his paces, though, was hanging Gillard on her carbon tax ‘lie’. Never mind that Gillard had made that statement in good faith, not knowing she would have to broker a power sharing arrangement in a minority government. Never mind that Abbott is on record advocating a carbon tax himself saying ‘if you want to reduce carbon emissions why not do it with a simple tax?’, or that Gillard was always clear that she intended to price carbon. Every chance he got, Abbott broadcast his opinion that the carbon tax was ‘a bad tax based on a lie’, it was an ‘illegitimate tax’ implemented by an ‘illegitimate government’ with ‘no mandate’. Gillard was a Prime Minister who was‘seriously ethically challenged’, a Prime Minister who had ‘almost no familiarity with the truth’, and her government ‘a truly bad government’, the ‘worst ever seen’.
This painting of Gillard as a ‘liar’with ‘no mandate’ to govern was quickly picked up and amplified throughout the mainstream media, particularly the Murdoch press and certain talkback radio shows. From there it snowballed into a torrent of very public abuse, reinforced at every opportunity in Parliament by Abbott and the Coalition, and gleefully reported and fuelled by the media to create an ever increasing deluge of nastiness directed at Australia’s first female Prime Minister. ‘Ju-liar’, sandwich throwing, Menugate, the Sattler interview, and countless online comments by anonymous ‘keyboard cowards’ that dripped bile and venom, all contributed to the creation of a new culture in our countrywhere, in the words of journalist Anne Summers, ‘bullying, stalking … are not just tolerated but the new way of doing business’.
Last month, Abbott’s extended campaign to tarnish Gillard’s honesty and integrity and diminish the respect for her office paid off spectacularly: Gillard was dumped as leader by her party and now says she will leave politics altogether. Despite her skill in negotiating record amounts of legislative reform through the difficult environment of a hung parliament, it was decided her unpopularity in the polls was just too much of a liability heading into an election.
However, amongst all the furore surrounding Labor leadership speculation and Gillard’s carbon tax ‘lie’, something very important slipped past the debate unnoticed and unremarked: were Tony Abbott’s own statements on climate change and the carbon tax factually correct, and was he himself being truthful? A review of the evidence shows the answer to both these questions is no. In fact, despite his barrage of criticism directed at Gillard for her alleged ‘lie’ about the carbon tax, Abbott has himself lied again and again about the carbon tax and climate science in general. Let’s have a look at some of these lies here:
Abbott has a long track record of misrepresenting the climate change science and playing down the urgency of mitigating carbon pollution. In fact, for a long time, he struggled to accept that anthropogenic global warming was happening at all:
In 2009 he said “We can’t conclusively say whether man-made carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to climate change” and “I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change. I mean, I just think that the science is highly contentious, to say the least.”
These statements are false. Even at the time Abbott said them the science was not highly contentious at all. The Skeptical Science Consensus Project shows there was a clear consensus in the peer reviewed science (1), and two years earlier the fourth IPCC report had stated global temperature increase was ‘very likely’ (90% probability) caused by man-made CO2 emissions.
Abbott also showed his ignorance of how long term climate trends are measured when he said in December 2009 ‘We’ve had if anything cooling temperatures over the last decade’. Two months later NASA published an analysis of global surface temperatures that revealed the decade 2000-2009 was the hottest since records began. As the NASA website clearly puts it, ‘the average global temperature has increased 0.8°C since 1880, and most of that change has occurred in the past four decades’ (2). Abbott’s use of a popular climate change ‘denier’ argument which cherry-picks data to to give a false impression is unscientific and misrepresents how long term climate trends are measured (3).
In 2009 Abbott also subscribed to a popular climate change ‘denier’ argument that, since the climate has changed in the past, current warming couldn’t have anything to do with humans. Writing for The Australian, Abbot said ‘Grapes grew in Britain in Roman times, crops grew in Greenland during the Middle Ages and the River Thames regularly froze in the 1600s, so climate change certainly takes place. The problem, at least for politicians who prefer rational debate to following fads, is the public’s perception that climate change is uniquely dangerous and particularly associated with man-made carbon dioxide emissions’.
If Abbott had bothered to check the actual science, he would have found that thousands of scientific papers supported the fact that increasing industrial CO2 emissions were causing an accumulation of heat in the Earth’s climate (1). This scientific consensus hardly constitutes a ‘fad’. Even six years back, the science had already overwhelmingly demonstrated using theory, models and direct measurement that CO2 was the main driver of climate change since the Industrial Revolution.
Two years later, in 2011, Abbott was still struggling to grasp the basic physics and chemistry underpinning climate science, saying ‘Whether carbon dioxide is quite the environmental villain that some people make it out to be is not yet proven” and in relation to measuring the impact of CO2. “It’s actually pretty hard because carbon dioxide is invisible and it weightless and you can’t smell it.”
In these statements Abbott reveals his fundamental lack of understanding about what scientists actually do. Climate science is based on analysis of inert data sets, such as the daily air samples taken by helium balloon at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, or the Arctic ice cores that drill down many kilometres and date back hundreds of thousands of years. When scientists assess these sets of data, they are not looking to ascribe labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and they are certainly not looking for a ‘villain’. As for measuring something that is invisible and odourless (4), Abbott could have checked the NOAA website for a detailed explanation of the scientific process of how atmospheric carbon is measured(5).
In 2012 Abbott said the carbon tax would be ‘a wrecking ball through the economy’. This statement is contrary to the facts. The overwhelming majority of households (91% according to Treasury) were compensated via tax cuts for any impact of the carbon tax. Economic growth and investment in Australia remain strong and inflation, unemployment and interest rates are low. Australia is one of the few countries to hold a AAA credit rating, and our economy has continued to grow at a time when almost every other OECD country is in recession.
Abbott has also said Australia would be ‘going it alone’ on pricing carbon pollution. Again, the facts contradict him. In 2013 there is stronger and more widespread action on pricing carbon worldwide than ever before seen: this year China will roll out a pilot emissions trading scheme that covers more than a quarter of the country’s GDP including major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, moving to a full nation-wide scheme in 2015 (6). Other countries such as Japan, South Korea, South Africa and the state of California have introduced emissions trading schemes, joining places like Europe and New Zealand which have been pricing carbon for years. In the US, Obama is moving strongly on carbon emissions, saying in a recent electrifying speech on addressing climate change ‘we don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society’. (7)
As we can see, the list of lies told by Tony Abbott about climate change science and the carbon tax is long, and reveals a shameless hypocrisy from a man who revelled in calling Julia Gillard a ‘liar’ for years. However Abbott’s biggest and most outrageous lies aren’t contained in what he says, they’re in what he fails to say. His lies of omission about the real risks of climate change and the gaping economic and scientific holes in the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ policy have serious implications not only for global action on carbon emissions but also for Australia’s economy, and will be the subject of Part 2 of this article.
It’s been many years now since Tony Abbott abandoned his studies for the priesthood in favour of pursuing a political career. Perhaps that’s why he seems to have so completely forgotten the other part of Jesus’ sermon:
‘Judge not, lest ye be judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto ye.’
Given the amount of criticism, accusations, and unfounded allegations he has dished out to Julia Gillard over the carbon tax, the measure of karma due to be ‘measured unto’ Tony Abbott must surely be very large indeed. Those of us who follow the climate science can only hope that, for the sake of the country and the planet, the many great big carbon tax lies Tony Abbott has told the Australian public will be exposed in time for the next Federal election.
4. CO2 is not weightless, it’s actually one of the heavier gases in the atmosphere
Miriam Moriarty is a Tasmanian writer with a focus on environmental and social issues.