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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 11/10/2009

Australian PM unloads on 'climate skeptics'

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In September, I wrote a column arguing that President Obama should give a high-profile speech on climate science to raise sagging public awareness of scientific findings, and to increase support for taking action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Failure to do so, I suggested, would permit climate science contrarians and others to continue to erode such support. Obama has not made such a speech, though he did make a prominent energy speech last month.

However, another world leader -- Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd -- stepped up to the plate on Nov. 6 and swung for the fences, deviating from what I had in mind by delivering a lengthy, blistering critique of "climate skeptics," who he says have been stalling his government's plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and slowing global negotiations on a new climate agreement.

"It is time to be totally blunt about the agenda of the climate change skeptics in all their colours..." Rudd said.

Despite Rudd's problematic definition of what constitutes a "climate skeptic" (to him it seems to mean anyone who disagrees with his climate policy proposals), the speech should be required reading for anyone who follows the climate change issue. It amounts to an unprecedented indictment of climate skeptics and opponents of climate change action from a leader of an industrialized nation.

Australia is a major player in global climate talks, due in part to its high greenhouse-gas emissions and status as a significant exporter of coal, a particularly carbon-intensive fossil fuel.

"The challenge we face, and others around the world face, is to build momentum and overcome domestic political constraints," Rudd said in an address to the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

"The truth is this is hard, because the climate change skeptics, the climate change deniers, the opponents of climate change action are active in every country. They are a minority. They are powerful. And invariably they are driven by vested interests.

Rudd said climate skeptics bet the world's future on the basis of "their personal intuitions, their personal prejudices and their deeply ingrained political prejudices."

"For years -- and then, with increasing intensity, in recent months -- do-nothing climate change skeptics have been mounting a systematic campaign against action on climate change. Their aim is not to convince every person on Earth of the follies of acting on climate change. Their aim is to erode just enough of the political will that action becomes impossible."

Rudd called out Australian and American politicians by name, including U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), for having made statements that run contrary to the findings of the vast majority of climate scientists.

Rudd also highlighted the cost of doing nothing to combat climate change. "In this debate the climate change skeptics have erected an intellectual house of cards based on one simple premise: that the cost of not acting is nothing," he said.

He even invoked the American country singer Kenny Rogers, saying:

"A fairly well-known bloke once said that when gambling: You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.
 Know when to walk away, know when to run.
My message to the climate change skeptics, to the big betters and the big risk takers is this: You are betting our children's future and the future of our grandchildren. You are betting our jobs, our houses, our farms, our reefs, our economy and our future on an intuition -- on a gut feeling; on a political prejudice you have about science. That is too big a risk, too radical a departure from the basic conservative principles of public policy."

Subhead: Flawed Definition

One major problem with Rudd's logic is his overly expansive view of what constitutes an "opponent of climate change action." For him, an opponent is someone who falls into one or more of the following categories.

* "Climate science deniers"
* "Those that pay lip service to the science and the need to act on climate change but oppose every practicable mechanism being proposed to bring about that action"
* "Those in each country that believe their country should wait for others to act first."

As Roger Pielke Jr. points out at his blog, Rudd's definition is so broad it amounts to an attack on political dissent. "What bothers me is the explicit equation of people who question a policy's effectiveness or desirability with the idea of being a 'denier' and thus being 'dangerous,'" wrote Pielke, an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado. "Rudd is openly conflating views on science with views on politics."

Surely there is a major difference between someone who is opposed to a particular policy solution and someone who does not believe that Earth is warming due to human activities, isn't there?

Also, despite the need to acknowledge that climate science skeptics (I prefer the term "contrarians," by the way, since all scientists are skeptical by nature) still have significant sway in politics, it seems to me that blaming them for all climate policy failures to date is misguided. The reality is that the interaction between science, politics and the public is messy and complicated.

Discussing these complications, including perhaps his own failures, however, would not have made for nearly as provocative a speech from Rudd.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

I'm interested in hearing your views about what P.M. Rudd said. Do you agree with his definition of climate skeptics? Do you think he's right to blame them for slowing down policy-making? Is it scientifically or morally justifiable to demonize skeptics like he did?

By  |  10:45 AM ET, 11/10/2009

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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