By Phil Mercer
An authoritative new Australian government report was meant to bring an end to years of fractious and, at times, menacing debate over climate change and ease the way for approval of the new tax on big carbon polluters. But in a country that emits more greenhouse gas pollution per person than almost any other, it seems that the issue remains as polarizing as ever.
Like the U.S., Australia is home to influential naysayers who argue that the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the global climate is negligible. Among their ranks are farmers and energy companies, some academics and right-wing politicians, as well as influential radio hosts who use selective bits of scientific data to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change.
An avalanche of scientific reports over the years has repeatedly warned that humans are largely responsible for climate change, and that if left unchecked, Australia will be hit hard. With the debate still raging, the Australian government's Climate Commission hoped to finally settle the issue with its most recent scientific report, The Critical Decade–Climate Science, Risks and Responses.
Released last month, the document warned that time was running out to limit costly impacts from climate change. Its authors blamed sections of the Australian media for confusing its audience and creating a fruitless, phoney debate, by pandering to the skeptics.
Chief climate commissioner Tim Flannery said the report was written for the small minority of Australians who don't already agree that man-made climate change must be addressed. Among other things, it forecasts more severe floods and tropical storms, as well as threats to Australia's heavily-populated coastline from rising sea levels.
But the report has hardly cooled the debate. In recent weeks, Climate scientists have received deaths threats. And on the streets of Sydney, Australia's largest city, opinions on a recent day seemed as mixed as ever.
"I think it is urgent," one man said. "I think we should do everything possible to ameliorate man's influence on the environment."
Another passer-by acknowledged that the climate is changing, but that's where the agreement ended–humans are definitely not responsible, she said. "If you want me to say it is changing because of carbon and all that stuff, I'd have to say no sorry, no go there."
Opinions on the issue largely fall along broader political lines, and the debate has only heated up as Australia's third government in a row struggles to come up with a policy to cut greenhouse emissions. The current center-left coalition is negotiating the details of a proposed carbon tax on the country's 1,000-biggest greenhouse polluters.
Along with scientists, the government has also enlisted some of Australia's leading figures to garner public support for the move. Its supposed environmental and economic benefits have been praised in a TV advert featuring the Australian actress Cate Blanchett alongside ordinary Australians, calling for their countrymen to "say yes to making big companies pay when they pollute… yes to better health for our kids… and finally doing something about climate change."
But Blanchett's support has only drawn ridicule from Australia's conservatives. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has questioned the veracity of climate science, and he recently made hay in Parliament by criticising celebrities like Blanchett who live in "eco mansions" and seem to think their voices should be heard "ahead of the voice of the ordinary working people of this country."
Abbott and others in the opposition say the climate issue is all about jobs, and that a carbon tax will put thousands of Australians out of work. For its part, the Labor-led coalition government said the proposal will actually benefit the country's economy while reducing the risk to hundreds of billions of dollars of property.
The government had hoped to settle on the final details of a carbon tax by the end of June, but gruelling negotiations are dragging on as support for the plan seems to be falling.
Meanwhile, the battle for hearts and minds rages on. With critics apparently not persuaded by appeals to science and economics, a group of Australian climate scientists recently resorted to hip-hop, making an irreverent rap video defending their work and poking fun at right-wing politicians and skeptics.
The video begins with TV clips of various climate skeptics each proclaiming, "I'm not a climate scientist," which gives way to a chorus of young men and women in glasses and white lab coats proclaiming "Yo! We're climate scientists, and there's no denying this! Climate change is real!"
To a throbbing hip-hop beat, the song goes on to rhyme "what we speak is true" with "our work is peer reviewed."
If the video doesn't win over sceptical Australians, perhaps nothing will.