I was rather surprised to find myself mentioned in the latest greenhouse book, Guy Pearse’s High and Dry. But there I am, on page 244. How I managed to make any appearance in a book on an issue that is a very long way down my list of interests requires some explanation.
High and Dry analyses why (at least until recently) the PM was a climate change sceptic. From what I have read, it is a more detailed version of Clive Hamilton’s book Scorcher, arguing that the influence of the fossil-fuel industry and ‘neo-liberal’ think-tanks explains the PM’s stance (Hamilton, one of Pearse’s PhD supervisors, draws on Pearse’s research).
To argue that ‘neo-liberal’ think-tanks influence Howard, Pearse has to show their connections to the government. And this is where I come in:
Andrew Norton, while not so vocal on greenhouse policy, is another at CIS with close links to the Howard government. He was once an adviser to former environment minister David Kemp.
‘Not so vocal’? ‘Not vocal at all’ would be closer to it. So far as I can find, my only expressed opinion on greenhouse policy was this passing reference in a blog post this February that does not support Pearse’s case:
There is a political consensus that something needs to be done about climate change, not because we are necessarily 100% certain about the science, but because policymakers cannot do nothing in the face of potentially catastrophic risks. Few decisions are made with perfect information.
I write on subjects I know about and when I think I have information or a perspective that is un- or under-represented in the debate. Greenhouse policy fails both these tests, and so I have only mentioned greenhouse in other contexts – in criticising the McCarthyist flavour of recent anti-denialist campaigning (which prompted the quote above), in examining public opinion on the issue, and in commenting on the origins of climate-change scpepticism and the CIS’s role in the debate when Scorcher came out. In any case, somehow I doubt that http://www.andrewnorton.info is bookmarked on the PM’s computer.
Pearse also misleadingly gives the impression that I advised David Kemp on environmental issues. I was one of his advisers when he was education, rather than environment, minister. So far as I can recall we have never discussed greenhouse policy or climate change.
This he-was-once-in-the-same-room-as-Brian-Burke kind of joining the dots goes from silly in my case to ludicrous in the case of my CIS boss, Greg Lindsay. On page 265 he is eight in the ‘PM’s XI’ , Pearse’s list of people ‘whose work to deny the science or delay action has been critical to the capture of John Howard by our biggest polluters.’
Perhaps Greg’s work is telepathic, because as Pearse himself admits on page 279:
he has not been a major player in the greenhouse debate so far … to date, however, he [Greg Lindsay] has not engaged personally on climate change.
Without any actual evidence, Pearse has to resort to connections and indirect influence. In this case, it seems to be that Greg Lindsay is President of the Mont Pelerin Society, some of whose members are climate change sceptics; and because Alex Robson, who has written for the CIS, has also published a couple of climate change sceptic newspaper articles (though not for the CIS); and because he controls the CIS. Yet the whole CIS has had only marginally more to say on the issue than its silent Executive Director. As I noted in comments to my Scorcher post, the CIS has published only a handful of articles on global warming, and nothing for several years.
On this logic, Pearse himself, who still claims (page 33) to be a member of the Liberal Party, has much stronger denialist connections than Greg Lindsay. After all, the most Mont Pelerin members or the CIS can do is advance ideas, the Liberal Party can actually implement policies.
Clutching at another straw, Pearse suggests that Lindsay could use his influence:
The CIS is widely renowned as the PM’s favourite think-tank, and Lindsay has been described as probably the most influential man in Australia. …if Lindsay was to change his view … the policy floodgates might well open. The foundations for the work of neoliberal activists would suddenly be shaky.
The endnote to the first sentence in that quote is to this interview I conducted with Greg last year, on the occasion of the CIS’s 30th birthday.
It’s worth quoting a little of the relevant passages:
AN: What about your personal influence? Eighteen months ago, The Bulletin said that you were probably the most influential man in Australia.
GL: That assertion notwithstanding, I don’t seem to appear on most lists of such people, so either I am not or I work in very mysterious ways. …Despite, apparently, being the Prime Minister’s favourite think tank, in the 10 years of the Howard government, I have spoken to the Prime Minister maybe 10 times and have never been to the Lodge nor Kirribilli House.
Think-tanks certainly set out to influence policy – but their impact is often modest even when they are trying hard (such as the effort the CIS has put into tax over the last few years, or my many years of advocating higher education reform). Their chances of success when they are putting little or no effort in would seem to me to be zero.
Regardless of what Greg Lindsay privately thinks about global warming, he has no responsibility for government policy and Pearse should concede this point. His book’s website has a corrections and clarifications page (I hope he is setting a trend on that at least), which would be an appropriate place to set the record straight.