How effective is The Climate Institute?

Australia’s richest think-tank, The Climate Institute, has been carefully following the model set by board member Clive Hamilton’s The Australia Institute. It feeds the media’s love of public opinion surveys, even targeting the current election media frenzy with polling in marginal seats on climate change. It produces attention-grabbing semi-gimmick research, like their latest report which calculates superannuation costs if action on climate change is delayed (a male of my age will be $1,165.46 a year worse off in retirement, it says with all the spurious precision of economic modelling). Despite Clive’s strict insistence on leisure, both his think-tanks take advantage of slow news weekends to release reports on Sundays.

Yet despite all this the Climate Institute’s profile seems modest. The superannuation report had a bit of media coverage, but nothing like the masses of publicity the Australia Institute can often pull, particularly in the Fairfax papers and on the ABC. The Climate Institute is a new think-tank, of course, and it will take time to build a reputation. But I doubt it will ever do as well as The Australia Institute.

The basic problem is summed up in its statement of purpose:

Established in late 2005, The Climate Institute has a five-year goal of raising public awareness and debate about the dangers to Australia of global warming and to motivate the country to take positive action.

Raising public awareness is something I believe think-tanks are well-established to do. They are free of the constituency constraints of interest groups and political parties, and can mix academic credibility with marketing and media skills to get messages across.

The difficulty for The Climate Institute, however, was that the public awareness had already been achieved by the time they started. One of their own reports (big pdf) shows that by 2005 about 70% of people were convinced of climate change and the need to act. This proposition is effectively now orthoxody. It has even attracted heretic hunters determined to suppress dissent.

The debate has now entered a far more complex phase of trying to turn orthodox ideas into policies and practices. As I have argued before, it is far from clear that the public is prepared to accept the sacrifices and compromises needed to reduce greenhouse emissions. The recent Lowy Institute survey found that by far the most popular solutions were wind, solar and geothermal energy, at best all conveniently well into the future as viable large-scale alternatives to coal (though the question did ask the respondents to look ahead over the next 25 years), over existing but controversial technology like nuclear power.

Think-tanks do of course suggest detailed policies, but overall this is probably not their greatest strength in the issue cycle. Getting people to sign up to compromises and trade-offs is where interest groups and political parties can be effective, in using their authority and influence to get their constituencies to sign up to things to which they are unlikely to agree via intellectual persuasion alone.

12 thoughts on “How effective is The Climate Institute?

  1. Actually, I thought their latest release was an extremely smart tactic — delibertately turning people into groups of winners and losers within the same country.


  2. It’s true that people will seldom vote for a tax increase, and there is a difference between holding fashionable opinions and making real compromises, but I think people will cop higher energy prices if they are introduced slowly enough. I even think they will accept nuclear if given enough time to get used to the idea. The real cost would be things like the offshoring of future aluminuim smelters, but no one will register such an opportunity cost.
    As for the superannuation stunt, I couldn’t understand the intuition behind the results, especially since Gen Ys are apparently going to be better off from deferring greenhouse action. If I can’t, I doubt it will persuade those who aren’t already on the cart.


  3. Your link “heretic hunter” goes to a post of yours about Guy Pearse. As far as I’m aware, he’s written a book on the efforts of lobbyists to promote denial and delay on AGW science and policy. Could you explain how this means that he is suppressing dissent?


  4. Tim – I think the way Pearse is not just attacking those who have doubted climate change, but is also targeting those who have said nothing but have some (sometimes very tenuous) organisational links with them, is an attempt not just to pressure some people out of the debate, but to warn potential publishers that they too will be attacked if they provide an outlet for contrary views.

    I agree that this hasn’t got to the ridiculous point of religious vilification laws. Nobody is yet before a court for denying climate change. But both the very aggressive tone of criticism (‘denialist’ as an insult only makes sense if it is a Truth with a a capital T being denied) and the resort to guilt by association has parallels with the McCarthy era.


  5. AGW is a risk management issue based on some highly theoretical scientific reasoning. We need to watch it and possibly do something about it.

    It is interesting how a few economists in Australia having no expertise in climate research are out there calling people denialists when they are themselves denialists in the very subject they are supposed o be experts in.

    Any person who denies the benefits of free labor markets, openly supports industry policy, says the green party’s economic platform is reasonable, suggests that unemployment can only be cured through massive doses of government spending, supports tariffs and home protection is a denialist of the first order. These people should not call themselves economists nor should they be teaching the kids. That is undeniable.

    Oh I forgot, some of these people think that Stern’s use of 1/70 of the real cost of capital is perfectly fine for intergenerational accounting.

    It can’t get more bizarre, but I bet it will.


  6. Andrew, I hardly think you are in a position to object to the tone of the criticisim when you yourself are talking about McCarthyism and people being hauled before courts for dissent. You may not like the term, but there are clear parallels between HIV/AIDS denial, evolution denial and AGW denial.

    And in any case it makes no sense to assert that Pearse is trying to suppress dissent by attacking people who have said nothing. If he’s trying to get people to say nothing, why attack people who say nothing? If anything this would encourage dissent, since if you are going to be attacked whether you say nothing or say something, you might as well say something.


  7. Tim – He’s attacking people who give platforms to others – and in the CIS’s case not much of a platform. If it was just Pearse it wouldn’t be much of an issue, but racial issues aside I cannot think of any subject that generates such heat from activists and intellectuals. It’s a fire that people with information inconsistent with the orthodoxy will be reluctant to walk into.


  8. Sorry Andrew, you are not making sense. Pearse has not passed any laws making it illegal to deny AGW. He has not proposed any such laws. He has not conducted any Joe McCarthy style investigations into the AGW deniers. All he has done is write a book where he has criticised Lavoisier, the IPA and the CIS for promoting false and misleading information about AGW. By the definition of suppressing dissent that you seem to be using, you must be suppressing his book by criticising it.

    You can’t think of any subject that generates as much heat? I just gave you two: HIV/AIDS and evolution. Both also generate similar claims that the scientific orthodoxy on HIV/AIDS and on evolution is crushing dissent.


  9. Tim

    It’s not the length of the comment that is important. Andrew’s contribution to the AGW debate has been close to zero. On the one or two occassions he brought it up he has said he supports action.

    Do you think mentioning Andrew brought anything to the the narrative?


  10. Tim – Pearse has a whole chapter simply devoted to naming names (called ‘The Same Old Suspects’) – for which in some cases he has minimal or no evidence, as my initial post pointed out, rather like Joe McCarthy’s claims about communists in the State Department.

    Perhaps it is just a result of the structure of the book, but this strikes me as not arguing with their opinions but attempting to shame them for holding opinions Pearse disapproves of.

    Things like that and the global media attack on the AEI when they just tried to commission some sceptic work do suggest to me that this debate has taken an ugly turn.

    In Australia, I don’t think either HIV/AIDS or evolution generate as much heat.


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