The Carbon Club by Marian Wilkinson

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Leo A. Notenboom is a commentator on issues relating to information technology, computers, and the internet. With the latter in mind he wrote that believing and spreading lies and misleading implications is akin to spreading manure. He instances confirmation bias as the tendency we all have to believe things that confirm what we already believe and dismiss what we do not. Put another way, we believe what we want to believe, whether or not it’s true. We believe those things matching our own world view and agenda, whether or not we are right.

Notenboom writes also of an echo chamber, the tendency of information sources — most notably news media — to repeat each other. In a sense, they use each other as sources. The problem is a story originating from a single source — be it true or false — can appear to have massive confirmation when we see it presented in a variety of supposedly independent sources. Those sources aren’t independent at all. They’re just repeating what they heard from each other.

And it all started from a single source.

A source with an agenda.

Politics happens to be a particularly timely and, quite sadly, extreme example of the threats Notenboom warns about.

This is particularly appropriate to Marian Wilkinson’s discussion of the machinations of the Carbon Club. Wilkinson’s authoritative discourse presents a balanced analysis of two opposing groups of ideas. On the one hand, she shows the build-up over the decades of information, gathered by scientists working in a plethora of disciplines, that supports the view that human activity is responsible not only for changes in climate, but also for the increasing rate at which climate change is accelerating the destruction of Plant Earth. According to the scientific argument, human activity – through coal-fired power stations and bovine activity to name just two sources – has contributed to unsustainably high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The counter argument has a less salubrious history. Wilkinson identifies Americans such as Malcolm Wallop and Chuck Hagel, and Australian Hugh Morgan as early climate-change sceptics who were united in an aim “to blow a hole in plans for a new global agreement [the Kyoto Protocol 1997] that had been years in the making” (2). Morgan ran Western Mining, had the willing ear of Prime Minister John Howard and worked closely with well-known global warming denier Ray Evans, whose opinion of climate science could be described, in Evans’s own word as ‘crap’. These were but a few of the men who formed the as yet untitled Carbon Club.

Morgan is a good example of the Carbon Club membership. Wilkinson describes him as having a lot to lose in Kyoto. “His company owned and managed mining, engineering, industrial and chemical plants exporting nickel, copper, uranium, gold and phosphate fertiliser. It also part-owned, with the US giant Alcoa, alumina refineries and the country’s big aluminium smelters at Portland and Point Henry in Victoria, fuelled by Victoria’s carbon-heavy brown coal” (10). If his company were to meet the cost of its greenhouse emissions, the bill would be of the order of $100 million. Wilkinson is careful to make the point that Morgan’s motives were both mercenary and ideological. He saw the battle over climate change “as the biggest threat to liberal private enterprise culture since socialism” (10).

Morgan is an example of the source with an agenda. Following him and his colleagues right up through the prime ministership of Tony Abbott and his followers until the present day, the opponents of climate change amplified that basic agenda to convince politicians that the scientists were misguided and/or completely wrong. Some clever, and some plainly dumb, attempts were made to overturn the science, or convince politicians that the effects were not as serious as the immutable scientific facts were reporting.

Wilkinson cites ExxonMobil’s chairman Lee Raymond’s claim that ‘sensitive satellite measurements’ revealed that the earth was, in fact, cooler than twenty years previous. Scientific evidence was inconclusive. When the Beale Plan, essentially an emissions trading scheme, was presented for Cabinet consideration in 2003, the big greenhouse gas emitters hired Andrew Robb, a presence in the Liberal Party, to push their cause. Prime Minister Howard’s views on climate and energy were skilfully moulded under the influence of the ‘greenhouse mafia’ (Guy Pearse cited page 50). The name is well chosen as there was nothing more mafia-like than Corey Bernardi’s white-anting of Prime Minister’s Turnbull’s policy on greenhouse emissions. Bernardi took the opportunity of consulting hardline Republicans in Washington to seek support for his anti-climate science stand.

I interpret Wilkinson as saying that the common belief, by which the Carbon Club members lived, was that profit must come before principle, and politicians must be persuaded to do nothing that would attack that premise. What evidence of global warming that climate science had produced was to be spurned, politicians were to be groomed, information that had no basis in fact was to be promoted. Attacks on climate change advocacy had no unifying direction but sprang up like spot fires.

Wilkinson is a scholar of the highest repute. She shows the consistency of the scientific research. Against this, she presents the tortuous arguments and the obfuscations of the climate change deniers. It is as though science has drawn a firm line in the sand, while their opponents, in Notenboom’s words, challenge their reasonable-ness by flinging manure. Unfortunately, people in high places (our current Prime Minister as the classic example) seem to want to believe in miracles rather than take action that could save humanity from its own idiocy.

A provocative read that clarifies muddled thinking. Carbon Club members should contemplate their position.

The Carbon Club

(2020)

By Marian Wilkinson

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76087-599-2

$32.99; 456pp

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