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LobbyLand and the politics of fossil fuels

David Shearman

Fossil fuel lobbying is a cancer inflicting death, illness and misery on Australian society. How does it operate, what are its impacts and how can we allow this disabling condition to continue without treatment?

“Clean Coal is a dirty lie” by John Englart is licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0

America’s powerful fossil fuel lobby garnered decades of experience from the pro-tobacco lobby, which delayed government action and resulted in countless deaths. This lobbyist industry metastasised to many countries and in Australia found supportive organisations, alliances [1] and media but not a skerrick of protection from untruths as provided in the US from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In Australia, false statements of fossil fuel industries [2] and lobbyists have been spread far and wide to devalue science and influence media judgment, community opinion and, most importantly, the views of elected representatives at the heart of government. About 252 lobbying entities [3] for a range of issues are registered with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The stars were aligned for this initiative [5]: Our federal government faces increasingly complex and accelerating environmental and climate problems that must be taken into account in all deliberations, but it lacks and fails to access scientific knowledge and expertise to apply appropriate solutions.

Even worse, successive governments have replaced knowledgeable advisors with compliant staffers and former coal industry dwellers and have the comfort of political donations from coal and gas [6] and a revolving door [7] to future jobs if they want them. The government has exhibited a classic example of Groupthink when individual thinking and creativity are lost or subverted in order to stay within the comfort zone of their consensus view, frequently consolidated by the lobby within their midst.

Groupthink, proposed by Irving Janis in 1972, is now a well understood and accepted psychological entity that leads to rejection of negative feedback. There are many examples such as the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1960 when the new JFK administration fell for a CIA plan that they failed to analyse critically.

The gas initiative, if fully delivered, may well become a Bay of Pigs disaster with defunct pipelines straddling Australia. One can imagine in the fullness of time some Queensland minister announcing that the stranded asset can be used for water.

The current Australian federal government has displayed the most damaging fundamental feature of Groupthink, the dismissal of ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

The commitment to implementing a gas-led post-Covid recovery, together with additional coal mine approvals, can be seen as a consequence of bedrock climate denial which masks climate policy in a veneer of spurious action and repetitive statements of intent. The continued use of fossil fuels with impunity has employed a successful strategy of ignoring thousands of deaths and illnesses assuaged by telling suffering communities that the government is fighting valiantly to preserve their jobs. The threat of unemployment overrides the threat of future heart and lung dis- ease and with a little luck, like smoking, you might get away without harm.

Sadly over many years the term “health externalities” has remained unused in the costing of fossil fuels in the vocabulary of major political parties. The cost of death and illness, which can be measured, is passed to the public domain and not carried by the producer.

A further important feature of Group-think is decision making that is defective because the objectives and alternatives are not well researched and also there is selective information processing. Saturation lobbying with the same repeated messages such as ‘clean gas’ and ‘reduced emissions from gas’ undoubtedly fosters confidence in the preferred decision and this is where the initiative is coming apart already.

The danger signals of Groupthink were increasingly apparent when captains of the resource and gas industries were co-opted to lead the gas initiative.

Those repeatedly referring to gas having 60% of the emissions of coal have no credibility. The vast weight of evidence now shows that if methane leaks in the full supply chain are accounted for there is little difference from coal. Are they not aware of this? The prime minister announced a gas fired power station [8] to replace Liddell station in the Hunter, but this replacement was suddenly deemed to be unnecessary, presumably on advice that its function could be provided by batteries.

Discomfort and fear

One feels impelled to question why so little research has been done on the scientific aspects of gas mining within Australia, particularly on issues which affect human health.

A review of more than 2,000 papers published on gas mining by US public health and environmental science researchers and doctors over the last seven years has revealed a growing number of health and environmental concerns. By contrast, there is only one single funded study [9] of public health impacts associated with gas mining in Australia.

The answer to this discrepancy is in part provided by a study from Deakin University [10] on the actual or perceived suppression of environmental information. Government scientists in particular were restricted in reporting their findings but some university scientists also suffered or felt constrained. This is perhaps understandable because universities are in receipt of considerable fossil fuel funding and conversely their investment in fossil fuel industries [11] has been unconscionable over many years.

It is likely that the difference in research endeavour between the Australia and the U.S. relates to the U.S. having a respected scientific regulatory Environ- mental Protection Agency (EPA) which utilises and refers to credible scientific studies in its deliberations. Therefore U.S. researchers can see an endpoint for their public endeavours. In Australia, there has been no comparable independent institution to counterbalance the continuous spurious critiques of scientists from fossil fuel interests.

A further factor is the inability of the media in Australia to provide a forum for scientific explanation. The majority of the media are impaired by their climate and economic ideology. Right of reply conferred by the media in response to scientific facts rarely provides comment based on science. Instead, one often finds industry opinion stating that the author is a ‘fear monger’, ‘chicken little alarmist’, ‘radical lefty’, and all this is permitted by editors as right of reply to articles which attempt to explain the science for the average reader. The “zero-tolerance” approach to climate change deniers and sceptics by The Conversation [12] is highly commended as a significant and courageous step forward.

Faced with denigration in the U.S. one can take encouragement from one’s research being embraced by EPA statements.

Researchers within Australia have also been subjected to what they perceive as threatening letters from industry sources; this may relate to references used in a published article or to a demand for qualification of a reference which could be seen to be critical of an industry. Such letters are likely seen by the recipient as the forerunner of legal action and an effective deterrent to future articles.

Reform by education

Necessary reforms were detailed by John Menadue [13] and by the Grattan Institute [14] but are unlikely because parliament would need to collectively recognise a need for change demanded by the approaching crises and the new form of society that these will bring.

Australian governments are bereft of scientific knowledge and input. In simple terms the Australian equivalent of the massive scientific resource that is available in the US (the EPA) is merely one scientist — the Chief Scientist. How can this be changed if the cabinet, the government and the parliament do not see the need for reform?

The urgent need for creating an Australian Sustainability Commission and an Environmental Protection Authority was proposed at the last federal election and since then by environmental and climate scientists. Presently the federal government doesn’t see this need, for it might impede economic development.

The Opposition had its chance to institute reform but wanted to subsume a new structure into the Department of the Environment with the grandiose idea that political control could cope with the truths of science.

Let’s begin with what is possible, and deliver a gift to the parliament and the government, a foundation stone for scientific assistance to parliament. The blessing of Three Wise Men would be too demanding for so few. However, some scholars believe that there might have been Twelve Wise Men at the first Christmas so let’s settle for twelve.

Parliament would seem churlish if they rejected Twelve Wise Scientists and experts nominated by the Academies and Colleges and drafted to parliament, where they would have a role in talking to cabinet, government and opposition. Meetings and conversations would occur in tea rooms, offices and corridors. The proposal must be varied from the biblical to embrace equal gender, recognising the many brilliant female scientists in our midst. The expertise represented would be climate change, environmental science, water science, health, agricultural science and alternative economics; each having two representatives. This would be the opening curtain for the development of a Sustainability Commission as has been detailed by APEEL [15] to bring exciting vision and a new purpose into the lives of parlimentarians – and democracy could be born again.


Source: John Menadue’s site, 13 Oct 2020

Prof David Shearman is an ERA patron.



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