John Howard on ‘climate change’

There has been some growing anticipation in recent weeks about the speech that John Howard was to give in London for the Global Warming Policy Foundation. After all, it was arguable that he finally paid the price for not jumping on the AGW bandwagon early enough. What would he say about that? What would he say about Mr Abbott’s stance? Well, the speech has been given, and I was just a tad disappointed with it.

I liked the title: ‘One Religion is Enough’: I chose the lecture’s title largely in reaction to the sanctimonious tone employed by so many of those who advocate quite substantial, and costly, responses to what they see as irrefutable evidence that the world’s climate faces catastrophe, against people who do not share their view.  To them the cause has become a substitute religion. I liked his statement that he was an agnostic about it all, because that is my position, and I think the only possible position for some who does take science seriously, because the science is all over the place, and still has large gaps in it.

I thought he gave global warming the right place in his account of the rise of Tony Abbott within the Opposition:…  a little under four years ago he challenged what seemed to be a political consensus on global warming; won the leadership of his party by one vote; had it expressly confirm a change in its policy on the issue, and then confronted the incumbent government on global warming, with quite dramatic results…

And I thought he crisply summarised the ‘politics of the science’ here: An overriding feature of the debate is the constant attempt to intimidate policy makers, in some cases successfully, with the mantras of “follow the science” and “the science is truly settled”. The purpose is to create the impression that there is really no room for argument; this is not really a public policy issue; it is one on which the experts have spoken, and we would all be quite daft to do other than follow the prescriptions, it is asserted, which flow automatically from the scientific findings.

Thereafter I read on with less interest, and some preparedness to argue. For example, while I agree with the beginning of the next paragraph, I have some reservations about the end: Scientists are experts in science. Judges are experts in interpreting the law and doctors are skilled at keeping us healthy — provided we take their advice. But parliaments — composed of elected politicians — are the experts at public policy making, and neither expressly or impliedly should they ever surrender that role to others. Are politicians really expert in policy-making? I doubt that anyone is, and politicians do so much on the rebound, and for special interests, and because of a deal they made with a different faction, and because the real alternative seems so hard.

Nowhere does he make the valid point (for him) that there was pressure within the electorate for ‘doing something’ about global warming, and that was why he set up the Australian Greenhouse Office. Yes, he remained adamant that Australia should not sign up to the Kyoto Protocol until the 2007 election was very close, but if the electorate wants something, you have to be adept at dealing with it. I don’t think that he was, on this one, and he probably had anxiety within his Ministry and the Coalition that they had to match Labor on global warming.

The rest of the Lecture is a history of what then happened in Australia, when he was out of politics and observing from the sidelines. None of it is really contentious, in my view, and I would think that Australians  interested in the issue would do little more than nod. What his London audience would have thought of the recounting of Australian political history is another matter. At the end he offers ‘some broad conclusions’, and they go like this.

1. First principles tell us never to accept that all of the science is in on any proposition; always remain open to the relevance of new research.

2. Keep a sense of proportion, especially when it comes to generational burden-sharing. Nigel Lawson’s compelling point in his book An Appeal to Reason, that the present generation should not carry too heavy a burden so that future generations are only 8.4 times better off rather than 9.4 times wealthier, should be heeded by all policy makers. Even the IPCC estimates that global GDP per capita will increase 14 fold over this century, and 24 fold in the developing world.

3. Renewable energy sources should always be used when it makes economic sense to do so. The less that governments intervene the more likely it is that this will happen.

4. Nuclear energy must be part of the long term response. It is a clean energy source, has the capacity to provide base load power as an alternative to fossil fuel, and modern nuclear power stations have a sophisticated level of safety.

5. Always bear in mind that technology will continue to surprise us. I doubt that the expression “fracking” was widely known, let alone used five years ago.

Again, I wouldn’t dispute any of them, but they are not at all new, and would get just a brief nod from his audience. I’m not sure why John Howard was asked to give the Lecture, but at the end of it I rather wondered whether the Global Policy Warming Foundation thought it had got its money’s worth.


Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Peter Donnan says:

    At the end of today’s column you query whether the GWPF got its money’s worth from John Howard. ABC’s Jonathan Green on ‘The Drum’, in commenting on Howard’s contribution, observes that his ‘first and overwhelming instinct is to mine any circumstance for individual political advantage’. That may be too cynical but John Howard’s expertise is more obvious in the realm of politics than in climate change.

    In terms of a multiplicity of views about climate change, the following Drum comments capture a spectrum:

    “The rest of the world appears to have accepted the science and
    has moved on from the ‘is it or isn’t ‘ debate to one of acceptance and are
    involved in the what can /should we do about it” and

    “?Climate change is real and is happening, humans are partially
    responsible. And it will cause some positive and negative environmental impacts
    over the next century, but not a disaster”.

    In a cursory look a the GWPF website the following phrases struck me and I have inserted a brief personal comment:

    ‘deeply concerned about the costs’: If climate change is an increasing reality, the costs that the GWPF are concerned about now will seem pitifully small in comparison if droughts, fires, warming of the seas etc occur in significant ways.

    ‘Science is not settled’. This may capture your position, Don, but it certainly doesn’t capture Jonathan Green’s – although many would describe Jonathan as a most fervent climate change zealot.

    ‘media imbalance’: The GWPF does not adopt a specific position on climate change but accepts that there is a wide spectrum, from total acceptance, to agnosticism and complete denial. It is interesting that John Howard is invited to such a forum where ‘balance’ rather than politics is valued.

    ‘observe evidence and …understand the present’: the GWPF has reservations about predictive models – as indeed many do – but the future is of great interest so while the predictive models/dimensions are very contestable, future scenarios are certainly critical for many people.

    • Peter Lang says:

      Peter Donnan,

      ABC’s Jonathan Green on ‘The Drum’, in commenting on Howard’s contribution, observes that his ‘first and overwhelming instinct is to mine any circumstance for individual political advantage’.

      Wow. What a hypocritical statement from the ALP-ABC. the ALP and the ABC are far and away the experts at that.

      ‘deeply concerned about the costs’: If climate change is an increasing reality, the costs that the GWPF are concerned about now will seem pitifully small in comparison if droughts, fires, warming of the seas etc occur in significant ways.

      I strongly disagree with your comment. The costs of the ETS would be enormous, and would deliver negligible benefit. The ETS would cost $1,345 billion cumulative to 2050 according to Treasury’s modelling. But the assumptions on which the modelling is done will not eventuate, so the cost to deliver the emissions cuts would be far higher and there would be no change to the climate, so no benefits.

      The $1,345 billion cost is about $100,000 per working person. It is about $200,000 per family of four – not: someone has to pay the share for all the people who are not in the work force.

      If people realised the enormous cost for no benefit, I am sure many nore people would be opposed to the carbon restrain policies that have been implemented by the Labor government. By the way, the total cost of these policies (about $19 billion/a this year rising to $22 billion by 2019) is around the same as our total Defense budget – and for no change to the climate so no benefit!

      Furthermore, the major cost in the climate change projections in increasing energy cost. If we have cheaper energy, global warming would be net beneficial to beyond 4 C of temperature increase and for all this century. See Figure 3 here:
      Agriculture and Health are both net positive impacts
      Storms and Seal Level Rise are about zero net impact
      Water and Ecosystems are net negative impacts, but small negative compared with Agriculture and Health
      Energy cost dominates the cost for high global temperature increases, projected for late this century. If we get that cost down, AGW would be net positive for all this century (This is my interpretation of Tol Figure 3).

      If we remove the impediments that are preventing the world from having low cost nuclear power, we’d make global warming a net benefit for all this century AND massively cut global GHG emissions from fossil fuels as well. (and save about 1 million fatalities per year from pollution, AND avoid black carbon emissions).

      Time to get rational Hope you can help!

      • Peter Donnan says:

        My response to a couple of points you raised, Peter:

        “remove the impediments that are preventing the world from having low cost nuclear power” – I could not agree more. I would like to see proper risk management scenarios carried out however – in contrast to the cursory Japanese one page docs!

        “enormous cost for no benefit” Many people of scientific and professional expertise would reject the phrase ‘no benefit’ – even arguing for minimal benefits, unintended consequences, benefits that lead to new directions and innovation. ‘No benefits’ would seem to many a very dismissive position to adopt.

        Your costing figures and finances are indeed stark. With the Japanese nuclear disaster and now subsequent leaking into the sea: multiply the effects exponentially, under worsening global warming. Check out insurance claims for floods, fires, droughts around the world etc ( and just concede a very small amount to global warming – although I am certain you won’t) and let this expand exponentially. Concede that there may be a tipping point down the track when it will be incredibly more expensive to make significant reversals. The precise costings which you present will seem pitiful under these scenarios.

        None of this will need to be considered or indeed be relevant in any way if your view – that climate change should be denied and that its consequences will be of little significance – is accurate. If however, a small spectrum of what the concerns of many scientists around the world comes to pass, of indeed become increasingly obvious, your analysis and contribution will be recalled with little regard. On the other hand, if the concerns of many scientists never eventuate, then their legacy of guilt, hysteria, poor methodology, misinterpretation of data etc will be cast into the dustbins of history along with flat earth views and other great big myths.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      No, I understand that many people find the current scientific knowledge about ‘climate change’ to be settled, and that puzzles more because so much of the whole argument, as I’ve written here on many occasions, is so obviously unsupported by evidence. That suggests to me that those who think that way have stopped looking at the evidence, if indeed they ever did so.

  • David says:

    Howard’s position is ludicrous. Says he “believes in the
    science”, as denialists do, but then says his “intuition” tells him that their
    claims are exaggerated. Relying intuition is the antithesis of the scientific process. The whole reason we invest in science and scientists is so we do not have to rely on the intuition of old men.

  • Peter Lang says:

    I think Howard’s was an excellent speech. It was great that the record was put straight and honestly from his perspective. Who better to tell it. And what a perfect time to tell the story: the electorate has voted massively to repeal the carbon pricing legislation; Labor has said they will repose the repeal unless the government does what Labor wants; and Parliament is about to sit to debate the repeal bills. Perfect timing.

    I disagree with Don, when he says politicians aren’t the best people to make the policy decisions. Who else is more capable? What evidence is there that some other group in democratic society could do a better job of leading the nation in the direction it wants to go that democratically elected politicians? To implement the best policies, overall and on balance, the politicians have to deal with the politics and only move as fast as the electorate is prepared to move. If a political party does not do what the majority of electors want it cannot win government and stay in government. If it is not in government it cannot achieve anything. So, overall, I think politicians are the best people to lead us and to implement the best policies (overall; but accepting that it is nowhere near perfect).

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I didn’t say that politicians aren’t the best people to make policy decisions, but questioned whether or not they were really expert — another thing altogether. It is their job, I accept that, but the record doesn’t show that they are usually, or even often, ‘expert’.

  • Walter Starck says:

    The most significant aspect of this event would seem to be not in any detail of what Howard said but that someone of his status could now be willing to say that the climate emperor has no clothes and this would then be widely reported across the media. This would have been unthinkable in the recent past and clearly indicates a major shift in public sentiment and media attitude.

  • PeterE says:

    I thought the speech excellent. I fully endorse his view that parliamentarians are the ‘experts’ on policy, not in a way that can be measured but as expert judges of what is sensible. This judgement is arrived at over time and there are two steps forward and one step back, errors as well as insights, but what counts is that evolved ultimate judgement. Someone once coined the phrase ‘experts on tap, not on top’ and that is where things have gone wrong in recent times.

  • Des Griffin says:

    Mr Howard asserted that global warming is a quintessential public policy issue to
    be dealt with in the end by politicians. Understanding the science is crucial;
    so is understanding the economics. Howard shows his preparedness to distort the
    history of the debate with these statements.

    “The flood of emails coming from the University of East Anglia, the admitted errors
    regarding the Himalayan Glaciers, as well as the nakedly political agendas of
    some of those allegedly giving impartial scientific advice have degraded the
    image of the IPCC as the unchallengeable body of scientific experts on global

    “And the most recent IPCC Report has produced a grudging admission that the warming process has been at a standstill for the past 15 years. But we are assured that is only temporary.”

    There have been eight independent enquiries into the leaked (hacked) emails from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit: all show there was no
    evidence of scientific misconduct. Howard’s statement is disingenuous!

    The IPCC has admitted that the large Himalayan glaciers could not melt in a few
    decades. But the evidence now is absolutely clear: there is substantial
    retreat, just as there is of Arctic ice.

    And the latest IPCC assessment is not grudging: the probability that climate change has been caused by humans has now been ramped up to 95%.

    The latest IPCC report is more than 2,000 pages long, assessed nearly 10,000
    peer-reviewed scientific studies, most of them published since the previous
    assessment in 2007, and (as with previous assessments) went through three
    rounds of detailed review by 1,089 expert and government reviewers worldwide

    John Howard’s statement, “the warming process has been at a standstill for the past 15 years” is standard denier talk and relates to very high temperatures in
    1998: this has been grabbed hold of to assert that the earth is cooling, not
    warming. Wrong!

    The relative stability in global temperatures in the last seven years is explained
    primarily by the decline in incoming sunlight associated with the downward
    phase of the 11-year solar cycle, together with a lack of strong El Niño
    events. These trends have masked the warming caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

    The long-term warming trend is unequivocal.

    It is nonsense to assert that the models have not predicted the pattern of changes of the last several decades! Some forty or more years ago scientists concerned about climate change forecast increased instability. What precisely is it that is happening now?

    Australia has become a backwater of denialists with large numbers of people prepared to misrepresent the science and the economic and broader human consequences.


    • Don Aitkin says:


      You sound so convinced that you are right that I feel it is pointless to argue with you, or to try to ‘correct’ some of your statements. But why not read the post I wrote today (Tuesday) on the pause, and show me why its argument is wrong?

Leave a Reply