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University of Sydney talk Wednesday night on the politics of climate change

Dr Maria Taylor will discuss how governments and media have changed the national story about climate change.
Dr Maria Taylor will discuss how governments and media have changed the national story about climate change.

The Fifth Estate will on Wednesday evening host the second of a five-part series of talks at the University of Sydney on a topic very close to our hearts and those of a growing number of people the world over – how the climate change agenda has been politicised and denigrated at the same time as its impacts are being felt in many places across the globe.

The series is focused on climate change and is co-curated by the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Ideas at the University of Sydney.

Speaking will be Lisette Collins, from the Department of Government and International Relations, who has studied climate change adaptation policy at the local government level for her PhD, and Dr Maria Taylor, a science journalist who has investigated the public record, science, politics, economics, journalism and contemporary mass media to reveal how and why Australia buried the issue.

The first talk, on sea level rises, is an issue that is starting to rapidly escalate on the national consciousness as beaches and private property are increasingly eroded by the impact of climate change that was anticipated to happen at a much slower rate.

Abbas El-Zein, associate professor, School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney, and Tayanah O’Donnell, University of Canberra, spoke about the dramatic and long-term impacts of rising sea levels and water temperatures in the oceans and the confusion that awaits us legally and socially in dealing with the impacts.

It’s a story that has been picked up by Fairfax Media in Domain and also by Channel 7, which is understood to be preparing a report around the talks.

In more news the CSIRO (what’s still in place ahead of the battering it’s scheduled to get from a cut backed aimed in particular at climate change work) has today (Tuesday) released a study through journal Nature Climate Change, showing that sea levels have been rising at a much faster rate than over the previous millennia and will accelerate.

Most of the rise is attributable to human influence on the climate, the paper says.

Now, after the record heat of March, the heat records breached in 2015 and 2014 and now expected this year, all bets are off. Scientists look like they’ve erred too far on the side of caution. But is this because science modelling is so difficult and still evolving or have scientists been bullied by the hysteria of the climate deniers into giving us a less drastic scenario?

That’s a question that’s about the complex issue of influence and politics, one of which most Australians even remotely tuned to the climate debate in the past six years will be keenly aware.

This is the topic of the second talk in the series entitled How to talk about climate change without talking about climate change, which pretty much sums up the attitude from certain areas of industry and policy making in recent years, especially those intensely aware of the outright opposition to climate change from some areas of government that banned even the words sustainability and green.

This talk on Wednesday night looks promising as a way to unravel this hornets nest of politics and influence, and how to deal with it.

Speaker Lisette Collins has just recently submitted her PhD that contains “the first ever database” of climate change adaptation plans developed by local councils across Australia.

There are significant gaps in the level of detail between plans, and some councils are failing to include impacts that go beyond the physical – on the frail and homeless for instance, she says.

Politics again. No doubt.

“’Climate change’ is a highly politicised term in Australia and one of the most ubiquitous terms of the 21st century,” she says in a media statement ahead of the talk. “It has been questioned, co-opted, pleaded, adopted, misunderstood, misrepresented and denigrated at varying times by politicians, the media, academics, scientists and the public.”

Collins believes it is “no coincidence that most Australians don’t know what a climate change adaptation plan is or whether their local council has one”.

Dr Maria Taylor will uncover how the public’s perceptions of climate change have been affected by the reframing of the public narrative by policymakers and other stakeholders, a theme she explored in her book, Global Warming and Climate Change – What Australia knew and buried… then framed a new reality for the public.

People are very short-term in their understanding and very dependent on leadership and media for what they believe to be reality, Taylor says.

“Australia’s path from the late 1980s to the present has seen both governments and media change the national story about climate change (once known as the Greenhouse Effect) from a good understanding of risk to everyone in society, and urgency to act to a story about cost and that action is against the national interest and jobs. How was this done?

“Through propaganda techniques, basically – telling a story of denial and uncertainty about the science to keep people quiet and divided,” she said.

“Also unlike in the late 1980s and early 1990s, those who wanted climate change action were increasingly painted as not one of ‘us’, that is the mainstream concerned about the economy and jobs. It became the economy versus the greenies.”

The talk, at 6pm Level 2 Sydney Law School, is free but registration is required.

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