Ghosts of Abbott past haunt climate debate

The Dreyfus Files - The Age

Long ago in the Victorian town of Beaufort, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott told a meeting of farmers that climate change was ''absolute crap''. Around about that same time, he explained on ABC television that he was "hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change".

Almost two years later, Abbott claims to be a changed man.

By the end of 2009, when he seized the mantle of Liberal leadership, all of this "hyperbole" as he described it, was washed away.  And in March of this year, following a few unfortunate slip-ups, he pleaded with his party room to stop challenging the science. It was not opposition policy to revive the ghosts of rhetoric past.

According to the Abbott of 2011*, climate change is real and the Coalition is committed to achieving the same target as the government of reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent compared to 2000 levels by 2020.

This acceptance of the science is of course welcome, as it belatedly brings Abbott into line with the government, CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Academy of Science, the Climate Commission, NASA and the 194 countries around the world represented at the most recent United Nations international climate change conference.

But last week, the doubting Abbott of 2009 reappeared at a crucial moment.

Given the opportunity to nominate Coalition members to sit on the key committee that will inquire into the government's carbon price legislation, the Coalition nominated – not the opposition spokesman on climate change Greg Hunt – but one of their most outspoken climate change deniers, the Queensland MP George Christensen.

To Christensen's credit he's been nothing but consistent about his views on climate change. In his maiden speech he made his scepticism clear, referring to "so-called man-made climate change", and saying, "despite what the political and media elite tell us to think, the truth is the science on climate change is not settled".

Earlier this year he tweeted that unlike the link between sunburn and cancer, "no scientist has proven C02 link" to global warming "beyond doubt", he blogged that "global warming is only wishful thinking", and he told ABC news that "I have issues with the whole concept of man-made global warming".

But there is a tragic absurdity in nominating to this key parliamentary climate change committee, someone who - at odds with his party's official policy - disputes the existence of the very problem that we are working to address.

It would be a kind interpretation to suggest that this appointment makes little sense.

But the picture that emerges, as we enter the final few months of Parliamentary debate on the carbon price, is an Opposition Leader purposefully and recklessly walking both sides of the street.

It is another wink and a nod to the climate change deniers, while Abbott continues to assert that he accepts the science. And it's the continuation of his campaign to reduce this vital national policy debate to a grubby political street fight.

On Tuesday, other members of Abbott's party repeated some of the tired chants of the deniers. During the debate on the carbon price legislation, West Australian MP Dennis Jensen argued that the planet was not warming, said that he did "not accept the premise of anthropogenic climate change", and dismissed the science as "dodgy", and NSW MP Craig Kelly argued that "no global warming has occurred since 1995".

Abbott spent last week complaining that he would not have long enough to debate the carbon price legislation, with the full knowledge that this legislation has had more debate than the Howard government's GST.

But all the Coalition rhetoric about alternate ways to tackle the global threat of climate change will ring hollow until he banishes the pervasive scepticism in his own party about the very problem we are seeking to address.

*Most of the time.