LobbyLand. The politics of fossil fuels – the pits!

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 society allow this disabling condition to continue without treatment?

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 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 and lobbyists are 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 for a range of issues are registered with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

As a doctor, I can shed light on two aspects of this apparently incurable disease, the government mindsets that provide fertile pasture for lobbyists, and some mechanisms used to quell the scientific truth.

The current gas initiative has every appearance of gas lobby fingerprints all over it.

The Government’s gaseous mindset

The stars were aligned for this initiative:

Our 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 and a revolving door 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 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 Nationals Minister announcing that the stranded asset can be used for water.

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

The commitment to a gas-led post-Covid recovery, together with more 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 a successful strategy of ignoring some thousands of deaths and illnesses assuaged by telling suffering communities that government is fighting valiantly to preserve their jobs. The threat of unemployment overrides the threat of future heart and lung disease, and like smoking you may get away without harm.

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

A further important feature of Groupthink is defective decision making because the objectives and alternatives are not well researched and there is selective information processing. Saturation lobbying with the same 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.

Mr Andrew Liveris has destroyed his credibility by repeatedly referring to gas having 60% of the emissions of coal. The vast weight of evidence now shows that if leaks of methane in the full supply chain are accounted for there is little difference from coal. He must be aware of this? Mr Morrison announced a gas fired power station to replace Liddell in the Hunter but this was suddenly deemed unnecessary presumably on advice that its function could be provided by batteries.

Discomfort and fear

One has to question why so little research has been done on the scientific aspects of gas mining in 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 revealed a growing number of health and environmental concerns. By contrast, there is only one single funded study of public health impacts associated with gas mining in Australia.

The answer to this discrepancy is provided in part by the study from Deakin University 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 funds and conversely their investment in fossil fuel industries has been unconscionable over many years.

It is likely that the US/Australia difference in research endeavour relates to the US having a respected scientific regulatory Environmental Protection Agency which utilises and refers to credible scientific studies in its deliberations. 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. A large 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 is subjected to industry opinion stating that the author is a ‘fear monger’, ‘chicken little alarmist’, ‘radical lefty’, all 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 is highly commended as a significant and courageous step forward.

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

Researchers in Australia are also subject 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 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 and by the Grattan Institute but are unlikely because Parliament would need to collectively recognise a need for change demanded by the approaching crises and the new society these will bring.

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

The urgent need for a Sustainability Commission and a national Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) was proposed at the last election and since then by environmental and climate scientists. Presently 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 the possible, and deliver a gift to parliament and to Mr Morrison, 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 were Twelve Wise Men at the first Christmas so let’s settle for that.

Parliament would seem churlish if they rejected Twelve Wise scientists and experts nominated by the Academies and Colleges 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 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 detailed by APEEL to bring exciting vision and a new purpose into the lives of parliamentarians – and democracy could be born again at Christmas, with 2020 as year one.

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Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University

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