The difference between foot-in-mouth and exploitation

Bob Brown isn’t the only politician putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to the floods currently besieging large parts of Australia, it seems. In The Punch today, Shadow Minister for Innovation Sophie Mirabella decided to give us her considered opinion – complete with a characteristically crass swipe at Brown’s comments. Her words, however, go far further than Brown’s ‘make the coal industry pay’ remarks.

Floods are ‘natural’, she wrote. What short memories we silly humans have. Why, every week it seems we have a ‘one in 200 year’ flood, but if we really looked we’d see that floods have always been with us.

Having set a fairly patronising tone, Mirabella settled in to what appeared to be the real object of her article – a diatribe against those who believe that climate change contributes to extreme weather events. She singled out climate activist and academic Professor Tim Flannery as the ringleader of this ‘alarmist’ group, who are apparently so powerful and persuasive that they can make people believe things that simply aren’t true – like the idea that our actions can affect global weather patterns. With scorn fairly dripping from the page, she derided as ‘arrogant’ the very notion that humans could be such ‘all-powerful weather makers’.

See what she did there? This is actually a very sneaky and clever strategy. We tend to think we are fairly powerless in the grand scheme of things (whether harming the planet or influencing an election outcome) – and in the face of natural disasters such as these floods, that idea is exacerbated. You only have to spend a little time reading and listening to the words of those in the Lockyer Valley to get a sense of just how helpless and overwhelmed people feel. Mirabella capitalised on that shamelessly. The barely-concealed subtext is, ‘How could we possibly be powerful enough to do such mighty things? The mere notion is ridiculous!’

It’s a technique often used by those who argue that climate change is either (a) not happening or (b) nothing to do with us. It looks humble, but it’s a false humility. Humans can, and have affected the planet via everything from wholesale deforestation to nuclear accidents and bombs. To pretend otherwise is its own special brand of arrogance, and one Mirabella embraced with enthusiasm.

She followed up with the classic climate change denial argument: ‘… these cyclical weather patterns, with random extreme events, have always been part of our nation’s and indeed our planet’s history. They are not new. They are not more ferocious. They are not “payback” for the Queensland Coal Industry … They are not nature’s way of punishing modern man for his sins. They are simply natural events.’ Actually, it’s not an argument – it’s a series of assertions designed to shut down debate. Mirabella offered no evidence other than to list dates of past floods, and relied on misdirection and blatant misstatements to obscure the gaping hole in her arguments. While Brown’s comments were ill-advised at best, at no time did he say that the floods were some kind of ‘payback’ from a vengeful Mother Nature – but it served Mirabella’s purpose to suggest otherwise.

(As an aside, it’s curious to see such blatant denial rhetoric from Mirabella – especially since her party has a stated policy on the need to reduce carbon emissions. At the very least, it poses questions for the Liberal Party as to its position on climate change – have they returned to the days of ‘absolute crap’ and Nick Minchin’s Senate tirades about hysterical pseudo-science?)

The misstatements kept coming. Mirabella’s explanation for why the floods were so back hinged on her ability to obscure a few basic principles of flood mitigation. It’s all about Wivenhoe dam, she said. If those operating the dam had kept to its ‘original purpose’ and not ‘ignored the lessons of the past’, the water levels would not have been dangerously high when the ‘big wet’ arrived. She ended her article with a pious exhortation not to forget ‘the lessons of history’ in our ‘shock and grief’ over the devastation of the floods.

Mirabella relied on people’s basic ignorance of the rather specialised area of dam management. Yes, levels were high, but water releases had been taking place since November 2010. Wivenhoe was never at capacity – ‘100% full’ does not mean there is no more room, but refers to the drinking water level (about 1.1 cubic kilometre of the total 2.6 cubic kilometre storage). There is a further 115% storage available for flood mitigation before the dam is in danger of overtopping. Before it reaches that level controlled releases are made to reduce stress on the infrastructure.

She also misstated the dam’s ‘original purpose’. Though originally considered in response to the 1974 floods, Wivenhoe was never intended to be purely for flood mitigation. It was also constructed to supply drinking water to south-east Queensland, and even serves to supply storage for Wivenhoe hydro-electric power station.

None of that matters to Mirabella, apparently. She seemed content to capitalise on another predictable consequence of natural disasters – the need to find someone to blame. By lying, she exploited the sense of hurt and outrage growing in those who suffered from the floods.

Herein lies the contrast between her article and Bob Brown’s comments. Nothing Brown said was a lie.

Certainly, one can argue as to how much the coal industry – by virtue of supplying the fossil fuel – contributes to climate change, but even the Coal Association itself doesn’t deny there is an effect. Mirabella, however, ignored clear, well-known facts for the sole purpose of discrediting the idea that human contributions to climate change need to be addressed. She didn’t confine herself to attacking Brown, either – which would have been politically understandable given his comments about the floods – but struck out indiscriminately.

In doing so, she politicised the suffering of people around Australia in an unconscionable way. Her criticism of Brown for taking the opportunity to link the floods to climate change was disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst. Given that she had plenty of time to consider her position in light of the reception given Brown’s comments, the latter seems more likely.

And there is just no excuse for smearing those in charge of Wivenhoe dam, nor for misleading and panicking people. Mirabella’s lies and rhetoric callously exploited people who are suffering, who have lost everything and face disruption to their lives for perhaps months to come – all in the name of scoring dubious political points.

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3 Responses to The difference between foot-in-mouth and exploitation

  1. […] coal companies and promote the mining tax. Then, Shadow Minister for Innovation Sophie Mirabella played fast-and-loose with the facts about Wivenhoe dam and exploited people’s suffering to espouse a climate change denial […]

  2. Adam says:

    This is the thing that gets me about environmentalists. You are all so sure of your opinions. So sure that the science is “settled”, that there is “consensus” and that the debate is now “over”. Climate change activists get so worked up about the debate that they are happy to make comparisons between climate sceptics and holocaust deniers.

    They call for an end to the debate because there is mounting evidence against the theory of human induced climate change and they are scared about the flaws in their own arguments.

    I am no longer shocked by anything that comes out of a climate activists mouth, but this piece goes one step too far in my opinion. To suggest that Mirabella is a liar, simply because her opinion doesn’t mirror your own is not only unfair, but totally disgraceful.

    It’s a shame because the rest of it (whilst I totally disagree with it’s contents) was very well written. It’s just too bad that you lost any sense of shame towards the end there.

  3. Jenny C says:

    Well done, Maz. Great post.

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