There are days when you read the political news and know that you’ll walk away angry.
There are days when you despair.
There are even days – rare, but they do happen – when a tiny, tiny shred of hope is kindled.
And then there are days like today, when you simply have to pick your jaw up off the floor and try not to let the sheer stupidity of it all overwhelm you.
It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the Coalition has a somewhat – shall we say – problematic relationship with the notion of climate change, and what might be done to mitigate its effects. Historically, the Liberal/National Parties have held more positions on the subject than might be found in the Kama Sutra. Malcolm Turnbull was toppled from the leadership just before he could commit to supporting the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, thanks to the machinations of former Senator Nick Minchin, the Coalition’s very own ‘faceless man’. As for the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the term ‘weather vane’ is used without irony to describe his feelings on the subject. Famously describing climate change as ‘absolute crap’, the PM apparently had a change of heart and was prepared to embrace the science – but only up to a point.
Currently, New South Wales is embroiled in an ongoing bushfire emergency. Of the three major firefronts, one is burning over 40,000 hectares. Around 200 houses have been destroyed, with countless others damaged. One man lost his life, and a water-bombing aircraft has crashed, killing the pilot. Between unpredictable winds, high temperatures and heavy undergrowth, the hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes are constantly having to respond to new emergencies. And it’s only October – months earlier than the ‘usual’ fire season.
Now, these are by no means the worst bushfires ever seen in NSW, or even the earliest. The fact that they are taking place, however, combined with the unseasonal weather, inevitably brings up the question of whether climate change is a major contributor. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was unequivocal on the subject. Although she stopped short of directly addressing the current fires, she pointed to studies showing that there was a known link between the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, and wildfires. She was joined by scientists and climate activists in calling for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases, and criticising the Coalition government’s determination to repeal carbon pricing.
Unsurprisingly, the Coalition rejected that argument. The Prime Minister wasn’t simply content with that, however. When asked what he thought about Figueres’ statement, Abbott replied that she was ‘talking through her hat’. Australia has always had bushfires; they are ‘part of the Australian experience’.
You have to admit, that’s pretty impressive. In one short interview, the PM managed to not only insult a senior figure in the UN, but also to dismiss the pain, stress and loss of everyone caught up in these fires. It takes real skill to be that insensitive.
But it gets better.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt was quick to back up his leader. His contribution was to flatly deny that Figueres’ statement had even taken place. According to Hunt, Figueres had a conversation with the PM in which she ‘very clearly and strongly’ said there was no link. Continuing his role as unofficial, unwanted spokesperson, he said Figueres had been misrepresented. Never mind the plethora of footage contradicting him.
Not content with putting words in Figueres’ mouth, Hunt apparently felt it was necessary to support Abbott’s arguments. Now, you’d think the right approach – especially from someone with the academic ability to gain a Bachelor of Laws and win a Fulbright Scholarship – would be to gather your evidence and distil it down to a few pithy talking points.
Hunt had a different idea. For reasons passing understanding, he told the BBC World Service that bushfires occurred during the hotter months of the year, and had done so since before European settlement. And just how did he know that?
He’d … wait for it … ‘looked up what Wikipedia said, just to see what the rest of the world thought’.
I wish I were making this up.
Our Environment Minister proudly announced – to the world – that his go-to source for facts and figures was an online pseudo-encyclopedia famous for its lack of oversight, inaccuracies, biases and edit wars.
A website on which the words of a scientist are indistinguishable from the words of a zealot, where celebrities are declared dead, and where harassed moderators frequently have to ‘lock’ pages to prevent users with an axe to grind from posting information that damages reputations. To say it’s unreliable is like saying a flood makes you ‘a little wet’.
Children are cautioned at primary school not to rely on Wikipedia. At secondary school, they’re positively discouraged from using it at all – and by tertiary level, it’s completely unacceptable. (I remember delivering that particular admonition to my first year students every semester – right after the warnings about plagiarism.)
The stories range from the serious to the utterly absurd. Take the long-running edit war over Caesar Salad. For over two years, editors have argued over whether this dish was invented in Ancient Rome or (relatively) modern Mexico, and tussled over the vexed question of whether adding tomatoes means you have to change the name. Then there’s the Great Scientology Edit War, which led ultimately to Wikipedia’s moderators banning the Church from editing its own pages. That final decision came after four years of back-and-forth that spilled over into mainstream media and threats of legal action, as ex-members sought to represent their negative experiences, only to have their work removed by current members bent on ‘correction’ (or sanitisation, depending on your point of view).
Oh, and let’s not forget the premature obituaries – like that of Apple’s Steve Jobs. News of his ‘death’ – originally an on-file obituary misprinted by Bloomberg – hit Wikipedia within seconds, back in 2008. Jobs, of course, was alive and well, but for the short time he was ‘dead’ on the internet, pandemonium reigned.
Perhaps this was a contributing factor in the way Apple’s stock plummeted later that year, when a fake article reported Jobs had suffered a heart attack.
Hunt himself fell victim to this sort of tampering after his statement hit the media. His page was edited to say that he ‘uses Wikipedia for important policy research’. Another gem noted that, since becoming Environment Minister, ‘He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise’. Soon after, the page was locked – but his comments about using Wikipedia are still there.
I could go on, but really, the point hardly needs to be made. Wikipedia may be handy for a quick look-up when nothing’s riding on the accuracy of your information. It may even be useful to lead you to other sources with a good deal more credibility. But when you’re the Federal Environment Minister, dealing with a serious situation in which lives, homes and businesses are under threat, you owe it to Australians to do at least some credible research.
This is the man who co-authored a thesis which concluded that a ‘pollution tax’ linked to the market was the best way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and runaway climate change. Presumably, he was required to provide good supporting references, so he hardly has any excuse for such a fatuous statement. But this is the example he’s prepared to set for the rest of the world.
Hunt is apparently happy for the world to know that our government is prepared to take the word of a group of unknown contributors – many of whom have little or no credentials – rather than listen to the experts on its own (now disbanded) Climate Change Commission. To represent us as so unwilling to even consider the possibility of a link between wildfires and climate change that we’d rather elevate a poorly-supervised website to the status of science.
It’s embarrassing. And it’s dangerous. Hunt’s ridiculous behaviour today is, unfortunately, just a symptom of the dumbing-down taking place in all areas of government right now, treating us like children and expecting us to believe whatever they tell us just because it comes from a place of power.
We need to be careful that we don’t let the sheer stupidity of it blind us to that fact – and that we don’t let it go unchallenged.