It is painful to watch political denial in action. Believe me, I’ve been down this road before. I lived through Aids denialism in South Africa and I’m witnessing denial again in Australia.
In the last few weeks, as fires have raged across New South Wales, and as the nation has grown increasingly furious about Scott Morrison’s lack of leadership, I have felt like I am in a time warp.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki inexplicably decided to gaslight the nation by denying the existence of human immune deficiency virus – HIV. He had just taken the reins from Nelson Mandela and the country was shocked. We quickly mobilised to counter the denial. There was no time to dither. For my generation, the fight against Aids denialism was existential – we were literally fighting for our lives.
The parallels to the current fight for climate justice are stark. The same obfuscation is on display, the same arrogance. Journalists in South Africa had to plead with politicians to answer their questions. The same desperation is apparent in the Australian media today.
In South Africa the media and civil society refused to stop asking questions. They hounded the government and embarrassed the president in international forums. The sustained efforts paid off. Today the South African government runs the largest antiretroviral program in the world and has won global accolades for its rollout.
Despite the positive outcome, the entire debacle was an epic waste of time and cost many lives – a Harvard study found that 300,000 people lost their lives during the period when South Africa’s president was debating the merits of virology and science.
Australia cannot afford a distraction of this scale. And, while there are many parallels between South Africa and Australia, there are also some important differences. While Mbeki’s form of denial was crude and fairly straightforward, Scott Morrison’s is far more slippery and clearly buttressed by political expediency.
In fact, it is not clear what the prime minister himself believes in respect to global warming. Last week he affirmed that it is a real phenomenon affecting the bushfires, but only did so after mounting pressure from media outlets and angry, fire-hit communities.
In addition, over the last few months, Morrison has been deeply disdainful of climate activists. He has indulged in climate sadism – the phenomenon of mocking those who are outspoken about the climate crisis in order to paint them as hysterical.
Using language and tactics straight out of the Trump playbook, Morrison accused Greta Thunberg of causing young people “needless anxiety,” and has threatened to crack down on climate justice protesters. By minimising the concerns of activists, Morrison has proven himself adept at deploying one of the most powerful rightwing tactics of the moment – trolling.
Unfortunately for Morrison, playing people of different political affiliations against one another isn’t a smart long-term strategy in the face of an existential threat. The quiet Australians whose virtues he has extolled don’t necessarily have different views about climate change from the noisy ones who seem to bother him so much.
Morrison can be forgiven for thinking this is a wining formula. After all, divisive rhetoric that pits one kind of person against another has been useful in the culture wars. But, on matters of the environment, the strategy of polarisation is almost sure to backfire in the long term. This is because despite what the Liberal party’s lunatic backbenchers say, 61% of Australians think “global warming is a serious and pressing problem and are prepared to take measures to address it even if it involves significant costs”. In other words, climate change is a bipartisan issue.
If this is the case – and events seem to prove it as everyone from schoolchildren to firefighters have come out supporting basic science and challenging the government to do more – Morrison will need to change course quickly. A year ago embracing the facts of climate change cost Malcolm Turnbull his position as party leader. The bluster and scare tactics secured a victory for Morrison and his team but they cannot take that victory for granted.
If the PM does not read the public sentiment properly he could lose his footing by being out of touch with people’s genuine anxieties about the fate of the planet.
Ultimately, South Africa’s president was turfed out by the party faithful. The activists played their part but it was the so-called “silent majority” who destroyed his political career.
I learned a lot during that era. I have no doubt that when the “quiet” Australians join the “noisy” ones to protect our future, Morrison’s petty climate denial will come to an abrupt end.
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