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"Galileo Movement" Fuels Climate Change Divide in Australia

Two Australian retirees invoke the "father of modern science" to argue against settled climate science but instead draw from a deep history of denial and distortion



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A new group challenging the general consensus on climate science is getting significant air time in Australia, where uproar over a proposed carbon tax may topple the country's minority government.

Launched in February, the Galileo Movement is getting much of its lift from its influential "patron," conservative radio personality Alan Jones, one of the most popular broadcasters in Australia, who has touted the effort on his daily morning show.

The effort is the brainchild of two retirees frustrated by what they see as the orthodoxy of "settled science" on climate change. They cite as inspiration Galileo Galilei, the 17th century astronomer and father of modern science, who challenged the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church to report the Earth orbited around the sun.

The group's website lists a host of figures and references that take aim at what they describe as the "political fabrication of global warming alarm." It argues that the chief greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is a harmless component of the atmosphere. "It's an honest document that throws down the gauntlet," said John Smeed, a retired engineer and a Galileo Movement's co-founder. "We have gotten a tremendous amount of support from people who are saying thank goodness someone stood up."

Few issues have divided Australians to such a degree. Earlier plans to curb emissions upended two political leaders, including Gillard's immediate predecessor in the Labor party. Support for the Labor government sits at record lows, according to public opinion polls.

Close examination of the Galileo Movement's arguments shows that the effort is recycling many of the same straw man arguments and distortions about the science that other groups have previously employed to scuttle a cap-and-trade bill in the U.S. Congress last year, a stricter emissions trading scheme in New Zealand three years ago and other regional and national efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Smeed and Galileo Movement co-founder Case Smit draw support from a who's-who of the global climate-denier movement. Advisors include News Ltd. blogger Andrew Bolt, University of Virginia emeritus physicist Fred Singer, George Mason University climatologist Patrick Michaels, Perth-based coal-to-liquids advocate David Archibald and public speaker Lord Christopher Monckton of the United Kingdom.

The effort employs the same accusations and distortions that climate scientists and various investigative panels have battled for years: Academics are doctoring the science, the major science bodies are corrupt, the science is anything but settled.

"It's very environmentally sound: They don't bother to create any new facts. They just recycled old ones," quipped Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and a publisher of the website RealClimate.org.

But the attack on science can be effective. By casting doubt on the science, the need for behavior change is blunted – an approach the tobacco industry successfully employed throughout the 1980s and '90s to delay efforts to warn the public of smoking's dangers. 

"Every country has its own home-grown marriage of folks who are skeptical of the science and the ideological groups who just don't want regulation," said Aaron Huertas, spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"The playing field is a little bit uneven. To succeed all they have to do is give people an excuse, give them a little grain of doubt, and they're done."

The debate in Australia has certainly seized center stage recently. With climate policy all but dead in the United States and a global deal stalemated in the United Nations, Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposal to impose a $23 per ton tax on carbon emissions stands as the planet's most aggressive – and likely – effort to regulate greenhouse gases.

"They're playing high stakes and high risk," said Kennedy Graham, a Green Party member of parliament in New Zealand, where an emissions trading scheme was amended in 2009 with a weaker version. "I'm not sure which way it will go, but if it goes in, it will be a stronger system than New Zealand's."

The Galileo Movement's stated ambition is to stick around just long enough to "axe the tax." Gina Rinehart, the Australian ore magnate whose coal investments have lifted her atop Australia's list of wealthiest individuals, underwrote a $100,000-plus Australia speaking tour that Smeed and Smit organized last year for Monckton. But the pair are still seeking to raise the $300,000 that Smeed says the Galileo Movement needs to launch its advertising campaign.

Jackson Wells, a Sydney-based public relations firm, is handling the movement's publicity. The firm's eclectic client list ranges from tobacco and mining companies to academics, the Rotary Club International, the Church of Scientology and the sponsors of the Sydney Peace Prize.

By employing the same arguments – and the same players – that have cropped up in other political efforts to address climate change across the globe, the Galileo Movement is part of a pervasive, stubborn tradition, Graham said.

"There will always be people who will argue a case for whatever reason – merit or profit – independent of the facts of the situation," he said. "That's always been there, from the Copernican Revolution to climate change."

In that sense, said NASA's Schmidt, correcting the scientific errors is almost pointless. "The science here is being used as a proxy for a lot of different things," he said, noting that debunking the fallacies in the Galileo Movement's argument won't change the group's prevailing politics.

"But it's clear that one side on this debate is abusing the science much more than the other," he added. "That's worth pointing out."

DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news service covering climate change.

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

» Read more about the Galileo Movement and why they believe CO2 is a greenhouse gas

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