I studied 31 Australian political biographies published in the past decade — only 4 were about women


Mick Tsikas/AAP

Blair Williams, Australian National University

This week, a new Australian political biography will appear on bookshelves. This is The Accidental Prime Minister, an examination of Scott Morrison by journalist Annika Smethurst.

While a prime minister makes for an obvious – and worthy — biographical subject, it also continues Australia’s strong tradition of focusing on the stories of men in politics.

History as a discipline may have been grappling with gender issues since the 1970s, but political history has been especially resistant to questions about women and gender.

In a recent study for the Australian Journal of Biography and History, I looked at Australian political biographies over the past decade. I found female political figures are almost always ignored.

Why biographies matter

Political biographies add life, colour and depth to historical events and personalities. They can shape the legacies of politicians long after they’ve left politics. They also show us who is worthy of being written about and who is overlooked in the pages of history.

However, most Australian political biographies have been written about men, particularly male prime ministers.

This inevitably calls to mind the enduring myth of the “Great Man” as the architect of historical change. This is best described by 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle, who believed “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”.

Labor senator Penny Wong.
Labor senator and former finance minister Penny Wong is one of the few women MPs to be the subject of a recent biography.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

As women were largely excluded from politics until the end of the 20th century, it could be argued they simply haven’t had the opportunity to be seen as “great politicians” worthy of literary examination.

Yet, as political biographies define which personal and political qualities suggest “greatness”, it could also be argued we tend to associate these qualities with men and masculinity. Male leaders’ gender is never discussed or explored in their political biographies. Masculinity is portrayed as the unseen norm while gender is an attribute only ever identified with women.

This argument gains further support from the fact there are more women in Australian politics than ever before, yet there remains a notable lack of political biographies covering their lives and stories. In my study, I examined Australian political biographies published in the past decade. Only four out of 31 were on women politicians.

This small minority includes Margaret Simons’ Penny Wong in 2019 and Anna Broinowski’s 2017 biography of Pauline Hanson, Please Explain.

Why are women ignored?

There are three key factors that can explain the lack of biographies written on Australian women politicians.

First, as previously noted, there is the lack of gender parity in Australian politics. The 1990s saw a surge of women enter politics, partly due to Labor’s gender quotas. Yet at the moment, only 31% of the House of Representatives are women and all major leadership positions are held by men.




Read more:
Why is it taking so long to achieve gender equality in parliament?


Second, Australian political biography itself has a role to play here — the Great Man narrative is an enduring problem. It leads to an overemphasis on so-called “foundational patriarchs” and overlooks the impact of political players who don’t conform to this stereotype.

In the past decade, two biographies each were written on former Labor prime ministers Paul Keating and Bob Hawke and former Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies. Another biography on former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam added to the ever-growing stack of tomes dedicated to these leaders.

Third, women politicians might be more hesitant to expose their private lives to the same extent as their male counterparts. Women politicians frequently experience sexist media coverage that often scrutinises their personal choices as a reflection of their professional capabilities. It is hardly shocking that they might be hesitant to cede agency over their own story and endorse an official biography.

So, there are several glaring omissions in Australian political biography. Where is the biography of our first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard? Former deputy prime minister Julie Bishop is another that comes to mind.

There is also pioneering former Labor minister Susan Ryan, who was pivotal in the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Affirmative Action Act. And Natasha Stott Despoja, the youngest woman to sit in the Australian parliament and former leader of the Australian Democrats.

Sisters must do it for themselves

So where are all the great women political figures? Well, they’re in the memoir section.

Through my research, since 2010, I found 12 autobiographies and memoirs have been published by women premiers, party leaders, federal and state MPs and senators, lord mayors and, of course, our first and only woman prime minister (though I also counted over 30 written by male politicians).




Read more:
Julia Banks’ new book is part of a 50-year tradition of female MPs using memoirs to fight for equality


Autobiographies can be a valuable way for women politicians to recover their voices, reassert their agency and reclaim their public identity by telling their own life story.

An ambition to take charge of their public image is a common thread running through these books, usually paired with a desire to expose sexism. Gillard’s autobiography My Story, published in 2014 (the year after she left politics), is a notable example of this, holding her opponents and the media to account for their frequently sexist behaviour.

Many women from across the political spectrum have now published comparable memoirs, including Labor MP Ann Aly, former Greens leader Christine Milne and former independent MP Cathy McGowan.

This year, former Labor cabinet minister Kate Ellis’ Sex, Lies and Question Time and former Liberal MP Julia Banks’ Power Play have provided two more examples of how women politicians — particularly those who’ve left politics — use the power of memoir to reclaim their stories and critique the sexist culture in parliament.

History/herstory

While it’s great women are using memoirs to voice their stories, we should not give up on conventional political biography.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard in 2018.
There is no definitive political biography of Julia Gillard.
David Mariuz/AAP

As this genre continues to shape our understanding of political culture and history, it is more important now than ever that women are included to dispel once and for all the myth that their stories are not worth recording.

Rather than adding to the sexist speculation that women politicians experience, political biographers should offer their support for these stories to be told in a consensual and meaningful manner.The Conversation

Blair Williams, Research Fellow, Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL), Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Yes, adult literacy should be improved. But governments can make their messages easier to read right now


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Cath Ferguson, Edith Cowan University

A parliamentary inquiry is looking into how to improve adult literacy in Australia.

Having a low level of literacy is not the same thing as being illiterate. The definition of “illiterate” is the inability to read or write. A low level of literacy is more complex and relates to people’s abilities to read, write and understand a range of information that allows them to fully participation in society.

According to the OECD, 40–50% of adults in Australia have literacy levels below the international standard required for participation in work, education and society.

Together with literacy, the inquiry will also look at numeracy and problem-solving.

While it’s important the inquiry look at ways to improve literacy for those struggling with it, the government could start acting now to make its information and services more accessible. One way is to present information in plain English, and make services like Centrelink easier to navigate.

Why are we having this inquiry?

The inquiry will consider both economic and social aspects of literacy. But its focus is on increased labour market participation, and increased productivity.

It was initiated after a 2020 Productivity Commission report showed Australia’s falling rates of educational achievement, compared to other countries in the OECD, were related to our levels of productivity — particularly as compared to the United States.




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The OECD numbers show our literacy rates are similar to New Zealand and actually better than in the United Kingdom and US.

In a survey of adult skills conducted by the OECD in Australia from October 2011 to March 2012, Australian adults scored fifth out of participating countries for literacy — after Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. The United Kingdom and the US scored at 15th and 17th respectively.

Person reading book with a cup of tea.
A low level of literacy isn’t the same as not being able to read. It is about accessing information in a way that allows a person to participate in society and the economy.
Shutterstock

But for numeracy Australia ranked 14th, the UK 17th and the USA 21st.

Adults with low literacy come from different cultural or language backgrounds. Those born in Australia could have low literacy due to various circumstances including:

  • learning difficulties
  • alternative preferences for learning
  • social circumstances that prevent school attendance or lead to many school changes
  • health issues during childhood
  • childhood trauma (including family/domestic violence)
  • a lack of interest or motivation to learn.

What are we doing to improve the issue?

A number of programs are available to train adults in certain skills to increase labour market participation. One example is the government’s Job Trainer Fund that provides free or low-cost courses as part of its economic response to COVID.

There are government programs too that focus on literacy and numeracy skills. They include

While these program are good to have, there is stigma attached to low literacy and this can inhibit help-seeking at all ages.




Read more:
To lift literacy levels among Indigenous children, their parents’ literacy skills must be improved first


Schools are increasingly recognised as the best place to improve the educational outcomes for adults. Early childhood education is especially important as the earlier in life issues are identified, the better the outcomes.

Kindergarten kids listening intently to the teacher as she reads from book.
A good early learning system can help ensure most people learn the literacy skills they need at a young age.
Shutterstock

Still, people with learning difficulties are often experts at hiding their challenges and some people will slip through the school system without their issues being addressed.

Services can be more accessible

The inquiry has received around 100 submissions from a range of organisations and individuals.

A submission from Read Write Now (where I am a tutor) — a West Australian organisation that provides free one on one support for adults in areas such as filling out forms, or reading aloud to their children — notes new arrivals are more likely to seek literacy help than those born in Australia. This is not always a case of demand, but one of stigma around illiteracy.

Their submission also notes there is little consistency of such services across Australia.

Many of our clients, especially people from Indigenous backgrounds, live a transient lifestyle. We find that often when they move there is no literacy program to link them into at their new location, so they fall out of the system.

A few submissions highlighted the difficulty many adults have filling out forms and navigating government services such as Centrelink. A submission from the NSW Council of Social Service noted the “increased digitisation of government services is a compounding factor”. It points to the need for government agencies to adhere to requirements for plain English and easy access material.

In this, the government can start making changes now.

Our recent analysis of government information on COVID-19 found many documents were written in a way that is inaccessible to struggling readers.




Read more:
Most government information on COVID-19 is too hard for the average Australian to understand


The problem lies in not only helping to improve adults’ literacy but in making services more accessible, as well as reducing unnecessary hurdles. For instance, in one submission, a woman talks of her husband who is a recent migrant with dyslexia. Although he can speak English well, he struggles with complex writing tasks that prevent him from being able to get the kind of jobs he has the skills to do.

She writes:

he could fulfil a handyman role offered recently by our local council — but only if the job were offered to him. He would not be able to provide a written CV and selection criteria responses during an online application process without significant assistance from me.

Organisations need to be aware of such issues, to not prevent skilled people from doing a job due to the application process alone. We also need to encourage those who need support to access the available services.

The House Employment, Education and Training Committee is continuing to hold public hearings for the inquiry into adult literacy.The Conversation

Cath Ferguson, Senior research fellow, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2021 Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal Winner


The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2021 Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal, Nardi Simpson, for ‘Song of the Crocodile.’

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/07/21/190069/simpson-wins-2021-als-gold-medal-for-song-of-the-crocodile/

2021 Davitt Awards Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the 2021 Davitt Awards Shortlist.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/07/26/190342/davitt-awards-2021-shortlists-announced/

2021 Furphy Literary Award Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the shortlist for the 2021 Furphy Literary Award shortlist.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/07/23/190315/furphy-literary-award-2021-shortlists-announced/

Julia Banks’ new book is part of a 50-year tradition of female MPs using memoirs to fight for equality


James Ross/AAP

Joshua Black, Australian National University

Political memoirs in Australia often create splashy headlines and controversy. But we should not dismiss the publication of former Liberal MP Julia Banks’ book, Power Play, as just the latest in a genre full of scandals and secrets.

There is a long tradition of female parliamentarians using memoirs to reshape the culture around them. Banks — whose book includes claims of bullying, sexism and harassment — is the latest to push for equality and understanding of what life is like for women in Canberra.

The power of a memoir

There are many ways to tell your story — from social media posts to podcasts and speeches to parliament.

But there is something enduring about memoir. Sales figures aside, the political memoir can be a significant event. The inevitable round of media interviews, book tours and literary festivals can allow an author to stamp their broader ideas onto the public debate and shed light on the culture of our institutions.




Read more:
The ‘madness’ of Julia Banks — why narratives about ‘hysterical’ women are so toxic


They also have the advantage of usually being written when women have left parliament, and no longer need to place their party’s interests ahead of all others. Indeed, Banks tells us that her story is that of “an insider who’s now out”.

It started with Enid Lyons

In 1972, Dame Enid Lyons (the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and wife of former prime minister Joe Lyons) published Among the Carrion Crows.

In her memoir, she offered a compelling insight into how she dealt with the male-dominated environment of parliament house. She recalled feeling like a “risky political experiment”, as if the very “value of women in politics would be judged” by the virtue of her conduct. She joyfully described how her maiden speech had moved men to tears.

In that place of endless speaking … no one ever made men weep. Apparently I had done so.

She also recorded key moments when she had vigorously presented her views in the party room and the parliament. She asserted the right of women to stand — and more importantly, to be heard — in parliament.

Encouraging women, challenging men

Since Lyons, women have continued to use autobiographies to promote women’s participation in politics and challenge the masculine histories of political parties.

When the ALP celebrated its centenary in 1991, it was the male history that was celebrated. Senator Margaret Reynolds (Queensland’s first female senator) “decided that the record had to be corrected”.

Former Labor minister Susan Ryan.
Former education minister Susan Ryan wanted to encourage other women to go into politics.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Reynolds’ writings on Labor women occurred alongside the ALP’s moves toward affirmative action quotas in the early 1990s. As well as a memoir, she wrote a series of newsletters called Some of Them Sheilas, and a book about Labor’s women called The Last Bastion. In it, she recorded the experiences and achievements of ALP women over the past 100 years.

In her 1999 book, Catching the Waves, Labor’s first female cabinet minister Susan Ryan acknowledged there was “a lot of bad male behaviour in parliament”. But she argued this should not “dissuade women from seeking parliamentary careers”. Importantly, Ryan saw her autobiography as a collective story about the women’s movement and its “breakthrough into parliamentary politics” in the 1970s and 1980s.




Read more:
Why is it taking so long to achieve gender equality in parliament?


While Labor women like Reynolds, Ryan and Cheryl Kernot were publishing their memoirs, few Liberal women put their stories on the public record. Former NSW Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski’s 2004 memoir, Chika, was billed as the story of a woman who

learnt to cope with some of the toughest and nastiest politics any female has ever encountered in Australia’s political history.

In 2007 Pauline Hanson published an autobiography called Untamed and Unashamed, telling journalists, “I wanted to set the record straight”. But these were exceptions to the rule.

Julia Gillard’s story

Following the sexism and misogyny that disfigured her prime ministership, Julia Gillard’s 2014 memoir My Story helped revitalise the national conversation about women and power. Hoping to help Australia “work patiently and carefully through” the question of gender and politics, Gillard promised to “describe how I lived it and felt it” as prime minister.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard at the Sydney Writers' Festival
Julia Gillard released her memoir in 2014, the year after she lost the prime ministership.
David Moir/AAP

Importantly, she held not only her opponents but also the media to account for their gender bias. Critics like journalist Paul Kelly derided Gillard’s version of history as “nonsense”, but the success of her account suggests otherwise. My Story sold 72,000 copies in just three years.

In her 2020 book, Women and Leadership co-authored with former Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Gillard interviewed eight women leaders from around the world, further showing how gender continues to shape political lives.

The risks of writing

A political memoir can be fraught, however. After a decade in parliament, Democract-turned-Labor MP Cheryl Kernot published her memoir Speaking for Myself Again in 2002.
She had hoped it would argue the case for Australian women “participating fully” in politics to promote “their own values and interests and shift the underlying male agenda”.

Former MP Cheryl Kernot
Former MP Cheryl Kernot’s memoir release was overshadowed by controversy.
Julian Ross/AAP

But the release was quickly overshadowed by revelations of an extra-marital affair with Labor’s Gareth Evans (which were not in the book). Her book tour was halted amid the fallout. Kernot later despaired journalist Laurie Oakes — who broke the story — had managed to “sabotage people’s interest in the book”.

Others, such as Labor’s Ros Kelly, have told their stories in private or semi-private ways. Kelly’s autobiography was privately published as a gift to her granddaughter, but she also gives copies to women in politics, many of whom “have read it, and sent me really nice notes”.

Power in numbers

In the past five years, several women from across the political spectrum have published life stories.

In her memoir, An Activist Life, former Greens leader Christine Milne argued that women should perform feminist leadership rather than being “co-opted into being one of the boys”. In Finding My Place, Labor MP Anne Aly, showed women of non-Anglo, non-Christian backgrounds belong in parliament too. Independents Jacqui Lambie and Cathy McGowan used their memoirs to show female MPs can thrive without the backing of the major parties.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Former MP Kate Ellis on the culture in parliament house


Most recently, former Labor MP Kate Ellis published Sex, Lies and Question Time, which includes reflections on the experiences of nearly a dozen other women in parliament.

For fifty years, Australia’s female politicians have used their memoirs to assert the equal rights of women in parliament, party rooms, and the media. Drawing on that lineage, Banks is the latest to help reveal and disrupt the sexism and misogyny in political life.The Conversation

Joshua Black, PhD Candidate, School of History, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Scribd Launches in Australia


The links below are to reports concerning the launch of Scribd in Australia.

For more visit:- https://publishingperspectives.com/2021/03/scribd-opens-a-digital-subscription-service-in-australia-covid19/
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/03/17/181240/scribd-launches-in-australia/
https://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/scribd-launches-in-australia

Hidden women of history: Eliza Hamilton Dunlop — the Irish Australian poet who shone a light on colonial violence


Portrait of Eliza Hamilton Dunlop (no date), colour photograph of oil painting
Wollombi Endeavour Museum

Anna Johnston, The University of Queensland

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

About 28 Wirrayaraay people died in the massacre near Inverell in northern New South Wales. Dunlop had arrived in Sydney in February, and the Irish writer was horrified by the violence she read about in the newspapers.




Read more:
How can we achieve reconciliation? Myall Creek offers valuable answers


Moved by evidence in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre, Dunlop crafted a poem condemning settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime. It read, in part:

Now, hush thee—or the pale-faced men
Will hear thy piercing wail,
And what would then thy mother’s tears
Or feeble strength avail!

Oh, could’st thy little bosom
That mother’s torture feel,
Or could’st thou know thy father lies
Struck down by English steel

The poem closed evoking the body of “my slaughter’d boy … To tell—to tell of the gloomy ridge; and the stockmen’s human fire”.

The graphic content depicting settler violence and First Nations’ suffering made Dunlop’s poem locally notorious. She didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press, declaring she hoped the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.

An early life as a reader

Dunlop, the youngest of three children, was born Eliza Matilda Hamilton in 1796. Her father, Solomon Hamilton, was an attorney practising in Ireland, England and India. Her mother died soon after Dunlop’s birth, and she was brought up by her paternal grandmother.

Part of a privileged Protestant family with an excellent library, Dunlop grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft.

In her teens, Dunlop published poems in local magazines. An unpublished volume of her original poetry, translations and illustrations written between 1808 and 1813 reveals her fascination with Irish mythology and European literature. She was deeply interested in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, King John’s Castle on Carlingford Bay, Juvenile notebook, watercolour and ink.
Milson Family Papers – 1810, 1853–1862, State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 7683

In 1820, she travelled to India to visit her father and two brothers. The journey inspired poems about colonial locations — from the Cape Colony (now South Africa) to the Ganges River — that explored the reach and impact of the British Empire.

In Scotland in 1823, she married book binder and seller David Dunlop. David’s family history inspired poems such as her dual eulogy, The Two Graves (1865), about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion, during which David’s father Captain William Dunlop had been hanged.

The Dunlops had five children in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, where they were engaged in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords, before leaving Ireland in 1837.

Settler poetry and politics

When The Aboriginal Mother was published as sheet music in 1842, set to music by the composer Isaac Nathan, he declared “it ought to be on the pianoforte of every lady in the colony”.

The cover of the music score of The Aboriginal Mother.
Trove

Dunlop often wrote about the Irish diaspora in poems which were alternatively nostalgic and political. But she also brought her knowledge of the violence and divisiveness of colonisation, religion and ethnicity to her writing on Australia.

Her optimistic vision for Australian poetry encouraged colonial readers to be attentive to their environment and to recognise Indigenous culture. This reputation for sympathising with Indigenous people — and her husband’s arguments with settlers in Penrith about the treatment of Catholic convicts — were widely criticised in the press.

This affected David’s career as police magistrate and Aboriginal Protector: he was soon moved to a remote location. There, too, local landholders campaigned against his appointment and undermined his authority.

Indigenous languages

When David was posted to Wollombi in the Upper Hunter Valley, Dunlop sought to expand her knowledge of Indigenous culture, engaging with Darkinyung, Awabakal and Wonnarua people who lived in the area.

She attempted to learn various languages of the region, transcribing word lists, songs and poems, and acknowledging the Indigenous people who shared their knowledge with her.

Some of Dunlop’s transcription between English and the language of the Wollombi people, dated from 1840.
State Library of New South Wales

She wrote a suite of Indigenous-themed poems in the 1840s, publishing poems in newspapers such as The Eagle Chief (1843) or Native Poetry/Nung-ngnun (1848). These poems were criticised by anonymous letter writers, questioning her poetic ability, her knowledge and her choice of subject.

Some critics were frankly racist, refusing to accept the human emotions expressed by Dunlop’s Indigenous narrators.

The Sydney Herald had railed against the death sentences of the men responsible for the Myall Creek massacre, and Dunlop condemned the attitude of the paper and its correspondents. She hoped “the time was past, when the public press would lend its countenance to debase the native character, or support an attempt to shade with ridicule”.

Dunlop would publish with one outlet before shifting to another, finding different editors in the volatile colonial press who would support her.

Poetry of protest

Dunlop wrote in a sentimental form of poetry popular at the time, addressing exile, history and memory. She published around 60 poems in Australian newspapers and magazines between 1838 and 1873, but appears to have written nothing more on Indigenous themes after 1850. This popular writing also contributed to poetry of political protest, galvanising readers around causes such as transatlantic anti-slavery.




Read more:
Five protest poets all demonstrators should read


The plight of Indigenous people under British colonialism inspired many writers, including “crying mother” poems that harnessed the universal appeal of motherhood.

Dunlop’s poems The Aboriginal Mother and The Irish Mother are linked to this literary trend, but her experience of colonialism lent her poetry more authority than writers who sourced information about “exotic” cultures from imperial travel writing and voyage accounts.

In the early 1870s, Dunlop collated a selection of poetry, The Vase, but she was never able to publish. Family demands and financial constraints precluded it.

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, Title page, ‘The Vase’, paper.
State Library of New South Wales, B1541

Dunlop died in 1880. Like many women of the time, her writing was neglected and forgotten, until it was rediscovered by the literary critic and editor Elizabeth Webby in the 1960s.

Webby identified Dunlop as the first Australian poet to transcribe and translate Indigenous songs, and as among the earliest to try to increase white readers’ awareness of Indigenous culture. Webby published the first collection of Dunlop’s poems in 1981.

Today, communities and linguists regularly use Dunlop’s transcripts for language reclamation projects in the Upper Hunter Valley.

Last year, 140 years after Dunlop’s death, Wanarruwa Beginner’s Guide — an introduction to one language of the Hunter River area — was published.

At the launch, language consultant Sharon Edgar-Jones (Wonnarua and Gringai) movingly recited one of the songs Dunlop transcribed: revitalising the words of the Indigenous women and men to whom Dunlop listened, when so few white Australians were listening at all.


Eliza Hamilton Dunlop Writing from the Colonial Frontier, edited by Anna Johnston and Elizabeth Webby, is out now through Sydney University Press.The Conversation

Anna Johnston, Associate Professor of English Literature, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A controversial US book is feeding climate denial in Australia. Its central claim is true, yet irrelevant


Ben Rushton/AAP

Ian Lowe, Griffith University

My heart sank last week to see conservative Australian commentator Alan Jones championing a contentious book about climate science which has gained traction in the United States.

Cover of 'Unsettled' by Steven Koonin

BenBella Books

The book, titled Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, is authored by US theoretical physicist Steven Koonin. Notably, Koonin is not a climate scientist.

As the title suggests, the book’s bold central theme is that climate science is far from settled, and should not be relied on to make policy choices in areas such as energy, transport and economics.

Jones cited Koonin’s book in a Daily Telegraph column last week. He decried the “nonsense” of governments in Australia and abroad aiming for net-zero carbon emissions, saying it was as though Koonin’s book “didn’t exist”.

So does the book hold up? I have been researching and writing about climate change since the 1980s. I wanted to give the book a fair reading, so I put any preconceived thoughts aside and tried to fairly weigh up Koonin’s arguments. If true, they would be very important findings.

Koonin frames his book as a brave attempt to reveal how the climate science we’ve been relying on all these years is, in fact, uncertain. But the book’s major flaw is to imply these uncertainties are news to climate scientists.

This is patently untrue. Science is never settled. But there is enough confidence in the science to justify significant climate action.

'There's no Planet B' sign with smoke stacks
Scientific uncertainty does not justify climate inaction.
Shutterstock

Uncertainty is par for the course

Koonin opens the book by saying he accepts that Earth is warming, and humans are contributing to this. But he muddies the waters with passages such as the following:

Past variations of surface temperature and ocean heat content do not at all disprove that the (approximately 1℃) rise in the global average surface temperature anomaly since 1880 is due to humans, but they do show that there are powerful natural forces driving the climate as well.

In other words, Koonin says, the real question is “to what extent this warming is being caused by humans”.

Steven Koonin
The book’s author, Steven Koonin, is not a climate scientist.
Kelly Kollar

No rational person could deny that natural forces drive the climate. The climate record shows significant climate changes long before humans existed; clearly we’re not responsible for the planet being much warmer many millions of years ago.

However the five assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have expressed steadily increasing confidence that humans are the dominant cause of global warming this century.

Koonin attacks former US secretary of state and now Biden climate envoy, John Kerry, who once said of climate change “the science is unequivocal”.

It is true to say climate science is somewhat uncertain. Science is always a work in progress. Scientific integrity demands a willingness to look carefully at new data and theories to see if they require us to revise what we thought we knew.

But Koonin is wrong to imply scientists are somehow unaware of, or deny, this uncertainty. To the contrary, I have heard decision-makers express exasperation when we scientists seek to qualify our advice on the basis that our knowledge is limited.

Every reputable climate scientist I know is always willing to look at new data. But policy-makers must make decisions based on the current scientific understanding.

Koonin states, accurately, that few in the general public receive scientific information directly from research papers. Most people receive climate change information after it’s been filtered by governments and the media – which, in Koonin’s mind, often overstate the seriousness of climate change.

However Koonin fails to note the opposite forces at play – governments and media organisations, such as the Murdoch press in Australia and Fox News in the US, which systematically misreport climate science and underestimate the climate threat.




Read more:
Climate explained: why is the Arctic warming faster than other parts of the world?


Polar bears on melting ice
Humans are the dominant cause of global warming this century.
Shutterstock

Ignorance is not bliss

Koonin concludes by questioning the wisdom of reaching net-zero emissions in the second half of this century – a central goal of the Paris Agreement. He argues that when one balances the cost and efficacy of slashing emissions “against the certainties and uncertainties in climate science”, the net-zero goal looks implausible and unfeasible.

This is effectively an assertion that ignorance is bliss: because we don’t have perfect understanding that allows us to make exact projections about the future climate, we should not take serious action to reduce emissions.

Koonin proposes a different response: for society to adapt to a changing climate, and embrace “geoengineering” technology to artificially control Earth’s climate.

Both adaptation and geoengineering have their place in the climate response. But neither are sufficient substitutes for dramatically cutting carbon emissions.




Read more:
Solar geoengineering is worth studying but not a substitute for cutting emissions, study finds


wind turbines
The world must urgently reduce emissions.
Shutterstock

Proceed with caution

Under the Hawke government, science minister Barry Jones was one of the first public figures in Australia to sound warnings about climate change.

Jones and I both appeared on a panel at a landmark climate conference in 1987. I recall Jones, when asked how decision-makers should respond, said we should consider the consequences of both acting and not acting.

If policymakers acted on inaccurate climate science, Jones argued, the worst that would happen is our energy would be cleaner – albeit, at that time, more expensive. But if the science was right and we ignored it, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Jones was essentially describing the precautionary principle, which is contained in a number of international treaties including the UN’s Rio Declaration, which states:

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

The principle demands we act to avoid disastrous outcomes, even if the science is uncertain. Because the uncertainty works both ways: things might get worse than we expect, rather than better.

The fundamental point of Koonin’s book is true, but irrelevant. The science is not settled – but we know enough to act decisively.




Read more:
Even without new fossil fuel projects, global warming will still exceed 1.5℃. But renewables might make it possible


The Conversation


Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2021 Victorian Prize for Literature Winners


The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2021 Victorian Prize for Literature.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/02/02/162048/mckay-wins-100k-victorian-prize-for-literature/