The Material and Ideal Dialogue: Climate Change issue construction and material effects in Australia continent.

I wrote this ages ago.

Masaryk University

HEN593 Masters Seminar: Topics in Environmental Sociology

The Material and Ideal Dialogue: Climate Change issue construction and material effects in Australia continent.

by Tony Goodfellow (UCO 249392)

This essay is a sociological analysis of global climate change in Australia. It will show how the issue of climate change is constructed and is influenced by the material effects of the environment. It will begin by discussing the theoretical underpinnings of the construction of the issue and framing climate change as a risk. The dialogue between ideal factors of society and material factors from the work of Bell (2004) is used in the analysis. The media discourse will be summarized to give light on how there is changes in framing the issue of climate change and risk. The public debate in terms of economics, political and political will then be analyzed followed by a summary of the environmental and social impacts of climate change. An understanding of the relationship between the environment and ideal factors of environmental change can lead to social adaptation to manage the hazards and mitigation of the problem decreasing the risks. Constraints to any analysis of climate change must be understood. The issue is problematic because of complexity itself and incremental nature of the changes – it a process not a discrete event temporally and spatially.


The natural environment, both before and after humans, can be viewed as a dynamic process which is always in a state of flux. Historically the processes of climate, geography, species morphology, diversity and geographical extensity; ecosystems, nutrient cycles, geology and geomorphology were never static but have for brief moments in geo-time remained in a relative state of equilibrium. At one-point human society managed to form in a crack of this ever changing bio-physical world. The environment around the earliest historical human societies informed their cultures. The expression of art and religion used symbols of animals and the physical environment was a constant source of inspiration. This is evident in petroglyphs and cave painting and animism and animal worshiping societies. In the contemporary context the human society has changed into complex systems with the foundation of culture, economy, ethics, mobility, art, industrialization, production and security. The human social enterprise also brought with it the ability to modify the bio-physical processes with which it is embedded. The scale and extant of environmental change caused through human actions is unprecedented in recent times – with truly global environmental changes: global warming and ozone depletion (Held, D. et el, 1999: 384). Environmental changes or “problems” can be viewed as having both sociogenic and nonhuman origins (Prades, 1999). The sociogenic causes of environmental change are based on the society’s material structure which is founded on culture and ideology. Human societies, both the ideal and the material, are in turn reflexively shaped by the environment and the changes it undergoes. The way human societies adapts and responds to its environment is based on its ideology and beliefs. Social construction determines whether an event is a disaster both in terms of perception and material effects of the event. How environmental changes are conceptualized and framed depends upon the interplay of ideal factors and material factors. Bell (2004: 30) interprets this relationship as an ecological dialogue: “our ideals are shaped by the material conditions of our lives, and our material conditions are shaped by our ideals”. This notion is important because one can rise above the limits of pure social causality in the construction of environmental problems to including the material causes. In short this can be described as a natural consciousness.


The mass media plays an important role in framing the issue of climate change and constructing meaning for people. Climate change is a global phenomenon and with it has global consequences, the effects are often far removed from the causes. This is true for both nature climate variation and anthropogenic climate change. The media can and does show individual effects such as the break up of Larson Antarctic ice shelf (ECOS 1998) that are far removed from individual experiences of people. In the case of climate change, a global phenomenon, the media has a heightened responsibility in the controlling and producing the perception of it being framed as a risk. Patterns can be seen in the quality and quantity of reporting. There are three broad stages that the media has moved through in reporting climate change in Australia. At first the media’s response was doubt, then qualified skepticism followed by ‘embodiment’ of climate change the consolidation and acceptance of the issue. The doubt discourse started when the issue was first related by the scientific community causing the formation of the establishment of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The qualified skepticism and partial acceptance started in 1997 after tropical cyclone Justin and the Kyoto protocol was formed. The consolidation and acceptance phase happened after the release of the apologia for climate change the movie an Inconvenient Truth and the publication of the Stern report focusing on economic aspects of climate change (Smith and Hargroves  2007: 16) . The editor of ECOS a scientific journal describes these changes, “2006 was notable for marked shifts in thinking on sustainable development priorities in Australia –particularly where the climate change agenda was concerned” (Porteous 2007: 3).

This stage, the consolidation of the science of climate change, has seen media’s embodiment and acceptance of the scientific discourse by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as well as other scientific discourses such as The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). These are general trends in the reporting, it can be noted that there are fluctuations and dissenting views. The medias representation of climate change in Australia has moved from a binary debate over whether it exists to how much is caused by anthropogenic factors and what changes to be made in order to fix the problem. Australia’s media closely follows discourses in America and England because of the political proximity, close cultural and economic ties; and shared histories. With media discourse lacking in Australia I will incorporate studies done in England and America to highlight the framing of the climate change.

I will review one study done by

McManus (2000) on Australian newspaper articles during the period of 2-17 November 1998 during the COP4 summit after the Kyoto protocol was made. He completed a discourse analysis of major newspapers during the Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP4). This conference followed the highly publicized COP3 conference which saw the creation of the Kyoto protocol. The high level of media coverage of COP3 was according to McManus because of the controversial nature of Australian participation and convergence of national interests where the media was largely propagating political interests. This saw the formation of targets to greenhouse gasses with each country getting a different target. The controversy came from Australia arguing for and getting a target much higher than other countries found in Clause 3.7. During the COP4 conference media coverage was much less than COP3 and failed to highlight the continuation of Australia’s controversial target to increase greenhouse gases. McManus (2000) found that through the lack of media scrutiny in the latter conference the government is unchallenged in its framing of the issue as one to protect the national economy. Another study (Henderson Sellers 1998) analyzed the media’s reaction to a report on the propensity for increased frequency of tropical cyclones completed in 1997. The review of newspaper articles was the unit of analysis again. She found that the issue of climate change was linked with that of insurance. She finds that the report, which she co-authored was grossly misrepresented highlighting a mismatch between the science and the media reports (HENDERSON-SELLERS 1998 421)

The two days of media coverage essentially rewrote the committee findings. The process closely resembled the children’s party game of Chinese whispers in which a simple statement is modified, sometimes beyond recognition, by repetition without understanding or correction.

Her findings relate a similar observation by Blas (2003) who describes the reporting of environmental issues in the media as essentially flawed. This is due to the fact that the environment is located in other a melee of social, economical and technological causes.  Blas (2003: 4) asserts that the complex issues are reduced and subverted to “cheap slogans and over simplistic analysis”.  A recent study done by the IPPR found that newspaper articles in England exhibit more alarmist rhetoric when describing climate change. It also notes that rhetorical skepticism, expert denial and business as usual are all diminishing repertoires of media articles. This denotes a change in the frame of problem becoming more fatalistic. The public discourse on climate change is shifting as shown above, this is related to frame construction guiding public discourse. (Carvello 2005 20) shows that for England the discursive framework has been defined by the government policies.

Ideology is clearly framing the debate:

‘quality’ press’s analysis of the governance of climate change remained within the broad ideological parameters of free-market capitalism and neo-liberalism, avoiding a sustained critique of the possibility of constant economic growth and increasing consumption, and of the profound international injustices associated with the greenhouse effect. (Carvello 2005 20)

This dialogue between the ideal and material factors is made evident in the transition of media analysis from being skeptical to that of what Carvello (2005 20) describes as “an object of regulation dominated by (predominantly) techno-corporatist governance.” America and Australia are the only two developed countries not to ratify the Kyoto protocol. Australia’s policies have mimicked the American. An American study analyzed popular news press for the quality of information.

Nissani (1999) reviewed 100 newspaper articles relating to the green-house effect to show the quality of reporting in four popular newspapers over a five-month period in 1997. The newspapers used in the analysis were the New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor. The data provided in the newspapers were contrasted with mainstream scientific literature. The result was that “the media coverage..suffers from both shallowness and pro corporate bias.” The result is stark Nissani (1999: 39) explains that a studious reader of the 100 articles would result, if posed a test, in failing a high school level as to the “nature, causes, consequences and cure of the greenhouse threat”. Instead the readers of these papers are left with a caricature of reality that does not question the dominant economic ideology where CEO’s of business and climate change contrarians are given equal waiting with independent scientists. The reader, Nissani shows, is not given information from independent bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences but “one hears about CO2, but not ethics or the profit motive” (1999: 40). To compare this with recent articles in the Australian online news reports one can see a change in the framing of debate.  I will now look at some recent news articles in Australia to highlight the ideological change.

The online newspapers analyzed were the left leaning Sunday Morning Herald, the public funded and critical Australian Broadcasting Commission, and a right leaning Australian. The articles covered the scale of regional, national and international. One shift is to show connection between the local and global effects of climate change. This is evident in drought conditions throughout eastern Australia shown in one article in the drying up of lakes in the Snowy River region a place which has formed part of the national mythology (Gorman). The validity of climate change is unequivocally accepted “But if you go to that region today, you’ll find it’s being hard-hit by climate change” (ABC 2007 b) Another article quotes the Prime Minister John Howard summarizing his new climate change strategy. The report focuses on the politics of Australian climate change. John Howard is quoted as saying: we would be foolish indeed to ignore the accumulated scientific evidence… “Governments need to let the market sort out the most efficient means of lowering emissions with all low emissions technologies on the table and that of necessity must include nuclear power” (ABC 2007 a) The article stresses a change in the government’s attitude to climate change. Another article focusing on the recent visit by Nicholas Stern to Australia titled “stern ratchets up climate change debate” focuses on the shift in debate in Australia politics. “A prominent visitor to Australia has turned up the heat in the climate change debate, as the major parties stake out their green credentials in this election year” (Porter 2007).

The Sydney Morning Herald has a large quantity of climate change articles I will focus on four showing a divergence of the political/economic debate which characterizes most articles above. Focusing on inequality of climate change the article ‘Aust gives $7.5m in climate change aid’ shows the Australian government’s commitment to global implication. It quotes Alexander Downer with the accessible statement concerning the higher risks faced by developing countries. The articles main thesis is that “least developed countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change yet have the least capacity to cope with its impacts,” ( SMH June 5, 2007)

The other articles mention the Australian militaries response to global warming ‘Climate threat in military’s sights’ it describes a report by the Defense Force regarding climate change. “THE Australian Defense Force has identified climate change as a national security threat for the first time…” Allard. Also regarding security is the article ‘Drought ‘linked’ to war’. It begins with black humor stating that Australian states should be vigilant of each other there is a series of scientific journals summarized. This highlights the issue of equality again with effects of climate change far removed from the causes citing Sudan as an example of an effected country of climate change linking the environment to civil war (Macey May 31, 2007).

The Australian newspaper mainly outlines the economic risks of climate change action. Insisting that a firm date of emission targets is economically enviable. One article extensively quotes the Treasurer Peter Costello with the headline ‘Tough Greenhouse Targets Political Suicide’ to support the claim a scientist on a council created by the government who states that “Australia should not have to reach a target by a certain date.” (The Australian, 2007) Another article focuses on the Labor parties (the opposition) target of 60% by 2050 hence politicising the issue before an election. Another article (Warren, 2007) titled ‘climate managers’ highlights John Howards shift in rhetoric regarding global warming “FIRST he doubted it, then he tried to marginalize it. Now John Howard has decided to harness the terrifying power of climate change.” The article highlights the economic solution that is being constructed by the Government. A shift from the party politics of global warming The Australian presents the readers with a report showing the causal link between temperature increase in the Indian ocean to global warming. The title of the article ‘Warmer oceans linked to global warming’ The article extensively quotes a Gael Alory a scientist from the CSIRO summarizing the report:

“The key findings are a two-degrees Celsius warming of the Indian Ocean in sub-tropical latitudes between 40-50 degrees south, and a cooling of waters separating Australia and Indonesia.” (The Australian May 29, 2007)


The debate in Australia has rapidly moved from a binary one – global warming exists/ global warming doesn’t exist – to a complex debate concerning the strategies to adapt and mitigate the effects of global warming. To understand the context of the debate currently Australia relies on finite resources[1] for 90% of energy needs; this includes fossil fuels such as coal (McEwen 2004 13). Transport in Australian cities relies heavily at the present on fossil fuels. Australia per person produces the most greenhouse gases globally. The scientific debate about the global warming largely embodies the IPPC report that climate change. The government apparatus responsible for the management of climate change states that:

The best scientific advice tells us that the Earth’s climate is changing due in large part to human activity. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is increasing. Over the last century the world has warmed by an average 0.6ºC. (Australian Greenhouse Office, 2005) Department of the Environment and Heritage)

The debate has been constructed in narrow technical and reductionist scientific terms however there are signs of change. The debate is starting to incorporate economic and social dimensions (Demerrit 2001 312).  In a revealing speech the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (2007) highlights the framing of debate. He highlights “clean coal technologies” or carbon sequestration and nuclear as the technological solutions to climate change. And as the Prime Minister recently announced, “we will be pursuing a new strategy for the future development of uranium mining and nuclear power in Australia. Such policies are all highlighted in the recently released IPCC report as key climate change mitigation options.” The rhetoric of debate has been translated into policies. Currently much research has been removed from renewables sources of energy and into ‘coal with geo-sequestration’ which purports to removes greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. This alternative has major limitations as illustrated by Tarlo (2005) being that of expense and that it is not proven to be viable apart from possible environmental high stakes risks (such as releasing massive amounts of CO2 into atmosphere in one event)

The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (AP6) is also given precedence in recent Government discourse as an alternative to Kyoto Protocol. The AP6 charter is radically different from Kyoto in being voluntary; the purpose being a non-legal framework of co-operation making sanctions impossible. The charters states that the goal of AP6 is to “Create a voluntary, non-legally binding framework for international cooperation… to advance clean development and climate objectives” ( The partnership includes Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States of America. The opposition in Australia has on the other hand declared support for the Kyoto protocol and support for nuclear power. John Howard has stated that “Nuclear energy is a fact of life and a key source of clean energy in 30 countries across Europe, Asia and North America.”. He has shifted the debate from the reduction of fossil fuels to the clean use of fossil fuels and the adoption of nuclear power. The government also has an advertising campaign for the introduction of nuclear energy (The Age, June 5, 2007). The political debate has focused on energy the adoption of nuclear and geo sequestration and Asia-Pacific Partnership.  The Asia-Pacific Partnership is a voluntary regime of international co-operation with developing countries and America thus bypassing the Kyoto protocol. Minority political parties such the greens and the socialist alliance are critical of the Governments position and have embraced climate change as a core issue of concern.

The debate economically has been awakened by the visit of Stern to Australia as mentioned above. The stern report and a visit by the author vivified the economic debate through the formation of Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change. This group has published economic responses to climate change such as the business case for early action on the necessity for carbon trading and potential for new markets and investments. The reports main focus is changes in policies to maintain economic growth while reducing the production greenhouse gases:


The Roundtable suggests that business and governments work together to frame policies on three fronts:

Design a ‘long, loud and legal’ framework to establish a carbon price signal;

Encourage innovation and investment in emerging and breakthrough technologies;

Build national resilience to the impacts of climate change. (Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change  2007)

This is an example of business being mobilized using corporate strategies to address the issue of climate change. The reverse trend is shown by Clive Hamilton, who recently published Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change. He reveals the manipulation of the issue of climate change especially regarding the continuation of fossil fuels in Australia. “there’s been a very effective campaign by the fossil fuel lobby, and right-wing think-tanks, emanating from the US and adopted in Australia… to knock off Kyoto.” (Hamilton 2007).   Alexander Downer (2007) criticizes the Kyoto protocol as a “fatally flawed framework”. The Kyoto protocol and its ratification has been removed from the discourse of debate from the Government but civil society groups and some elements of business are strongly in its favor. The Governments position can be seen as ‘rational bad behavior’ (Diamond, 2005: 427) the best option for the narrow interests of the Australian economy because of the large reserves of coal and uranium.

In terms of nuclear energy Clive Hamilton shows that public opinion in Australia is largely against the notion of nuclear power but the government is strongly in its favor. The main strategies the Government proposes is nuclear and geo sequestration of greenhouse gases. The Government has signaled its intention to run a campaign to promote nuclear energy. However, the evidence suggests the Government has a considerable amount

of work to do if its aim is to win broad public support for its nuclear strategy (Macintosh and Hamilton, 2007).

The ideology of the Liberal party rests on the notion that the nature of individuals is essentially self interested and separate from natural systems, embodied in the doctrine of classic utilitarianism (Benson, 2000, 38). This translates to free market approaches to climate change and fear of any interference by the state. Also the current discourse is located in a positivist scientific framework at the national level but at the local level general distrust in both technology and institutions is apparent from the emergence of minority political parties addressing climate change.

Civil Society

The key arbiters of the debate in Australia are the government, business and civil society. The governments position regarding climate change has been touched on now I will focus on the differing positions of civil society groups. In terms of civil society, I will focus on the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) a national NGO focusing on environmental issue in Australia. Civil society groups embody the environmental movement that bell (2004: 172) describes as a “dialogue that connects the natural consciousness, the condition of democracy and the material state of the environment” (Bell 2004: 172). This dialogue, Bell states, is what creates a moral construction of the environment. It is no surprise that Christian groups and NGOs are main actors in the dissenting debate. The ACF is mainly concerned for human wellbeing and arguments are framed in terms of utilitarianism. Trying to mobilize individuals to take action. In their discourse there is a sense of urgency “Climate change is the greatest threat facing our planet” (ACF 2007).  The ACF policies include the movement towards renewable sources of energy production, energy efficiency.  The arguments are framed economically, that the costs of climate change will be incurred on “ordinary Australians” but moving to an energy efficient society will help save money that can be then used to “help us move to clean, renewable sources of energy.” (ACF 2007).  The Kyoto protocol is also strongly advocated being a central point of mobilization along with the perception of climate change being a risk. The director of ACF describes the causality of increased sea temperature and cyclones and also the economic costs:

“The cost to banana and sugar producers alone of Cyclone Larry is being estimated at around $500 million dollars. The Commonwealth government has justified its failure to develop a concerted response to climate change by saying that it would be too expensive. I say doing nothing and living with the consequences of climate change is too expensive. And subsidising aluminum smelters while they drive climate change is an absurd misuse of public money.” (ACF 2007)

The ideology of ACF could be described as anthropocentric; being for the protection of the environment largely because of the value society has for it. Therefore, the issue of climate change is squarely in the interests of societies sustainability. The arguments are framed as a reaction to the material effects of climate change.


Material Impact of Climate Change

Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate change because it is mainly arid and semi arid and is already experiencing environmental changes brought about by emissions of greenhouse gases (Preston and Jones 2006 5). Australia is one of the many global regions experiencing significant climate change as a result of global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from human activities. During the last 100 years, the global mean surface temperature has increased by about 0.6o Celsius. (UN MEA Synthesis, 2005:70) Furthermore, it is very likely that the 20th century warming has contributed to the observed sea level rise, through thermal expansion of sea water and widespread loss of land ice which caused the global average of sea level to rise by 0.1–0.2 meters. The rise would increase recession rates of the coast loosing land through erosion. Globally, by the year 2080, about 20% of coastal wetlands could be lost due to sea level rise (Houghton 2005). This also causes the gradual incursion of saline groundwater affecting both natural ecosystems and agricultural activities. Evidence of this can right now be seen in dead trees along some shorelines such as Tuvalu.  (Ritter, 2002: 477). Also the increase in extreme weather events cause the maximum level of sea level to rise during storm surges. Therefore, cyclones can cause more damage to vulnerable coastal communities such as cyclone Justin did in 1998. The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events will change from the increase in average water temperature and sea level rise.  The coastal effects of climate change has the capacity to have a great effect to Australia since is it one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with 84% of Australians living in towns and cities (McEwen 2004 68).

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is part of a naturally occurring cycle where warm water oscillates between South America and Australia. When the cycle is in ENSO Australia undergoes draught which currently has been prolonged compared to averages.  Drought frequency and consequent stresses on agriculture are likely to increase in parts of Australia because of both El Niño and higher temperatures. Along with ENSO the average precipitation has decreased over the last century.  The westerly weather systems that controls precipitation for the Southern Australia and Tasmania is also changing. There is a projected decrease in precipitation of East Tasmania and South Australia both having large areas dedicated to agriculture and for Tasmania a reduction in Hydroelectricity. Agriculture and commercial activity will be effected if trends continue because of the limitation on the availability of water (Pittock and Wratt 2001, 2001: 594).

The natural environment is vulnerable to climate change. The Great Barrier Reef has already shown unprecedented signs of bleaching because of a rise in sea temperature. The shift in habitat range of coral is an indicator of climate change because coral is immobile. The ecosystem and the species that rely on the coral reef are also vulnerable. The CSIRO report (Preston and Jones 2006) indicates that there is a point where the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem would collapse if it undergoes the incremental changes brought about by climate change. A collapse of the reef would effect Australian tourism – the reef being both an icon and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage area. This example shows vulnerable natural communities cannot cope with the shifting habitat range from climate change. The niches open in the ecosystems can be replaced by exotic species furthering the loss of biodiversity and increase in disease vectors. It is little wonder the United Nations indicates climate change as the dominant driver of biodiversity loss and changes in ecosystem services globally (UN MEA Synthesis, 2005:17

). It is the services ecosystems provide, a waste sink, raw resources, aesthetic and cultural values that are threatened by climate change.

The issue of climate change has recently been highly topical in Australian society. The social struggle for meaning from environmental changes or perceived changes highlights a dialectical relationship between ideal and material factors of environment.  The Medias reporting recently has focused on the policy aspect of the debate, extreme weather events and with it insurance and has largely accepted the existence of anthropogenic climate change from greenhouse gases. It was shown that the media reporting closely followed the Government’s policies. Therefore, there is control over information which diverges from the material reality of the problem. Climate change has also moved from being a naturally occurring phenomenon to human agency therefore it is seen as a risk. The economic, political and scientific debate is changing. The Stern report, the release of the movie Inconvenient Truth, and extreme weather events has shifted the debate from the existence of climate change to the embodiment of the IPPC findings and the adequate response needed to mitigate its effects. The responses are usually techno-political in nature. Kyoto has been omitted by the Governments discourse where, instead, a transnational voluntary organization has been proposed in the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. The government locally has proposed nuclear and geo-sequestration as solutions to the reduction of the production of greenhouse gases. The debate has largely omitted renewable sources of energy and change of consumption patterns of fossil fuels.

The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change has provided strong economic arguments for a regulatory framework addressing climate change – but is a dissenting voice in current government policy. It was shown, that the debate generally, is guided by ideological interests in maintaining the current structural patterns that encourage the further production of greenhouse gases in the form of “business as usual”. Australia is a nation that has large deposits of uranium and fossil fuels therefore it is rational bad behavior to maintain the current industrial norms. Civil society has reacted to the issue of climate change. It was found that the Australian Conservation Foundation frames the issue in anthropocentric values and moralizes the issue. Kyoto and environmental catastrophes are central to their arguments – that have precedence since hurricanes and droughts have increased in frequency and propensity in recent times.

The material impacts of climate change have had both had a marked effect on environmental changes and is projected to have dramatic effects in the future. Precipitation will decrease in many areas of Australia especially the east and southern parts. It is predicted that there will more extreme weather events such as heat waves, cyclones, floods and storm surges. Through sea level rise rescission rates of coast line will increase and saline incursion will affect ground water. El Niño has been enhanced which has already caused longer drought seasons. There are also projected effects on ecosystems and decline in ecosystem services. Agriculture and coastal communities will be affected the most. There will be increased costs from extreme weather events in both physical damage and wellbeing and economical costs from increased insurance.

The ideals are changing from the material impacts mentioned above seen in the shifts in perception of risks and attitudes.  Are the sociogenic causes of climate change being addressed adequately at the moment and is the current concern for climate change only smoke and mirrors?



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[1]                                Finite resources may be a valuable resource for the future and currently oil is cheaper than water.


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