At 4:49pm on 10 July 2011, someone in a suburb of Geelong clicked an online box that said ‘Yes! I pledge to turn my air-conditioner on 24 hours per day for at least the next 6 months!’
Over the next twenty-four hours, hundreds more from all states and territories followed links from mass circulation newspapers to an online form that invited them to leave their air-conditioners on the coldest setting for the next 6 months. Among them were a few bogus pledges – ‘John Howard’ pledged to leave on 98 air conditioners; ‘Retarded Foolsworthy’ with an email address of email@example.com pledged 99 – but the vast majority were genuine.
What on earth was going on?
Even for the parallel universe of federal politics, the time around the introduction of the carbon tax in 2011 was bizarre. In June, Tony Abbott told the Minerals Week 2011 conference: ‘I say to you that at this time, you need to become political activists – at least for a few months, at least for a couple of years – if [you] are going to be able to continue to be the miners that you want to be and that Australia needs.’ Around the same time, a sleeping pill company took out prominent ads in The Australian, in which it began its pitch with ‘Carbon tax keeping you up at night?’
These efforts were cheered on in the blogosphere by a site called no-carbon-tax.org. It urged the miners to fight for their rights, praised the entrepreneurship of the sleeping pill manufacturer, and proclaimed the day of Rio Tinto’s highest ever profit announcement ($7.8 billion) as P-Day (Profits Day): ‘the D-Day of our age.’
When federal parliament passed the tax, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph declared that ‘middle and high income earners will be slugged – and some say needlessly so. Pensioners and low income earners will be over-compensated …’
But no-carbon-tax.org stayed strong: ‘Today is not a day to give up friends. Today is a day to say that we, the middle and high income earners, will not be silenced.’
No-carbon-tax.org was not the only blog dedicated to opposing the carbon tax, and was certainly not alone in deploying political illiteracy in support its cause. But it was probably alone in being a fake, set up to record and satirise the absurdity of the debate.
In an age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, when positions are adopted for a sound bite and dumped hours later, no-carbon-tax.org fashioned itself as a contemporary paper of record. When Tony Abbott told the National Press Club that ‘it may well be, as you say, that most Australian economists think that the carbon tax or emissions trading scheme is the way to go … Maybe that’s a comment on the quality of our economists,’ he got full marks from no-carbon-tax.org. When the Liberal MP Dennis Jensen called for a Royal Commission into climate change, he got a photo gallery of himself wearing ill-fitting body armour on a visit to Afghanistan, published with the caption ‘shock troop for the truth’.
Interspersed with all of this were enough additional absurdities to make it clear what the site was about. The logo was based on the logo of the site www.nocarbontax.com.au but instead of a red cross through a blue circle it displayed a red cross through a picture of the earth. The picture captions were hammy and obvious.
Then there was the one-million-air-conditioner pledge itself – the ‘civil disobedience movement’ (sic) so absurd that no-one could possibly take it seriously.
Except they did.
Hundreds of people signed up to the pledge, hundreds more followed the site’s fictitious author Marven James on Twitter, and dozens took to the comments pages. Perhaps most bizarrely, no-carbon-tax.org was taken seriously by the Herald Sun, Courier Mail (which continues to provide a major source of link traffic to the site), Sky News, NineMSN, The Australian, AAP and numerous other media outlets around the country which reported on it without question.
On 9 July 2011, the night before the government was to announce details of the carbon tax, a press release arrived in the inboxes of major Australian news outlets.
Julia Gillard is happy to just leave the Australian people out in the cold when it comes to this carbon tax. Well today, we’re giving her our own blast of cold air which won’t be silenced until this carbon tax is dropped.
This was a quote from Marven James.
Radio 2UE in Sydney called early the next morning for a quick interview with Marven James but didn’t end up running the story.
Later that day another press release went out stating that the site had crashed due to overwhelming demand for the pledge. At first there was no response. But then some copy written by the AAP wire service about the site ‘crashing’ was picked up by NineMSN website under the headline ‘Air-conditioner pledge site crashers’ (sic). One-million air-conditioner pledges started to come through.
Before long, the story was picked up by the Murdoch press – the Courier Mail and Herald-Sun both published references to the site crashing, and used a quote from the press release. The quotes had a run in the next day’s printed coverage as well. As the press coverage continued, the story began to ricochet around the conservative blogosphere.
On the Sunday evening, The Australian rang, seeking an interview with Marven James. A fake accent, some extravagant pledge figures, and some anti-government motherhood statements were all it took to get the story into the national broadsheet. At no point did the journalist ask whether the site was genuine – in fact he seemed quite keen on it. The next morning The Australian brought the news to the nation with a curiously straight bat:
State power companies might be at risk through the imposition of a carbon tax, but they will be winners out of a mass protest against the tax. The One Million Air Conditioners movement seeks to encourage people to turn on their air conditioners for six months, a course that will deliver a bonanza to the power companies.
Of course the site hadn’t crashed due to overwhelming demand – daily traffic had barely reached double figures until the media stories started to advertise it. And there were not ‘thousands of air-conditioners whirring in fury against socialism’, as the site claimed. There were a few hundred pledges, some of them fake, but the vast majority seemingly expressing genuine opposition to the tax.
In the wake of the media stories, the site was visited by thousands of people a day, and they left their mark in the comments section. One comment set the tone: ‘Seventh generation Australian here. My fore fathers would be spinning in their graves having fought and toiled for this nation … ’ Other commenters wanted to talk science and offered references on request: ‘Personally, I would like a bit more co2 – our veggies are doing better than usual with 380 ppm compared to 280 ppm. “Scientists” look at tree rings, but has anyone apart from me looked at tree rings over the most recent 20 years?’
Another was keen to become involved in any way possible: ‘What is the pledge? I don’t own an air conditioner as such but know this tax sucks, I have had more than enough of the incompetent Libor mob in Canberra and detest the loopy but dangerous Greens! Do I quality [sic]? Cheers’
There were some people who did understand. A person identifying themself as ‘Ella’ wrote in response to the questions of how to become involved without owning an air-conditioner: ‘if you can’t afford to leave on your aircon – just leave the fridge open … ’ The ABC’s Media Watch made some inquiries before losing interest when the News of the World story in the United Kingdom took flight. The global oil companies BP and Caltex/Chevron were not happy with their names being taken in vain as ‘friends’ of the site, and their corporate counsel sent a series of threatening letters alleging (falsely) that the site violated their trademark rights. But these interactions were the exception rather than the rule.
When Marven James took to Twitter, he quickly developed a following of climate denialist bloggers from around the world. Marven also counts the Liberal Party of Australia, Queensland LNP leader Campbell Newman, and the Queensland Liberal National Party as followers. His tweets have been retweeted by the operators of genuine anti-carbon tax blogs, and some people have shared the link to the pledge and encouraged others to ‘sign up here against @JuliaGillard.’ It seems it is not hard for an angry middle-class man to find friends online.
But it was by no means only conservatives who ran into trouble with the one-million-air-conditioner pledge. For every supportive message, there were also spasms of indignation. The more frequently retweeted comments included: ‘Jesus fucking christ people are dumb: pledging to leave airconditioners on? Are you fucking kidding me? #MORONS‘ and ‘This is so awesomely retarded. “Won’t it cost a lot to run my AC 24/7 for 6 months?” Yes, you fucking peanut.’
Marven James got into a series of nasty Twitter exchanges with a person whose self-descriptions included ‘electrical engineer, economist, and militant socialist greenie’. The exchange ended with Marven being called a ‘dumbfuck miner’, and with Marven hurling dole queue abuse. There was no clear winner.
What certainly did not win in the no-carbon-tax.org affair was the cause of a sensible national debate. For all its rather undergraduate attempts at humour, no-carbon-tax.org was not supposed to be a simple vehicle for ridicule of those who oppose the carbon tax. It was an attempt to highlight the large vested interests arrayed against the cause of climate action, to take the more absurd arguments of the opponents to their logical conclusion, and encourage some form of reflection on the state of the debate.
There can be little doubt that no-carbon-tax.org failed as a piece of communication. There are few things more forlorn and ungracious than the satirist who blames their audience for not understanding the jokes, or the artist who says they are too far ahead of their time. But the blame here can not be laid purely on the website. In the days after the announcement of the carbon tax, the Daily Telegraph’s political reporter ran a series of exposes: firstly on the carbon footprint of the prime ministerial high heels, and then on the carbon emissions of the Department of Climate Change being ‘about the same as a family home’.
‘Carbon cops will have to clean their own house’, ran the headline. With editorial like this, even the keenest satire is no match for a simple reprint of the original text, and it is no surprise that no-carbon-tax.org looked perfectly at home on the pages of the Murdoch press.
The debate over the carbon tax and no-carbon-tax.org’s small and confusing role in it reflects a failing national conversation. Something is desperately wrong when opponents of a government policy can view a pledge to switch on a household appliance as a meaningful contribution. The fact that proponents of that policy did not detect a hint of satire behind that pledge and were instead enraged by it offers little comfort either. With such palpable frustration on both sides, it is hard to see any ground for reconciliation or compromise.
And yet there are some things that a vast majority of people in Australia can understand and agree upon. The narrative of large corporations putting their own interests before those of the community is not the exclusive preserve of inner-city environmentalists and left-wingers. Stories about corporate greed are just as likely to cause outrage in the pages of the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph as they are anywhere else. This narrative is a perfect fit for the carbon tax debate, and the broader debate about curbing global greenhouse gas emissions. But for the moment at least, it is being overridden by far more visceral rage whose origins it is hard to understand.
If there is a lesson from the no-carbon-tax.org experience, it is not that climate change deniers or, for that matter, environmentalists are stupid, although some may well be. It is not that satire is dead, although it seems to be of little use when talking about climate change. Nor is it a lesson that a single person with some webhosting and a hair-brained idea can start a political movement, although that may happen one day. The key lesson is that destructive, humiliating things happen when people stop listening and give up on their sense of reason. The hysterical forums offered by parts of the national media, occupied as they are by corporate interests and ideological bile, do not offer a place for reasonable or helpful discussion, and they humiliate us all.
It is hard to know whether useful alternative forums do exist at the moment, and if they don’t, where they might come from in the future. But while we figure those questions out, it will certainly help everyone to pause for a moment the next time they hear something they find so stupid that it makes their blood boil. To paraphrase George W Bush, sometimes it can be hard to know who is fooling whom.