Greenhouse gaslighting: Scott Morrison’s emotional manipulation from climate apathy to fake empathy

14 January 2020
The Prime Minister’s stalwart coal fetish has driven us into the arms of disaster, and his new stance, a flailing façade of empathy, seems to be backfiring. But it’s not that Morrison is unemotional, writes Blanche Verlie. These are deliberate acts of emotional manipulation — but we can fight back by asserting that our distress about climate change is legitimate.

By Blanche Verlie, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Sydney Environment Institute

Patriot and patriarchy stem from the same root, pater, meaning father. Our nuclear families and nation states are modelled upon each other. We have departments of ‘domestic’ and ‘home’ affairs. Hence, Scott ‘this is coal, don’t be scared’ Morrison fashioning himself as the nation’s ‘daggy dad’ is not a coincidence, but part of a larger system through which violence, patriarchy, fossil fuels and governance are entwined. Viewed across his last few years of leadership for the coal lobby, we can see Scott Morrison is a father figure who demeans, belittles, abuses and harms the nation through active climate denial.

Many commentators have made the point that Donald Trump and others who deny the facts of climate change are ‘greenhouse gaslighting’ the public about climate change. As author Robin Stern writes, gaslighting, which is common in abusive relationships,refers ‘to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts’ but also by denying ‘the environment around them, or their feelings’. That is, downplaying, disregarding or even misunderstanding the emotional impacts of climate change is another way we can deny the realities of climate change.

Since at least 2017, Scott Morrison has undermined, trivialised, and discredited people’s lived experiences of climate change, but the ways in which he does so are changing slightly. I believe that by tracing this subtle evolution we can see that the recent outrage at his indifference about the bushfires is having a tangible – though so far insufficient – effect on his actions, and it can give us guidance for our next steps.

Let’s begin with the lump of coal that ScoMo cuddled in parliament when he was Treasurer in 2017. Kay Milton wrote that so often it is environmentalists who are positioned as irrational and emotional, whereas the conservatives are positioned as detached due to their economic rationalism.1 Yet Morrison didn’t just stumble across a lump of coal and incidentally bring it into parliament: considerable effort and pre-emptive planning went into this event. Further, actual glee is immediately apparent from the looks on the (all male, all white, all older) LNP MPs who handled the coal, and they laugh about it. They took pleasure in this. They are enamoured with coal. Which is to say, they are not incapable of emotion, nor are they unemotional; they can care, they do care, but what they care about is coal and what it represents: money, votes, power. This is really important to keep in mind as we compare this to ScoMo’s pretense of empathy and even apathy for those whose homes, communities, pets and loved ones have burned.

Fast forward to 2019, and ScoMo is now PM on the back of yet another climate scare campaign. After arguing that children should stay in school rather than go to the climate strikes in March, he declares in September that he ‘wants children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future’ and that in order to prevent them feeling ‘needless anxiety’ we should assure them that they will have ‘an economy to live in’. Here we see a slight decrease in his factual denial, and a more indirect, yet equally condescending, emotional denial: he refers to climate change as a ‘very real issue’, but argues that children need ‘context and perspective’ (presumably of the conservative flavour) to accompany the facts.

But why stop at undermining the nation? Flying to the Pacific Islands Forum in October, ScoMo pauses, big grin on his face, for a nice PR shot with Tuvaluan children – who were sitting in water to highlight their vulnerability to rising sea levels. While arguing that he ‘understands the deep sensitivities’ regarding climate change in the Pacific he ‘waters down’ the language of the agreement so that Australia’s infatuation with coal can continue unimpeded. All the while, ScoMo says that we care for our Pacific ‘family’. This is domestic violence rhetoric writ large, as former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has noted: I will tell you I love you while causing you harm.

Following the bushfires that have been burning in NSW since September, Morrison is found to be holidaying in Hawaii in late December when we experience Australia’s hottest ever day three days in a row, and lose two firefighters, both young fathers. In response to widespread public outrage, he deflects his responsibility saying, ‘it’s a state issue’. After the absolute horrors of New Year’s Eve in Mallacoota, on January 1, 2020, he releases a seriously out of touch video arguing that there is no better place to raise kids and reiterates an earlier message that Australians should be optimistic about the future.

On January 2 Morrison heads to Cobargo where people have lost their lives. The residents of Cobargo are angry and don’t want him there, so he forcibly shakes people’s hands for the camera and even turns away when they ask him for help.

In damage control, Morrison later states that ‘I understand the anxiety and I understand the fear that is there for many and I understand the frustration…’ but clarifies that he believes people are feeling ‘very raw’ and that he doesn’t take their responses personally. Ongoing rhetoric emphasises that we need to be ‘calm’ and ‘patient’ about these issues, so that we don’t implement those mythical ‘economy wrecking’ emissions reductions targets. His backhanded and awkward pretence of empathy trivialises our experiences, positioning our emotions – our anger, fear, hurt, distress, grief, loss, frustration, disappointment, and all the rest – as short term, unreasonable and hysterical.

ScoMo hasn’t yet announced any actual improvement in climate policy (although he said it might ‘evolve’). But he has been forced to do and say somethingabout the fires, and this has happened because of our outrage at his failure to genuinely empathise with people’s experiences. That is, it has not happened because of rational, calm policy debate – or at least, not solely because of that – and that is why he keeps telling us to all calm down. He is now naming emotions that people feel, and at least sayingthat he understands them and that they are valid. One of the policies he has announced is for funding for mental health services for affected communities. None of what he has done is enough, but it is the slightest ever move in the right direction.

A key strategy for countering gaslighting is to insist on the validity and reality of your lived experiences, including your emotional experiences. When it is the Prime Minister gaslighting the country, we need everyone to speak up and assert the validity not just of the facts, but of the emotional impacts, of the lived experience, of the full realities of climate change.

Blanche Verlie has recently launched a campaign to collect stories and lived experiences as a way of sharing the emotional impact of climate change with the government. Through raw and personal stories addressed as letters to politicians. FireFeels aims to help Australians find their voices and make sure these impacts, beyond just the facts, are being heard. For more information on how to contribute, visit the FireFeels website.

1. Milton, K. 2003. Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion. Routledge: London and New York.

Dr. Blanche Verlie is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. She has a multidisciplinary background and works at the intersections between climate change, gender, culture, education, science studies, emotions, affect and the more-than-human world. Her research publications can be found here, while some shorter articles have appeared recently in Everyday Futures and The Conversation on the effects of climate anxiety on young people and the impact of bushfire smoke here in Sydney.

Header image: by Liberty Lawson via Unsplash.