Cairns – aquariums, indigenous achievement and climate denial

Cairns in Far North Queensland is a remarkable place where remarkable things – excellent, good, bad and odd – occur.

For the good, the odd and the bad start with the Cairns Aquarium. It is one of Cairns’ most popular tourist attractions but one has to wonder what messages visitors take away from it and how it subtly reinforces climate denialism.

It has fascinating displays and is probably ideal for people who have children or grandchildren and don’t have the time or inclination to go out to the Great Barrier Reef itself. But the visitor is also faced with rapid fire commentaries on fish and the reef overlaid with some anthropomorphism and under laid by some glaring omissions about the threats to the Reef.

During the day there are a number of set piece presentations where young staff give a running commentary during fish feeding times. A presentation trainer would advise them to use fewer words more slowly. A philosopher would advise them to drop the individual cute human names for the various creatures in the huge tanks. And a scientist would scratch their head about the descriptions of the threats to the Reef.

Australia’s new Environment Minister, Susan Ley, when asked what the main threat to the Reef replied “The Crown of Thorns Starfish.” The young presenters at the Aquarium made an impassioned plea to the audience about the dangers of plastics. At least they were a bit more accurate than the supposedly responsible Minister. Yet both the Minister and the staff share an apparent refusal to mention the climate emergency and global warming.

Now climate denialism is driven by a complex set of things. First, is the manufactured denial by those employed by the fossil fuel lobby. Naomi Oresekes’ and Erik. M.Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt, details how a few scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco to global warming. Some of them now have official positions in the Trump administration and Australia has its versions as well.

Second, is the framing – driven by focus group research by the same US teams who thought up the death tax slogan – which characterised the climate emergency as the more mundane climate change. The climate becomes with this framing just like the daily weather – changeable. Oddly enough this tactic was so successful that the denialists’ opponents ended up using the term until recently.

Third, climate emergency denialism has become a signifier for conservatives. You define yourself – and signify that you embrace a set of other values – by denying the climate emergency. It has become a sort of Masonic handshake just as various positions among progressive groups are. The scientific facts are irrelevant it is just the right wing’s version of identity politics.

Fourth, the climate emergency can be wrapped up in a whole lot of other issues from distrust of elites, to lack of scientific and other literacy issues through to successful fear campaigns about costs and jobs.

And, finally it can also be prompted by simple commercial imperatives as at the Cairns Aquarium – don’t take the risk of offending some patrons; don’t complicate matters too much; demonstrate your commitment to the environment by passionate comments about plastics; don’t damage the Reef’s reputation; and, provide some protective colouration by paying homage to someone you claim to be “one of the world’s greatest conservationists” – Steve Irwin – who was himself the victim of a sort of anthropomorphism.

In contrast, if you want to know how to celebrate culture and communicate complex issues in an engaging tourist friendly way, visit the 28 year old Tjapukai Cultural Centre just north of Cairns. Visitors move around a variety of activities and performances starting with a Creation story multi-media and human performance presentation which lulls you into good old Aussie complacency and then abruptly confronts it.

It is also all highly participatory leavened with a combination of humour, irony and cultural pride.

Another Cairns attraction – the annual Cairns Indigenous Arts Festival – is an outstanding example of how culture can be a source of pride, illumination, education and entertainment. From an art show where collectors and curators from around the world dash to get red dots placed on art work labels; to an art market featuring the work of local communities from Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait; to a fashion show; to dance performances, to a superb choral performance –it demonstrates once more the richness of the culture the early settlers tried to destroy.

Synthesised commercial operations culminating in theme parks and the Cairns Aquarium have their place. Indeed they can be entertaining, great fun for children and grandchildren and even a bit informative. Sharks, like terrorists for instance, are nowhere near the danger we imagine while our minds neglect the really dangerous things like domestic abuse. Well the young Aquarium staff didn’t quite make that comparison but the gist of their talk about sharks allow you to come to you own conclusion about it.

Indeed, despite the climate problem it’s all definitely entertaining and great fun for children and grandchildren. But for the really rewarding experiences – visit Tjapukai and/or the Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair.