Climate Change and Australia

“The argument [behind climate change] is absolute crap. However, the politics of this are tough for us” (Tony Abbott, 2009).

“I am confident, based on the science we have, that mankind does make a difference to climate, almost certainly the impact of humans on the planet extends to climate” (Tony Abbott, 2010).

In a recent interview, Prime Minister Tony Abbott proclaimed his “absolute agreement” with the fact that we need to address climate change, suggesting that he took it “very seriously”. This was a matter of days after he had publicly attempted to organise an “international coalition” against carbon pricing, and had condemned President Obama’s new policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030. Doubtless Abbott is playing according to the political standards of the day: no electorally-conscious leader of a Western country would publicly deny that climate change is occurring and is anthropogenic. How do we know this? Because a matter of years ago, he called climate change “absolute crap”. Now, I could go into a very lengthy explanation of why climate change is real and man-made, citing various sources and alluding to the scientific consensus on the issue, and outlining that Australia is the largest per-capita emitter of carbon in the world. But if you’re reading this blog, I take it you’re already well aware. So what I will do is deconstruct the conservative argument on the topic, and outline why, without carbon pricing, no effective action against climate change could ever occur.

Given the overwhelming evidence for addressing climate change, what has occurred in the last thirty years is a failure in public policy. The quagmire of political spin and “alternative methods” for dealing with climate change has left us in a very poor national position. After having experienced the hottest decade on record, the forecasts and projections of the Al Gore era are now outdated. We are seeing the effects of climate change in a big way. The recent collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will raise sea levels by one meter, and once it is gone there is nothing to hold back the rest of the land-based ice in the region, representing a three to four meter sea level rise over a number of decades. Countries like the Maldives will not exist beyond fifty more years. So why do arguments against climate change still persist? While the Coalition has deemed it wise to publicly admit they understand the implications of climate change, their compatriots at the Institute of Public Affairs suggest that “nobody knows whether global temperatures will rise, fall or stay the same”. The IPA is theoretically a think-tank, but given the scientific consensus (around 95-98% depending on your source) that the climate is heating up, it stands to reason that there is not much thinking going on. Instead there is the prevailing, paranoid belief that scientists are only “seeking grant monies from taxpayers”, and that renewable-sector workers need “special prices for otherwise uncompetitive products”. There is an unfaltering faith that “mankind’s prosperity [is] founded on cheap fossil fuels”. It is perplexing that the neo-conservative right has found virtually no accredited peer-reviewed scientists to validate this point. Meanwhile, the work of hundreds of thousands of scientists has been swept away with allusion to a spectral “conspiracy” against well-intentioned industrialists, who are deeply altruistic at heart. But evidently the work of a scientist is not to do with science, but money.

Such an assertion is possibly the most ludicrous thing the IPA has ever come up with – and that is saying something. But the IPA is not the Liberal Party, right? What the public – and what newspaper in particular – need to understand is that the IPA and the Liberal Party are two sides of the same coin. The Institute is a Coalition apologist whose role it is to sow seeds of disbelief and misinformation. It is there to make the Liberal Party’s job easier. It is funded almost entirely by big business, and the Liberals do very little to differentiate their own views from those of the Institute. In the Liberal Party online platform, there is one mention of climate change in a policy. There is no mention of global warming – a veiled allusion to the erroneous notion that ‘climate is changing, but we don’t know which way’. In fact, the solitary reference to climate change is that Australia’s attempts to address it are “complemented” by the ‘Green Army’ policy.

Consider that for just one moment. The Liberal’s entire environmental policy revolves around the Coalition’s commitment to “hands-on, practical grassroots environmental action as a means of fixing environmental problems, as well as tapping into the knowledge of local communities, encouraging them to identify and fix their own local problems”. What does that mean? The reference to ‘grass-roots’ and ‘local communities’ suggests two things: firstly, that it is not the role of the government to address environmental problems, and secondly (and axiomatically), that it’s not the government’s problem. The omission of any reference to Global Warming is illuminating in this regard: they do not consider it a global problem. What happens in the factories of Geelong or the open-cut coal mines of Gippsland does not apply to ‘local communities’. The government’s entire conceptualisation of climate change is therefore denying – flat out – that climate change is a problem. This corresponds with Arran Gare’s assertion that “according to the assumptions of most people in positions of power, there cannot be an environmental crisis. There can only be more or less efficient control of nature, and separate, isolated environmental problems which can be treated independently of each other”.

The IPA’s assertion that renewable energy industries are “uncompetitive” also reveals a long-term commitment to friends in the fossil fuel industry. The fact of the matter is renewable energy is the only fuel source in our future: it is (virtually) infinite, it is where all major innovation and research has been invested, and it is increasingly cheap, efficient and competitive. Germany is the most powerful economy in Europe and, despite a Euro-Crisis, has not only managed to hold the Euro together, but has also increased its solar energy sector to roughly 28% of its total energy consumption. It is now outsourcing these industries to other European countries as exports, because it is economically, politically and environmentally viable. Take note: in fifty years no-one will want to buy our coal, which is on its own terms closer to peat than it is to anthracite. The IPA’s claim that the renewable energy industry is uncompetitive is also disingenuous. The coal industry has been subsidized by the government since it was established. Let me repeat that: government subsidizes coal and has done so every single year since we began using it. And while solar energy in Australia only represents 1.1 percent of our total energy consumption, this is up from 0.1 percent in 2009 – a tenfold increase. Meanwhile, coal constitutes 85 percent of our total energy consumption, and 38 percent of our total carbon emissions as a country.

The solar and wind power sectors have been subsidized by the Rudd and Gillard governments and now it is estimated that running a household on solar energy is less than half the cost of using grid power. That sounds pretty competitive to me. In general, the former Labor government’s projects (classified under the term Renewable Energy Target, or RET) have cost around $20 billion in government funding. For that, it has generated $20 billion in foreign investment, with a further $14.5 billion planned given the RET remains (which it won’t under this government’s budget). It has been estimated that for every $1 the government invests in renewables, the private sector invests $2.50. So forget the $5 billion paid parental leave scheme; by scrapping the RET this government is directly costing the Australian economy tens of billions of dollars. And while 24,000 renewable energy workers are currently employed, under the RET this was expected to grow a further 18,000 jobs by 2020. And in terms of affordable electricity, by scrapping the Renewable Energy Target scheme the Abbott government will be costing Australia $1.4 billion a year after 2020.

So, let’s do the costs. For roughly five years of RET, the government has spent roughly $20 billion, amounting to $4 billion a year in creating incentives for renewable energy. In contrast, the federal government pays $10 billion a year in subsidies to the coal industry (with another $10 billion paid in subsidies to the mining sector). So, under Abbott’s scheme, you can pay twice as much per year for a coal-dependent energy grid, in contrast to Labor’s scheme which pays half as much as Abbott’s scheme for half the cost… By the Federal Government’s own costings, the RET will decrease the cost of electricity after 2020, while repealing it will not. Don’t ever be fooled by the claim that renewable energy is too expensive. It is becoming increasingly obvious that coal is more expensive now – let alone when the renewable energy industry is consolidated. Oh yeah, and there’s that whole pollution thing.

Why gear an economy towards an energy system based on infinite solar or wind power when you can dig up carbonised dinosaurs and burn them? The scrapping of the RET is only one side of the coin, but it pulls us back years in our energy security. Consider: while this government thinks it is good fiscal sense to scrap the targets, citing an ideological disagreement with “corporate welfare”, it has retained subsidies in the fossil fuel industry – an industry which is increasingly outdated, overpriced, and over-polluting. Three-quarters of Australians support renewables, which further suggests that this government is not listening to its electorate, but rather its friends in the corporate lobbies. Neoliberalism in this instance is therefore an ideological veil for what the real interest is: fossil fuel moguls and their fortunes. Ask yourself: why would the government reject the most profitable, competitive and economically-accepted energy sector in the world (renewables) if their commitment was to the economy? Their commitment is to established money. The fossil fuel bourgeoisie find themselves under attack for driving an industry that is systematically destroying the planet, and require political representation to sow misinformation and muzzle the competition. For all the IPA’s rhetoric of free-market enterprise, the war on the RET is arguably the worst government policy to ever be leveraged against Australia’s economy.

The other major plan to address climate change is the carbon tax. Now, while Abbott struggles to explain how his “fuel subsidy” is not a tax, the irony is that the Coalition ran an extremely effective marketing campaign against carbon pricing in the 2013 election. Labelling the carbon price a “toxic tax” and a “python squeeze” to the economy was rhetoric: the fact of the matter is that government subsidies actually paid more to energy consumers than they were taxed, and so any argument against the scheme is purely fiscal rather than economical. This also served to undermine what was and is effectively the single most important step in reducing pollution: setting a price on carbon. In the fabricated universe of the Coalition’s scare-mongering, the carbon tax was simply a tax levied against the citizen, intended to destroy the economy. But all arguments against the carbon price were disingenuous: the Liberal Party (including Tony Abbott) supported an emissions trading scheme (ETS) in the 2007 election.

A quick note to the difference between a carbon price and an ETS: a carbon price sets a tax on pollution: it subscribes a real value to carbon emissions and punishes those who emit, and is therefore a disincentive. An ETS is a system by which a limit is imposed on how much carbon can be emitted, and ‘credits’ can be bought by polluters. By reducing the limit and decreasing the credits, the nature of supply and demand take over and it becomes increasingly more expensive to emit carbon, and it is therefore a market-based mechanism for transitioning the energy sector to renewables. However, it is rarely mentioned that in order to implement an ETS, you must first set a price on carbon. One precludes the existence of the other. This is why Labor promised to move to an ETS by 2017 if they had won the election, and why the Howard government thought it good politics to propose an ETS in 2007. It is dumbfounding that the same Liberal party has gone backwards, with Abbott disqualifying the possibility of an ETS as polling shows more and more support for such a scheme. One politician stated that “there is much to be said for an emissions trading scheme… It enables an increasing market price to be set for carbon through capping volumes of emissions. The allocation of permits should mean that more carbon-efficient businesses have a surplus that can be sold to more carbon-intensive ones.” Guess who said that? Tony Abbott. So, a carbon price is inevitable, and recent moves by the U.S. and China suggest that it is now internationally and globally the only strategy for transitioning the economy. Critiques of Gillard’s carbon price were deliberately short-sighted, and to be frank the counter-arguments by the Labor Party to illuminate this fact were pathetic. Nevertheless, the scrapping of the carbon tax will boost coal consumption by seventeen percent within five years – a total national increase in carbon emissions of 6.5 percent. This means that we are not aiming to reduce our carbon emissions by 5 percent by 2020 (already down from 20 percent). We are in fact aiming to reduce our carbon emissions by 11.5 percent in order to avoid a $20 billion international fine – more than double what we have spent on the RET cumulatively.

So why is carbon pricing and ETSs the only way to deal with climate change? While it is always good to incentivise renewable energy, we are constrained by the inevitable pacing of time. The longer we hold off transitioning, the more penalties – environmental and economic – we will have to pay in the future. For every $1 spent on renewables today, the IPCC calculates we will save $4 in fifty years. Polluting needs to be dissuaded in the same way that renewables need to be persuaded. For a party that ideologically embraces market mechanisms, it is confounding that their ‘Direct Action Policy’ is governmentally interventionist in nature. Instead of accept an ETS as good for the market – as they had done in 2007 – the party has shirked its philosophy. This is because its own philosophy does not work in its favour in the instance of climate change. Renewables are good investments, and fossil fuels are not. Market mechanisms are effective, and direct action is not. So why have they tilted their heads to see the world clearer? Apart from the aforementioned commitment to corporations and moguls in the energy industry, the Liberal Party – at a fundamental level – does not believe that climate change is a threat. The best way to ensure that they can implement their own reality in Australian politics is to have direct control over Australia’s climate change commitment. Rather than render mechanisms of change to the market, they will promise to plant trees and pay polluters and then do neither. The reduction target has already been lowered from 20% to 5%: so they’ve already failed to do their part.

Direct Action: what does this mean? It means planting trees. For the unwitting voter, this sounds fantastic. Everyone loves trees. Tree-hugger lefties love trees, so this will placate those pinko-commies, right? But inform yourself: any botanist will tell you that trees, for roughly the first five years of their lives, do not produce more oxygen than carbon dioxide. It is only beyond ten years that they really have a substantial impact on reducing carbon. This also happens to be the same year in which they are suitable for lumber. Much of this Direct Action funding is disguised. Subsidies are payed to the lumber industry to grow these trees, and then cut them down before they become useful. What’s more, the Coalition have decided to promote the idea that vast swathes of Tasmania’s Heritage forests should be delisted and turned over for timber harvesting. It is fortunate that in the recent Heritage hearing in Doha, the Federal Government’s case was thrown out in ten minutes. The Coalition likes trees, but only to the extent that they can be used for industrial purposes. This is counter-productive, and actually harms the atmosphere rather than helps it. What’s laughable is that Mr. Abbott considers himself a “conservationist”. And the day before he made such a laughable claim, he told a room full of Texan mining executives that it was Australia’s “destiny” to bring the “affordable energy of coal” to the world. Consider the implications of that: it is our destiny to ensure that the world industrial complex is polluting the atmosphere indeterminately.

Are these views shared by the Liberal Party at large? Firstly, the moderate right of the party are no longer in control. Recently, Liberal MP Cory Bernardi stated that “I don’t, and I have never bought the alarmist, hysteria attached to carbon dioxide as driving climate change, and there’s no consensus of scientists, I’m afraid.” There are two components to this argument, and it has been repeated by many in the party. Firstly, there is a belief that carbon dioxide does not affect heat retention in nitrogen-rich air. This is basic physics, and the fact that Cory Bernardi is not a scientist does not excuse him from positing an erroneous fact. Secondly, there is the view held that environmental activists are “alarmist” in their predictions. This is absolutely true: because it is alarming. Climate change will do irrevocable damage to the planet and to the human race as a result. There is nothing we can now do to stop methane gases from escaping historically ice-covered Polar Regions. There is nothing we can do about the melting of the land-based ice in Antarctica and Greenland. But we can still mitigate the worst effects of climate change in the next few decades and strive to avoid a runaway greenhouse effect: the same phenomenon that occurred on Venus some billions of years ago. Perhaps the neoconservatives who have dared glance at the research are comforted in the fact that they will be dead by the time it gets really bad. That’s little consolation to younger generations. But hey, as long as Gina gets her Christmas bonus and as long as Greg Hunt is confident in anti-science, then all is swell.

The politics of climate change have been tragic. In centuries to come, our time will be lividly absconded as the Golden Age of Idiocy: we had the information in front of us, and yet we did not do enough. Meanwhile, George Brandis has complained that environmentalists have the tendency to “shut down the debate” about climate change, and this in some way might contribute to the Right’s obstructionist stance in government. The issue is: these people still believe there is a debate to be had, and that they can win it. Until they manage to convince hundreds of thousands of scientists of their fundamentally unscientific views, this will never happen. This is because the debate is over; the facts are established; the forecasts have been projected. There is no debate to be shut down because there is no debate to be had. While Tony Abbott’s suggestions that there are alternative methods to addressing climate change are taken in good grace, he and his party’s ongoing stance on climate change serve to undermine this ploy of authenticity. And while the planet may be warming at an unprecedented rate, the heat is clearly not being applied to parliament.

David Owen has a BA (Hons) in History and a major in Political Science from the University of Melbourne.

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2 comments

  1. There is no evidence of global warming. That is why they are remarketing it as climate change. You have mischaracterized Tony Abbott with a few select quotes. I have a news flash for you: some of us view environmental science as a science. This means one day you have new data and a new adjusted opinion. Others have a consistent opinion based on faith and irrespective of the data….perhaps this explains why the differing quotes?
    thought that rather than allow you to mischaracterize Mr Abbott , I would give you a link to an article that refutes your whole premise—Tony now has his head.on straight
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/10643280/Tony-Abbott-appoints-climate-change-sceptic-to-review-energy-target.html

  2. Please review:

    The scientific studies on Global Warming: http://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-scientific-debate-on-global-warming-in-one-chart-2014-3
    And the meteorological studies on rising temperatures: http://climate.nasa.gov/interactives/warming_world

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