We need sound energy policy based on rational processes, not emotional posturing
If it has changed nothing else, global warming has up-ended political debate. What once was loosely based on fact and reason is now almost entirely reliant on feelings and posturing. Not so much about saving the planet, it is about identifying with that cause; it is not so much about solutions as gestures.
This week we heard from a Uniting Church priest who presented a kind of post-Kyoto version of fire and brimstone.
“We as the population would really like the government to do something about this before we all drown or melt,” Avril HannahJones preached on ABC television. “This is an issue where I really wish the Prime Minister’s faith was having an impact on his policies because if you look at things the Pope has said … every major Christian institution worldwide is desperately concerned about climate change partly because it is going to hit the poorest people in the world hardest,” she added, telling us Pacific island nations would disappear. (In fact studies show Kiribati and Tuvalu are increasing in size.)
Two factors have combined to elevate the climate debate again: the release of a new UN report and the Wentworth by-election. Both deserve examination.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is yet another call for global action, this time to confine global warming to 1.5C. Feeding into the troubled Paris Agreement process, this paper probably will disappear without much of a trace. Australia seems to be one of the few countries where Paris is much of an issue and Scott Morrison’s government, while sticking by the targets, says it will require no additional initiatives.
So green-left parties, candidates and organisations are targeting this month’s Wentworth by-election in a desperate attempt to impose radical climate action on to the agenda. Leading independent Kerryn Phelps’s main strategy seems to be promoting an extreme-left climate position, knowing she could never be responsible for implementing it. Phelps gets to campaign on the vibe of radical action without confronting the consequences.
She promotes a “six-point plan” on climate that says: “The government has no policy for action and Labor’s policy does not go far enough.” This is an extraordinary statement given Labor has a reckless plan to more than double the renewable energy target to 50 per cent, threatening to visit South Australia’s energy selfharm on the entire national grid.
Bill Shorten also promises a 45 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, almost doubling the Paris commitments. So how can Phelps top this for ambition or foolhardiness? “Transition to 100 per cent renewable energy,” she declares, saying she will match Labor’s 50 per cent target for 2030 along the way.
Labor is running dead in Wentworth, with some of its experienced hands helping Phelps’s campaign in the hope she can do better than ALP candidate Tim Murray and topple the Liberals’ Dave Sharma on preferences. This means Labor indirectly is backing a candidate who wants to block the Adani coalmine and provide even more subsidies for renewable energy.
Even the latest IPCC report is more realistic about the limitations of renewable energy than the prospective political players of Wentworth. It talks about how “large-scale storage systems” and “grid flexibility” including “demand response” will be needed to build “resilient grid systems”, and it worries about how “zero carbon electric grids” can power electrified transport systems. It recognises these looming problems that don’t yet have solutions — remember, “demand response” means rationing supplies in an organised fashion when there is not enough power.
As we know, the IPCC is not a body prone to scepticism, but even amid its alarmism and activism it is more sceptical of 100 per cent renewable energy goals than Wentworth’s leading independent candidate: “It is hotly debated whether a fully renewable energy or electricity system, with or without biomass, is possible or not, and by what year.”
If you can get beyond the relentlessly negative focus (earlier IPCC reports at least recognised some benefits from global warming, not to mention additional non-anthropogenic drivers), the recommendations for a “less meat-intensive diet” and the tendency to make emissions reduction sound painless (they don’t recommend we get rid of our pets, although studies have shown cats and dogs in the US generate upwards of 64 million tonnes of CO2 annually), there are gems buried in the report.
It seems accidentally to have come up with the first scientific description of virtue-signalling, the posturing that has become synonymous with climate activism. “People are motivated to see themselves as morally right, which encourages mitigation actions, particularly when longterm goals are salient and behavioural costs are not too high,” it says. Yep, sanctimonious attitudes expressed at low personal cost with no decipherable outcomes: sounds like virtue-signalling to me.
At some point political debate must focus on policy options and outcomes. Malcolm Turnbull lost the prime ministership two months ago, triggering the byelection, largely because he was trying to negotiate a bipartisan emissions reduction policy with Labor. Now his son, Alex, a selfdeclared “investor in energy” again has weighed in, urging voters to punish the Liberals.
Turnbull the Younger describes the IPCC report as “terrifying” and suggests it will be “insane” for Australia not to be doing “something about this, and soon”. By something, presumably he means something other than the RETs, renewable subsidies and grants, Snowy Hydro 2.0 and other stored-hydro projects, large-scale batteries and commitment to the Paris targets.
This is the problem for the activists; a decade of costly interventions, accelerating the retirement of coal and gas-fired generation has driven prices up and energy security down. We are experiencing the damaging consequences of climate action as the activists demand more. The worry for the Coalition is that Wentworth is one of the wealthiest electorates in the country and is susceptible to this post-material emotionalism.
Ordinarily the implementation of sound public policy would involve pinpointing a problem, evaluating possible solutions, then assessing the costs and benefits of various options before deciding on a course of action. You would think such a rational process might be especially necessary when the policy issue is bound to have a considerable effect on vital areas of the economy, business expenses, cost-of-living pressures and the environmental sustainability of the planet.
But in climate policy that has not been the case. It has been driven by gestures: diplomatic gestures at Kyoto and Paris that have led to negotiated emissions reductions targets; and political gestures at home designed to meet those targets and demonstrate green credentials to the public. The relative effectiveness of the measures has not been considered. How else could we have a situation where domestic electricity prices doubled to reduce CO2 emissions while global emissions continued to rise? That is the essence of futility. We have inflicted pain on ourselves for no environmental gain.
Yet instead of demanding greater global action, the domestic debate obsesses over how Australia should inflict more pain on itself. This would make the activists and renewables investors feel good about themselves and their portfolios but there still would be no benefit to the planet because global emissions would continue to rise. If you want insanity, look no further.
On the front page of The Australian Financial Review on Thursday we saw two stories with divergent perspectives on government intervention. One detailed how big business was looking to co-ordinate emissions reduction in the absence of a government scheme, while the other lamented how state and federal small-scale solar subsidies were creating “anarchy” and instability in the electricity market. What a mess.
All of this for policies that are having no impact on climate here or anywhere else. Any sensible reading of the IPCC report tells us we are already doing far too much on attempted mitigation. Alarmist forecasts suggest we would be better served holding back and, if anything, examining options for adaptation.
Still, while the Prime Minister refuses to create clear product differentiation by following Donald Trump and abandoning Paris, the hysterical attacks from activists and alarmists are probably doing that job for him.
Whatever the nation’s energy dilemmas now, they would be compounded under the prescriptions of Turnbull the Younger, Phelps and Labor. Their aims, clearly, are more about attacking the Liberal Party than saving the planet. But this is a battle Morrison should enjoin heartily to bolster his political chances.
Debate obsesses over how Australia should inflict more pain on itself