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

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