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Once again, questionable science takes the place of policy

27 February 2009 1,130 views No Comment

Australia’s unique natural environment has always engendered human responses to perceived threats to it that are themselves unique. Australians regard our island continent as a special biosphere; it is distant, even disconnected, from the rest of the world. This is but an echo of the primal isolation fear that has always found expression and a political constituency in settler Australia. It’s like whistling in the dark.

Worse still, part of this isolation response has always expressed itself in measures to regulate — where they cannot eradicate — feared risks of contagion the outside world might bring. Hence, in modern terms, the peanut and fruit barrier at airport quarantine stations; thus the Irish language test of the old days, to keep out the non-Anglos (and their exotic foodstuffs along with their cultures).

This distinctively Australian response to the dangers that lurk (mostly by reputation) in the outside world has turned in recent decades to acceptance of a popular myth, assiduously nurtured by environmental politicians, that Australia can really save the world from itself. It’s true that the committed Green vote in Australia remains relatively small except in the caffé-latte inner suburbs of the capital cities and in Tasmania (which for other reasons really is a special biosphere), but the broader environmental vote is substantial. No political party can afford to ignore it.

This factor has led to some strange decisions. It is now almost universally held among the deeper Greens and their natural allies (environmental scientists with theses to promote) that Australia must act on global pollution, specifically by knocking out the foundations of its own economy, to bring about a global environmental rescue. According to this theory, we can lead by example. It’s a warming thought, of course, but it’s rubbish. The great polluting nations of today and tomorrow will not agree to depress their economies and stunt the prospect of sustainable growth on which they depend for social stability and national progress, simply because Australia, which isn’t a great polluting nation and never will be, has led by example. That’s the reality.

Another stark reality is that the three nations with whom we trade the most — Japan, China and the US — all have economies which are spiralling out of control. How foolish, then, to place additional economic and fiscal burdens, which would significantly increase structural unemployment, on our already recessed economy.

There are two separate arguments running in the global war of words over the environment. The first is over climate change and whether it is man-made or a natural cyclical event in which human agency has had (for the first time) some deleterious impact. The second is over the science of clean energy. There is clear evidence of global warming — the ‘no net warming since 1998’ naysayers notwithstanding — but science still depends on human-input computer modelling to extrapolate notional future effects. It is thus inexact. There is no real data that quantifies (or indeed even identifies) natural warming, far less what causes it. There is no existing science that permits verifiable calculation of what proportion of warming is human-induced. Advocates and promoters of energy-use reduction do themselves and their scholarship no favours by obscuring this fact.

Australian treasury modelling released last year (the basis on which the opposition among others are arguing over the terms and extent of the proposed emissions trading scheme) exposed the fundamental flaw in the government’s policy. The treasury report acknowledged upfront that it did not provide a complete assessment of the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of climate change. Without such certainty, where is the common sense in proceeding on a plan that cannot quantify cost impacts and offers little (beyond populist rhetoric) in actual benefit?

The Housing Industry Association, representing a key element of the national economy, noted at the time that the treasury report aimed to provide an estimate of macroeconomic, sectoral and distributional impacts but that in many respects it raised more questions than it answered. The association added that there was clearly more work to be done on sectoral and distributional impacts, particularly for the mining and manufacturing sectors of the Australian economy. The HIA is but one critic of the modern practice of inexact science usurping policy.

The reality we must deal with is the fact of growing atmospheric pollution. This is a factor affecting human health more than anything else and should be addressed — urgently and collaboratively — from that perspective. Pollution in all its forms should be reduced to the minimum possible by concerted global action. The coming depression may do that for us anyway, in the short term, but it is in this area, where human ingenuity actually can make a difference, that the great dichotomy between words and action is most starkly revealed.

The argument in Australia, where as in most Western democracies politics is conducted at the picture-book level, has been reduced to vacuity. It avoids reference to the elephant in the room — a commonplace in politics — or if a mention is required it is a pejoratively negative one. Everyone (even Bob Brown) knows that the least-polluting power is nuclear energy. But this is not considered an option, even though we are a leading producer of uranium. In the new environmental mythology, which owes rather more to historiography (not to mention hysteria) and ancient Germanic forest spirits than to modern science, nuclear power is defined as an unnatural act.

Similarly, we are constantly reminded that Australians are the world’s leading contributors to atmospheric carbon inputs on a per capita basis. But this argument is rarely put in perspective. Australia’s actual impact is negligible because our population is small. Neither does it take account of reality. Australians live a Western lifestyle, require a lot of electricity to continue doing so, and despite all the efforts of Bob Brown and the Greens, show little interest in volunteering to return to ancestral hunter-gatherer lives.

Instead the political response to global warming, generated by a careful nurturing of public alarm sparked by a half-century of populist polemic ranging from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring of 1962 through to David Suzuki’s hysterical arboreal liturgy and Al Gore’s convenient untruths, has been a carbon tax and its associated depressant measure, an emissions trading scheme.

Like income tax — which no one should forget was invented by the British as a temporary revenue measure to help fund the Napoleonic wars — a carbon tax is just a revenue measure. It is regressive because it will depress economic activity. It is a political answer to an unsolvable question, and thus is no answer at all. A new tax, indeed, is rarely an answer to anything but a stupid question.

There is enough evidence around of the deleterious effect of a carbon tax regime and the bureaucratic nightmare of an ETS for the warning bells to be clearly heard. Even the federal government, whose brilliant idea the ETS is, can’t get its story straight.

The catalyst for changing economic and social policies — as threatened by a carbon reduction programme and an ETS in their current models — is the ubiquitous bogeyman of climate change. It is said that the Victorian bushfires were a function of climate change; we are invited to suppose from this statement that climate change killed more than 200 Victorians over one blazing weekend. It didn’t. What killed them was a toxic mix of back-to-the-woods ‘exurb’ settlement, ridiculous environmental laws that prevent clearing in residential areas, and a lack of preparedness on the part of residents and local authorities. The fire authorities reacted as well as they could — better than could reasonably be expected given the scale of the disaster — but in the specific circumstances of wind and temperature they faced, they were on a hiding to nothing from the moment of the first spark.

To cease polluting the atmosphere on the sort of fire-and-forget scale the world has unhappily used since the industrial revolution is, of course, a good idea. The way to achieve this aim is to find the technology that will allow industrial production to continue (and to increase) while actually reducing atmospheric emissions. To the extent that the answer has yet to be discovered — which is to say that nuclear power is not an option — it therefore lies in the scientific future, not the regulatory present.

The Rudd government brought with it to office some finely expressed environmental credentials — signing the Kyoto protocol was its leitmotif — and created the office of climate change minister, the portfolio handled with commendable zeal by Penny Wong. We certainly need to deal with the effects of climate change and Wong is a capable minister, within the present government, to manage the politics of that. Australia certainly needs to revise its coastal settlement regime to avoid the permanent king tides that rising ocean levels would bring. It needs to be sensible about settlement in forested areas (and to be far less insensible of the risks attached to such lifestyle choices).

None of the practical things Australia can do to mitigate the effects of global warming would be positively affected by a carbon trading regime or an ETS. We do not need yet another revenue-based bureaucracy. Reducing the industrial contribution to atmospheric pollution is a worthwhile aim and should be pursued. But it is not something that will have an immediate effect on climate change (though it might, more beneficially, on health).

In short, Australia is yet again in danger of applying cycle politics and punitive revenue measures to a set of problems that are best countered instead by true national consensus and practical effort. Part of the problem of politics is that its practitioners think in parliamentary cycles. Long-term problems thus tend to be treated with short-term solutions. The intellectual deficit exposed by such behaviour is starkly clear.