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Response to Greg Sheridan

July 10th, 2011

Greg Sheridan was upset about my piece in the Fin, attacking his claim that the effects of Australian action on climate change will “will have an impact on the global environment so tiny it will be unmeasurable.” I’ll respond to the details of his objections over the fold, but let’s first tackle the substantive question. Australia is currently responsible for a about 2 per cent of global emissions. Under business as usual projections, our emissions were expected to grow by 20 to 30 per cent between 2000 and 2020. If we achieve the target of 5 per cent below 2000 emission, that implies a reduction of 25 per cent relative to business as usual, 0.5 per cent of global emissions. That’s about 1 per cent of what is needed if the world is to cut total emissions by 50 per cent over the next couple of decades, as is necessary in a stabilisation scenario.

That’s a small step that is not going to solve the problem, but neither is it “so tiny as to be immeasurable”. In fact, it’s pretty typical of Australia’s weight in international affairs – small relative to the big players like the US and China, but large relative to our share of world population. As a comparison, Australia currently has about 1500 troops in Afghanistan, out of a total (ISAF and Afghan army) force of over 150 000. Would Sheridan want to argue that, since our troops are less than 1 per cent of the total, their effects are so immeasurably small that we might as well do nothing[1]. Well, no. It appears that Australia is immeasurably tiny only when we are doing things US Republicans don’t like.

I’ve appended Sheridan’s letter at the end of the post. He has a legitimate though minor point in relation to Plimer. The first draft of the article included a discussion of Plimer’s absurdities. I deleted it for space reasons, but accidentally left in an allusion to Plimer in a summary paragraph, which might give the impression that Sheridan endorsed Plimer’s views. I have no reason to doubt his denial of this, and apologise for the unintentional error.

As regards the “immeasurably small” claim, I surmised he got it from figures produced by Alan Jones which have been floating around for some time, and which, as I showed in the article, are absurdly wrong. Sheridan denies this and says, instead that he “can produce no end of scientists making that point, in roundabout ways.” However, he does not mention any names, and I think the weasel words “in roundabout ways” are pretty revealing. In the absence of any actual source, I don’t see any need to apologise for speculating. Whether Sheridan got the claim from Jones, from misinterpretation of the statements of scientists or out of thin air, it is just as wrong.

John Quiggin has misrepresented what I wrote about climate change (“Truth gets in the way”, July 7).
He alleges my source for figures I quote on greenhouse gas emissions is the broadcaster Alan Jones. I like Jones but as I live in Melbourne I never listen to him. The figures I quoted came from government documents and an uncontroversial BP statistical survey.
Contrary to Quiggin’s comments, I did not say our efforts would have no effect. I argued that the effect of a 5 per cent cut by us would be so small as to be unmeasurable. If Quiggin wants, I can produce no end of scientists making that point, in roundabout ways.
Quiggin also associates me with Ian Plimer, the scientist who rejects the consensus scientific view of global warming. I have never until today written a single word about, or inspired by, Plimer. I have never written a column about the science of climate change. I neither contest nor barrack for the consensus view.
Quiggin has every right to disagree with me, but he should pay me, and his readers, the minimal courtesy of accurately reporting views he condemns.

fn1. I leave aside the question of whether the entire war strategy is misguided, and will delete comments on this topic, as I don’t want the thread derailed.

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  1. Hermit
    July 10th, 2011 at 11:50 | #1

    We may be small but we control some powerful levers. Australia is easily the world’s biggest coal exporter and our port infrastructure means that advantage will persist. We may overtake Qatar as the world’s biggest LNG exporter and we have have the biggest uranium reserves. Surely we can influence major international energy flows.

    If Gillard can pull it off I think the carbon tax will give her credibility over Obama. She stared down the conservatives, Obama didn’t. As a note to Sheridan I find the line ‘there’s nothing we can do’ particularly weak and not in the ANZAC spirit.

  2. Mel
    July 10th, 2011 at 12:03 | #2

    I think the major significance of our contribution is that it provides an example for others to emulate. We can’t expect the developing countries to contribute to emissions control unless rich countries like Oz first set an example.

  3. ken n
    July 10th, 2011 at 13:03 | #3

    JQ – 5% below 2000 is a very big reduction compared to BAU. It certainly isn’t going to happen with a carbon tax at the level Gillard is suggesting.
    Hermit – sure, but no Australian government will stop or slow coal or LNG exports. To do so might even invite invasion – remember WW2 in the Pacific? We’ll need a lot more than the ANZAC spirit.
    Mel – I don’t think anyone will follow our example. Maybe NZ. Any significant action requires a government to inflict pain on its people – that is why tokenism will rule for quite a while.

  4. July 10th, 2011 at 13:13 | #4

    I agree with Hermit, but would go further. For reasons that I’d love to see explored in more depth Australia has produced a disproportionate share of the intellectual property in renewable energy technologies. Estimating this would be hard, but perhaps 5-10%. However, the lack of local interest has created major delays in getting these technologies developed.

    It’s not necessarily the case that this will continue, but given that it’s been going on for more than 30 years it would be unwise to assume it won’t. The creation of ARENA as part of the tax dramatically increases the chances of future home-grown technologies being developed, and exported worldwide.

  5. sam
    July 10th, 2011 at 14:52 | #5

    You might like to check out “economist” Judith Sloan’s piece on the carbon tax in the Oz. So many fallacies, so little time.

    It’s also good to see in her last paragraph she even repeats the zombie lie”Dealing with the equity considerations by compensating households mutes any behavioural impact.”

    To which I can only respond: http://twitpic.com/54l6l2

  6. John Quiggin
    July 10th, 2011 at 16:35 | #6

    Sloan has really lost it in recent years. She was always rightwing but used to be a competent economist.

  7. sam
    July 10th, 2011 at 16:46 | #7

    I think it was also her on Radio National saying that compensation is like giving smokers their cigarette tax money back. I must say the economics profession seems remarkably bad at putting this particular talking point to rest. I suppose it doesn’t help when several of your own seem to believe it.

    Sorry JQ, I had to get that particular snipe in there just once.

  8. Jill Rush
    July 10th, 2011 at 17:35 | #8

    I watched the Bolt Report this morning with my mouth agape and a sense of disgust at the tactic of making Tim Flannery look as if he accepts Andrew Bolt’s positions and then interviewing an American Professor supposedly supported by Tim Flannery. Trickery at play it seems.

    What with the self styled English Lord coming to Australia and sounding like a prize Upper Class stereotype and the American Professor Andrew Bolt dredged the bottom of the barrel.

    There have been claims that only self interested people support the concept of climate change. However the big payments for interviews to argue that the Arctic Ice isn’t melting; and even if it was it wouldn’t make any difference; or if it made a difference then it wouldn’t matter; brings up the concepts of Pot, Kettle, Blacker.

    Climate change deniers refuse to look at or can’t understand the science – much preferring Lord Monckton and his ilk as they make it seem so simple.

    Last week Lord Monckton attacked interviewers asking legitimate questions and complaining that our Football and German Clubs won’t allow him to hire a venue and that this just isn’t Australian. Of course it is – many clubs do not want to court controversy just because a Lord demands it. Every city will have a Speaker’s Corner where the weird, whacky and wonderful can expound their views.

    I am sure that I am not the only one who can work out that if I receive compensation and reduce my energy usage that I will be better off; hopefully the environment will be too: That’s what I could call a win/win.

  9. July 10th, 2011 at 21:54 | #9

    This carbon tax as end of the universe as we know it is doing a fair trot round the traps. Ken Parish at Club Troppo included Fairfax writer Michael Pascoe’s Dickensian, gloombus take, coming from the same trajectory as Sheridan.
    But others line up with Quiggin, like Bahnisch, Sauer Thompson and my mate Ricardo Tonkin at Web diary. I was glad to come to Prof. Quiggin’s series of posts on this, some beaut filling in on the esoterics of the mechanism.

  10. Peter Evans
    July 10th, 2011 at 23:01 | #10

    So tediously predictable to see the shrill ranting opposition to carbon pricing banging on, getting a free pass from any rational examination. The Right has become so tribal lately. You scratch one of these tools and almost immediately it’s apparent that they hate carbon pricing, and any rational response to global warming, almost entirely because they think it’s a left-wing issue and when the Right is off the treasury benches (or Oval Office), the reflexive hatred of anything that doesn’t conform to the official left-hating dogma bursts out of them. Of course, egged along by people with a lot of money to be made and lost. As a suit friend of mine said, “if you’re not part of the solution, there’s a ton of money to be made prolonging the problem”.

  11. Donald Oats
    July 10th, 2011 at 23:41 | #11

    The “immeasurably small” argument is such a tedious one, and the tedious are best at stating it, so it would seem. Good to see that Prime Minister Gillard and co haven’t been caught up wasting time on ad infinitum rebuttals, and have concentrated their media time on getting the message out as to what the carbon tax actually means. No doubt the local NOTW has its “rumour has it” source ready for some saucy quotes. Can’t wait to see this week’s spread of articles about the Carbon Tax, with proper balance of course.

    It seems that with all of the big ticket global problems that the left wing whinge incessantly about the problem and in the meanwhile, act; while, on the other hand, the right wing deny there exists a problem and whinge incessantly about any need to act.

    The moola to be made is in the right wing position, as demonstrated by the amply-abled whinger, Drol Monckton. Pays better than being a scientist in Australia, from the looks of it.

  12. Freelander
    July 11th, 2011 at 01:48 | #12

    Maybe Mr Sheridan would be happy to spend an hour or two in a room with only a ‘tiny fraction’ of that ‘immeasurably small’ amount of CO2 he considers such a trifle that it is not worth worrying about. I am sure that would shut him up.

  13. July 11th, 2011 at 03:14 | #13

    Freelander, wouldn’t that mean removing the oxygen, for a merely theoretical, of course, purpose of optimising of CO2 intake, for the subject?
    We are like Munchkins, celebrating the downfall of the Wicked Witch of the West.
    But who has control of the smoke and mirrors, now or in the future?
    Time should tell, but be careful little ones, lest ye be Gadarene Swine or lemmings rather than Munchkins.
    Ohhhh!!
    “Kansas, Kansas, Kansas…”.

  14. ken n
    July 11th, 2011 at 08:01 | #14

    Am I correct in reading the figure to take it that more than half of our reduction of carbon by 1020 will come from purchase of overseas abatements? That over that period our increase in emissions will slow but not stop entirely?

  15. kymbos
    July 11th, 2011 at 11:51 | #15

    “Never argue with an idiot. They’ll only drag you down to their level and beat you with experience”.

  16. jrkrideau
    July 12th, 2011 at 04:13 | #16

    @Mel

    @Mel
    Never mind the developing countries, we certainly need something to point at here in Canada. Our current federal government seems to do nothing at all about AGW (well , except say they are doing somthing).

    Good for Australia

  17. blahblah
    July 12th, 2011 at 05:19 | #17

    John Quiggin’s response to the constant denialist refrain that our contributions will have a negligible impact globally, by using the analogy of our troops in Afghanistan is a good one.

    I would also use the argument that, as the aim is for global action, anything we, or any individual nation, do will influence the momentum in the positive or negative direction.

    Proponents of a carbon tax are already citing other nations which have taken measures to reduce emissions as ammunition to the “we shouldn’t go it alone” argument, and responding that we’re not going it alone.

    The more nations that jump on board to do something about AGW, the stronger the momentum will be to join. The fewer there are, the stronger the non-action argument will be.

  18. Freelander
    July 12th, 2011 at 08:21 | #18

    Truth is that Garnaut is partisan; he believes in science and facts. Truth is that Sheridan is partisan; he works for Rupert Murdoch.

  19. Scott
    July 13th, 2011 at 07:11 | #19

    I hadn’t seen anything by Greg Sheridan for a while; I had hoped he had gone for some remedial education; clearly not. The man was a waste of column space writing about foreign affairs, and I doubt his qualities on any other topic. I’m not sure of the utility of responding to him, any more then any other News Corp ‘intellectual’.

  20. Andrew
    July 14th, 2011 at 12:59 | #20

    Another excellent article from Sheridan today…. compelling argument on why we need to be careful with this carbon tax debacle

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/commentary/bizarre-impost-will-damage-economy/story-e6frgd0x-1226094147407

  21. gerard
    July 14th, 2011 at 14:20 | #21

    Greg Sheridan is a relic of another era; the pre-WWW era when the mass distribution of opinion was expensive and limited to a handful of columnists chosen for their ability to repay the costs of its distribution by reliably parroting an establishment narrative week after week.

    Suharto as a benevolent dictator and Indonesian hero.
    IMF structural adjustment programs as a triumphant success.
    Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction program as an existential threat to the West.

    Anything that Sheridan has to say on any topic can be predicted before he even says it, Andrew’s “compelling argument” is a clear example: Australia should wait until global agreement before doing anything that might have any effect; countries X, Y and Z are doing less than Australia, therefore Australia is doing too much.

    The quality of Sheridan’s logic and argument has not improved over the last twenty years, but what has changed is that in the age of the Web we now have immediate, free access to hundreds of commentators who have vastly greater credibility, relevant expertise, and writing skills (including the ability to include hypertext citations for their arguments) than Sheridan possesses.

    While there once was a time when Sheridan could be taken semi-seriously purely due to the scarcity of voices in the media, that time has long since passed. With today’s superabundance of informed commentary, Sheridan’s output increasingly comes across as the lazy work of a lightweight hack, another of News Ltd’s media dinosaurs struggling to come to terms with their diminishing relevance.

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