Crunch time for carbon sceptics
That’s the title of my piece on the passing of the carbon price/tax legislation, in Thursday’s Fin. It’s over the fold
Crunch time for carbon sceptics
Australia finally has the price on carbon first proposed by John Howard in 2007. Although passage of the Clean Energy Act by the Senate was little more than a formality, it has already changed the terms of debate.
Every day that passes from now on will put the advocates of denial, delusion and delay in a less and less tenable position. While denouncing mainstream science as ‘alarmist’, this group, has long predicted that a carbon price will bring about an economic disaster. As recently as this July, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell predicted a ‘carbon catastrophe’, a prediction echoed by rightwing think tanks and commentators.
But now that the carbon price is in place, these predictions will be put to the test. With less than eight months to go before the policy is implemented, anyone who seriously believed these claims should be predicting an immediate collapse in investment, and acting accordingly. But among the postmodernists who pass for conservative thinkers in Australia today, any such notion of intellectual consistency is obsolete and old-fashioned.
Already, those who once predicted economic disaster are walking those predictions back. Tony Abbott’s website, for example, states that ‘On the Government’s own figures, three million Australian households will be worse off under the carbon tax.’ Since Abbott doesn’t challenge those figures, he presumably accepts the corollary that the other 5 million households will be better off. Abbott has to fall back on the rather desperate claim that ‘while the tax will increase in the future, the compensation won’t’, a claim that does not suggest much confidence in his own electoral prospects.
Meanwhile, the scientific evidence continues to mount up. A striking recent example was the publication of a report by a team led by one of the few serious scientists sceptical of the mainstream view, Richard Muller. With strong support from other self-described ‘sceptics’, Muller and his team undertook a reanalysis of climate data using 1.6 billion measurements from more than 39,000 temperature stations. Somewhat to his surprise, his results were an almost perfect match for those already reported by climate scientists.
The reaction of the ‘sceptics’ was revealing. Without exception, they rushed to denounce Muller. Clearly the term ‘sceptic’ is inappropriate here. These are ‘true disbelievers’, who will never be convinced by evidence of any kind.
Of course, as those who urged a do-nothing stance on Australia never ceased to point out, we are a small country, accounting around 2 per cent of total emissions. Our efforts will make only a modest difference. The big emitters like the US, China and India are far more important.
None of these countries is likely to introduce an explicit carbon price any time soon. That’s unfortunate, since an economy-wide carbon price is a much more cost-effective way of reducing than the direct action to which Tony Abbott is supposedly committed.
Nevertheless, there are some encouraging developments. In October, without much fanfare, China introduced a nationwide feed-in tariff for solar photovoltaic electric power. China has apparently learned the lesson of many other governments, including that of India, which offered high feed-in tariffs on a limited basis, only to see their schemes massively oversubscribed. The tariff has been set at 1 RMB (about 15 cents) per kilowatt hour. If solar PV can be delivered to the grid at that price, the economic cost of transition to a low carbon economy will be far below current estimates.
Meanwhile the US is taking the direct action route. New fuel efficiency standards announced by President Obama in July will require that fuel consumption of new cars is reduced to an average 54.5 miles per gallon (4.3 l/100km) by 2025. And in the next few weeks, the Environmental Protection Authority will announced regulations limiting CO2 emissions from power stations. These measures should ensure that the recent decline in US emissions continues into the future.
As in Australia, a change in government may see these steps reversed. But, also as in Australia, the intellectual collapse of the right is reflected in political confusion. The disarray in the Republican Presidential field reflects the fact that any candidate who is even minimally serious about the issues is unacceptable to the Republican base. Obama now beats all the Republican contenders in ‘match-up’ polls, though he would lose to a ‘generic Republican’ if only one could be found.
If the world had moved a decade ago, we would now be well on the way to stabilising the global climate. There is still time to achieve that goal at moderate economic cost. Australia, at last, has taken its first big step along that path.