There’s a great video that does the rounds every now and then showing a young woman collecting signatures on a petition to ban a substance with an unfamiliar scientific name. When questioned by potential petitioners, she replies that the substance is “a chemical found in reservoirs and lakes”, that “pesticides, nuclear and styrofoam companies are using it”, that it “ends up in babies’ food” and that it “causes excess sweating and urination”.

The scenario is a set-up and the young woman is actually talking about water. She has no trouble getting signatures because she uses terms that have been proved by market research to provoke an emotional reaction in the listener. Such terms can generate feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and sometimes fear. These feelings motivate the listener to take defensive action, on this occasion by signing the petition.

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, tried to do the same thing earlier this week. He used a number of key words and phrases, honed by researchers in sympathetic think tanks such as the Climate Institute and the Australia Institute, to create the same sense of powerlessness about climate change, and hopefully to drive anxious Australians into the arms of Greens recruiters.

Brown talked about the coal industry’s “excess profits”, they were the “culprits” of natural disasters, the industry is “75% owned outside Australia”, and that the version of the mining tax agreed by Labor with the industry “would cost Australians $35 billion in foregone revenue.”

On this occasion, Brown misjudged the timing of his polemic. Australians were already feeling anxious and powerless in the face of natural forces and, when presented with Brown’s comments, were outraged by his attempt to exploit their vulnerability to score a cheap political point.

The additional irony is the factual inaccuracies in Brown’s ill-judged comments. Australia’s entire mining industry (coal and metals) directly generates 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gases. Our electricity, gas & water sectors account for 36.6%, agriculture 20.9%; manufacturing accounts for 12.6%; and services, construction & transport 10.5%.

Households generate 9.4%. But that isn’t the whole picture.

It has been estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that
Australian households are responsible, either directly or indirectly through the consumption of goods and services that require energy to produce, for the generation of most of our energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (around 56%), mainly through household electricity use (about 17%) and motor vehicle use (about 12%).

That makes you and me the real greenhouse culprits.

So if Bob Brown was genuine about sharing the cost burden for greenhouse action, what would he be doing? He would be telling Australians that:

  • they should get rid of that second fridge or the freezer/bar fridge in the garage
  • each house should have only one small television and one computer
  • no electrical appliance should have a stand-by function and all would need to be switched on and off at the outlet
  • people who wish to use electricity at peak times should pay more for it
  • they should build smaller homes and increase the amount of people living in each house
  • petrol should be raised to $2 a litre and 6-8 cylinder cars should be banned from Australian roads
  • the use of aluminium and concrete in building and manufacturing should be banned due to the high amount of greenhouse gases generated during their production
  • Australia should stop growing food more food than it needs (currently Australia exports 60% of the food it grows).

But Brown will not advocate these actions because they will not win the Greens members or votes.

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Join the conversation! 14 Comments

  1. Another most excellent gauntlet, thrown with precision down at DrB’s feet, DG.
    I hope a more considered policy response is forthcoming.
    They can do it when they do not shoot from the Lip

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  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Martin Eddy, Drag0nista and Miss Eagle. Miss Eagle said: Dragonista doesn't pull a punch in this post: I am the greenhouse culprit! And so are you.: http://t.co/CqQwKfk #climate […]

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  3. Do nothing argument buried deep in hyperbole. Critical yet no solution.

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  4. I don’t dispute your take on the politics of it – Bob Brown was off the mark – but I think you’re missing part of the picture.

    Basically, if we want to reduce greenhouses gases you can boil it down to three options:

    1. Reduce the population. Not something anyone sane would suggest, but something that some nutjobs like to put in the mouths of the green movement.

    2. Reduce consumption (affluence). The Clive Hamilton argument I guess, but though I identify as green I also like my civil liberties too much to want to enforce this on anyone. But I think that in some cases policy should be supportive of reduced consumption, for example by dropping tax breaks for company car usage.

    3. Improve technology. By this I mean both improving end-use (e.g. appliance) efficiency, like the energy rating (stars) system, and by improving the source of the energy. For households, that’s largely stationary energy generation (yes, coal, I’m looking at you) and transport fuels.

    If you accept that change is needed, and I’m not sure that you do, the biggest impact governments can make is by phasing in clean(er) energy sources and by regulating efficiency. It’s mostly the latter we’ve been doing as far as households go, for example by introducing house energy ratings and appliance energy ratings. This is effective – in the past 12 months I’ve upgraded (upsized) both my fridge and my TV and it’s resulted in a net drop in my energy use. So I think that your argument there is a little underinformed in that respect.

    I fully acknowledge that coal and mining in general is largely responsible for the wealth that most of us enjoy. But if we accept the need for change, we need to phase coal out of our own energy supply (overlooking sequestration). That will have the end effect as confiscating every second fridge. I think that Bob Brown was using the floods as an (ill-informed) angle to make that point (which he didn’t do very well).

    Kat (@koosli)

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  5. I’m at a loss to understand where the ‘outrage’ is that you speak of. Most of us know that the coal industry (fueled by Australian coal whether it’s burnt here or elsewhere) makes a large contribution to global warming; higher temperatures lead to more unstable climate; and that instability will cause more floods of the scale we’ve witnessed in the last month or so.
    For a politician to raise the prospect of those who profit from that timeline to contribute to fixing the cost of it is no different to raising the topic of tobacco companies paying to offset the costs of their industry and its effects.
    And he’s just the leader of a minor party. He raised the topic. Raising topics for discussion within the community and the parliament is part of his job. I’d be outraged if he didn’t do his job, as I am sure many would be.

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    • I’ll defer to Grog for my response:

      Brown is suggesting the coal companies are to the QLD floods like James Hardie is to Mesothelioma. It would be lovely it were so easy, but it is not.

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  6. Worth remembering as well that the Greens are strong supporters of a strong ETS or Carbon Tax, the intent of which is not to force people do the things you dot-point but to introduce a price signal into markets that result in people making those kind of choices on their own, to save on electricity bills, as well as there being a greater incentive for companies to produce energy efficient products, as well as using less energy in the manufacture of products. While there are lefties in Australia that would prefer more direct intervention they certainly aren’t currently dictating the Greens’ policy on this issue.

    That said, i agree that the politics here are pretty dumb. As Grog has pointed, out it leaves the door open for The Australian and the Liberal party to politicise the floods and simultaneously be sanctimonious about people on the left doing the same. Or certainly it makes it easier for them to do what they probably would’ve done anyway. It also makes it look like they’re just floating thought bubbles rather than giving serious thinking to serious issues. Again i think it was Grog who pointed out this is the second time that Bob Brown has “spent” the proceeds of the mining tax.

    On the choice of words, i’d be very surprised if the Greens have that level of PR research, but you’d probably have a better idea than me. I’d have assumed it more likely that who ever wrote Bob’s statement was just riffing off familiar troupes common to left wing politics. Hence their use by the Climate and Australia Institutes as well.

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    • I know for a fact that both the Climate Institute and Australia Institute both do extensive market research.

      And I understand your point about the price on carbon, but it has to be very high before it will achieve the behavioural changes it is meant to bring about.

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  7. Top notch. I lead a fairly tight carbon-footprint lifestyle for a denizen of the Global North. Don’t drive; no air con; few gadgets; wash clothes off peak etc. My favourite all time mythbusters: people who are anti mining yet have no idea how their iThings & other paraphenalia are made, or how little they need them.

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  8. Really? I think the Greens have a whole basket of market researched terms that they use regularly. Such is the way of modern politics these days 🙂

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  9. There’s one good argument here and that’s on timing, the rest is badly wrong.

    Water – The water story only works because water is harmless. Global warming isn’t.

    The industry percentages are like saying the tobacco growing industry was responsible for very few deaths – it was actually the cigarette industry and smokers. This is technically true but disingenuous. Your ‘direct’ percentage of 10% ignores ignores that around 3/4 of Australian electricity generation is from coal and this goes across all sectors. In fact there is no indirect. Every single lump of coal sold is going to create C02. The coal industry is also actively involved in lobbying for coal powered stations. You also ignore that coal exports also produce CO2 and as the effects are global, this also affects us as much as domestic CO2 production.

    As far as the consumer is concerned, they have an extrinsic interest in coal while the coal industry has an intrinsic interest. We can live with a lot less coal than the coal industry can. As long is my water is hot, it doesn’t matter if it’s because of coal, gas, solar or whatever. And as Kat points out efficiency is key – an efficient fridge keeps beer just as cold as an inefficient one. But what consumers are deprived of or penalised for is choice . Here in WA green power is charged at a higher rate than CO2 producing power. And the first adopters of solar have to pay their own way in reducing emissions that others aren’t worrying about.
    And this is the nub of Bob Brown’s argument. CO2 is an externality which isn’t being paid for by the people that produce or use it and often those who use it less incur a penalty. As global warming increases we’ll all be paying for the tidy up of extreme weather events.
    One one way of making this fairer is fixing a price to C02 use is to fix a price on carbon – the more you create the more you pay. This is a market solution. Ironically the only people arguing for a command economy solution , ironically, are right wing Liberal skeptics and the National Party. The reason Bob Brown doesn’t tell people they have to do all that is because a prescriptivist solution is nonsense and they can make up their own minds once carbon has a price.

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  10. I think you’re telling a half-truth when you separate household electricity from mining- Remember that electricity generation is primarily through the burning of coal, so it is impossible to separate the two.

    …and just as I write this I see Anthony has written the same, in a much better fashion. +1 to his comments.

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About Drag0nista

Political blogger and columnist on the interwebs. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989. Otherwise known as Paula Matthewson.

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