I am the greenhouse culprit! And so are you.

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.

Abbott’s holiday is a political misjudgement

I read on Twitter that Julie Bishop has been visiting flood-affected areas in Queensland as the Acting Opposition Leader. It took me a moment to realise the implications of this – it means that Tony Abbott is BACK ON HOLIDAY, having visited Queensland in the first week of January.

Abbott’s decision to return from Christmas leave to visit Queensland was the right thing to do, even if he squandered any political capital he earned by callously drawing a link between the cost of rescue efforts and the NBN.

However, the Opposition Leader’s decision to resume his holiday is an affront to the thousands of Australians who are struggling with the grief, loss and fear caused by the floods.

The political clumsiness of this decision is what strikes me the most. I understand the tactical reasoning for sending Bishop to Queensland. Clearly some politico saw the need to provide a conservative female counterweight to Labor’s Bligh and Gillard, both of whom have earned considerable kudos for the way they have conducted themselves during the crisis.

However, Bishop should have done so as the Deputy Liberal Leader and therefore not drawn attention to the fact that Abbott had resumed his Christmas leave.

Ideally, Abbott should have cut short his holiday altogether, even if it was considered politically prudent for him to keep a low profile.

People expect their leaders to show exemplary behaviour during times of high stress or crisis. They look to their leaders for affirmation of noble human qualities such as empathy, compassion and consolation. Most importantly, people seek reassurance from their leaders that they will not be abandoned or neglected during times of need.

While these expectations are by no means small, they can and should be met by our political leaders. While the benefits of not meeting them are variable, the cost of not doing so can be political suicide. This is the risk that Tony Abbott has brought on himself. I hope he enjoys the rest of his holiday.

Post script: Tony Abbott returned from holidays to visit Brisbane the morning after this post was written. The Opposition Leader conducted a number of electronic media interviews focussing on the adverse impact flood recovery costs would have on the Federal Budget returning to surplus. Here is an example:

The best possible [national disaster] fund is a strong Federal Government surplus. If you’ve got a strong surplus you’ve got the money available to deploy to meet any emergency and without being too political, one of the reasons why we have always urged a strong surplus and been deeply sceptical about some of this Government’s big spending programmes is because you never know when you are going to have a disaster like this that you need to cope with and there will be literally billions of dollars needed by all levels of government but especially the Federal Government in order to respond appropriately.

Tony Abbott interview with Karl Stefanovic, 13 Jan 2011 (Liberal.org.au)

And a fine complementary piece on leadership by Grog.

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