Symbolism or substance: Will a decarbonised Australian economy fix climate change?

As an old campaigner, I implicitly understand the need to condense complex matters into sound bites or slogans.  The problem with stripping the details out of an issue and reducing it to a memorable phrase is that people tend to defer to their own interpretation of what that phrase actually means.

This can be dangerous territory for a politician or party if the sound bite or slogan implies an undertaking.  While the nature of the undertaking may be clear in the mind of the spruiker, it might have an entirely different meaning to the audience.

Rudd’s lesson

Kevin Rudd learned this lesson the hard way.  During the 2007 federal election campaign, Rudd differentiated himself from John Howard on two points: he would scrap Work Choices and ratify Kyoto.  Neither Rudd nor the ALP made any effort to explain what ratification of the Kyoto protocol meant in practical terms.  They were content with the electorate inferring from this undertaking that Australia’s ratification would fix climate change.

But of course, it did not.  In reality, ratification of Kyoto granted access to a number of climate mitigation activities including a future global emissions trading scheme amongst parties to the protocol and emission credits for businesses investing in greenhouse gas reducing projects in developing countries.

After formally ratifying the Kyoto protocol, Rudd subtly shifted his language to the need for Australia to adopt an emissions trading scheme to fix climate change.  Having trusted the Prime Minister on ratification, and feeling no adverse effects, Australians were comfortable in the belief that adopting an ETS would be equally painless.

Green words not green deeds

It is important to understand that while people say they want environmental action, and that they are prepared to pay for it, their actions disprove their words.  Australian green energy schemes continue to languish in the single-digit percentages because people do not want to pay a premium for a product that has no discernable difference.  Surveys of grocery shoppers have found that the actual contents of their trolleys undermine their previously- stated preference for green products.

Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?

In reality, most people don’t want to pay more to be environmentally friendly – unless the expense can be expressed in a way that can be seen such as having a water tank or driving a hybrid car or carrying a green canvas shopping bag.

This is where Rudd came unstuck.

The point of an ETS is to wean an economy off fossil fuels.  This is done by putting a price on carbon so that fossil fuel based products become more expensive and the renewable based products start to look competitive in comparison.  That’s the economic theory.

Problems with decarbonising Australia’s economy

There are several problems with this theory for Australia.  Firstly, 80% of Australia’s electricity is generated from coal and we have coal reserves that could last for several hundred years more.   Our plentiful coal has allowed electricity prices to remain consistently low, and as a result we currently have the third lowest electricity prices in the world.

Not only have these low electricity prices brought energy intensive industries to Australia, they have contributed directly to the Australian community’s quality of life.  Around 11.5% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come from households and another 14% from transport (most of which is cars, trucks and planes).  An ETS would place cost pressure on the households to move them away from the activities and products that use fossil fuels.

Once voters began to realise this, they felt conned and unhappy.  This unhappiness has clearly been picked up by party polling, evidenced by both major parties moving to distance themselves from an ETS before the impending election.

While the ETS is now on the backburner, we will nevertheless continue to hear the latest slogan promoting the need to decarbonise the Australian economy if we are to fix climate change.

As point of substance, this contention is patently absurd.  Australia contributes less than 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  No amount of reduction in Australia will make a material difference to the phenomenon.  Even if every Australian house had solar panels, and every family drove a hybrid car and grew their own vegetables, there would hardly be a perceptible dip in global emissions.

So, as a point of symbolism, should Australia decarbonise its economy to show leadership and coax other developed nations into doing their fare share to mitigate the problem that they originally created?

If leadership leading to deep cuts in global emissions is the real objective of Australian action on climate change, then penalising Australians for their quality of life will not achieve that objective.

An unconventional solution

There is no way to stop the developing world from using coal in the foreseeable future.  These nations are rightly focused on bringing their people out of poverty and will use the most reliable, affordable and safe means of electricity generation available to them.

The International Energy Agency has projected that from the year 2000 to 2030 around $16 trillion dollars will be spent on developing and providing energy to the global population.  Over that same period, the number of people with no access at all to a reliable/commercial supply of energy will reduce from two billion to one billion.  Those of us sitting in our air-conditioned homes and offices need to bear this in mind when we nod sagely about the need to decarbonise the economy.  In 2030 there will still be people on this planet burning cow dung to heat their homes and cook their dinner.

Where does that leave Australia?  I believe we can take credible climate action that has both substance and symbolism.  Firstly we need to take the economists out of the equation – they have no interest in the human cost of their proposals.  Stop focusing on the business case too – there are too many vested business interests on either side of the climate change debate for the market to sort this out.

My solution lets all Australians feel involved, with minimal financial pain, and with greenhouse gas reductions being deployed where they are needed most.

Firstly, impose a greenhouse levy on all taxpayers in the same manner as the Medicare levy, which currently raises around $8 billion each year.  Attaching the levy to income ensures that those who earn more will pay more, and those who are disadvantaged or unemployed will not pay at all.

Secondly, use the funds to develop and deploy clean energy projects in the developed world – particularly those countries that have the potential to contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions in future.  In doing so, the Australian people would be getting more global greenhouse action for their dollar than they could ever hope to achieve at home.

Does this proposal make economic sense? No.  Does it make business sense? No.  Does it make sense in terms of Australia being a leader and making deep cuts in greenhouse emissions? Yes.

Maybe its time we changed the way we looked at climate change in Australia, and even the world.

Conned or captured? Voter sentiment and Rudd’s demise

A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, swindle or bamboozle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence. The victim is known as the mark, the trickster is called a confidence man, con man, confidence trickster, or con artist, and any accomplices are known as shills. Confidence men or women exploit human characteristics such as greed and dishonesty, and have victimized individuals from all walks of life.

http://www.Wikipedia.com

It seems that many people are stunned by the swiftness with which Kevin Rudd was despatched. Events over the past couple of days have diverted us from being stunned by the speed with which the Australian public turned on the Prime Minister.

I believe the Australian community became deeply angry at Rudd because they finally realised they were the victims of a confidence trick.

It’s interesting how we all love a Hollywood con artist but not the real thing. We delight in watching tv shows and movies that depict an unsuspecting but usually deserving schmuck being skilfully taken for a ride. Our anticipation ratchets with every deceptive twist and turn until we give a satisfied chuckle as the realisation dawns on the “mark” that their perception of reality is far from the ugly truth.

We’re entertained by the glamorous con even though we know that grifters who operate in the real world target the gullible, the weak and the unprotected. When faced with stories of real exploitation, we take the side of righteousness, nod in agreement when the ghouls of the foot-in-door media expose the conmen and cheer when they are entrapped or hunted down.

I believe it’s this righteous undercurrent in Australian voter sentiment that led to the dramatic drop in Kevin Rudd’s popularity, as measured by both public and private opinion polls. Voters felt angry and wanted retribution because they felt like a mark struck with the growing realisation they were the subject of a long con.

Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to the 2007 election as Howard-lite. The significance of this strategy cannot be downplayed. Howard did not retain government for nearly 12 years because of his popularity. His electoral appeal was, ironically, grounded in trust. Whether voters liked him or not, whether they supported his policies or not, they trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. And Howard did not betray this trust until he let the power of Senate majority go to his head and he self-indulged his philosophical yearning for IR reform.

Rudd studiously capitalised on Howard’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. He framed himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

Tragically for Rudd, and surprisingly for an experienced diplomat, he made the grave mistake of exaggerating the difference that Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol would materially make to global climate change. He should have known full well that ratification meant putting a price on carbon, that this could lead to painful structural change in the Australian economy, and that China and India would not countenance climate action until they had brought their people out of poverty.

Rudd could never deliver on climate change but he promised the Australian people that he could and would. This is only the most prominent of several examples. Like any confidence man, Rudd convincingly promised things that would realise voters’ dreams and others that would allay their fears. The fact that voters eventually saw the small man behind the curtain will always overshadow the fact that he actually did deliver on some of those promises.

By playing a confidence game with the Australian people, instead of being honest with them, Rudd squandered their trust, optimism and (somewhat begrudging) respect.

Perhaps this anger would not have been so intense if the electorate had felt they had been provided with a credible alternative at whose feet they could throw their protest vote. However, voter antipathy for Abbott shows they felt both conned and captured by Rudd’s sleight of hand.

Clearly the ALP apparatchiks who took action this week saw the truth of the matter. They saw the growing number of voters, once vividly depicted by Premier Wayne Goss during Keating’s reign, waiting on their verandas with baseball bats to deal with the Prime Minister who had let them down. So they took their bats to him first.

This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.

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