Troppo author and prominent academic economist Paul Frijters has been banging away for years about how current climate change policies (including carbon pricing) are doomed to failure. The sincere (and entirely well founded) concerns of scientists and environmentalists about the likely drastic effects of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouses gases caused by human activity will continue to be thwarted for quite some time yet by an unholy alliance of fossil fuel corporations, cynical politicians and financiers. The “free rider” effect will continue to make it almost pointless for even sincerely convinced governments to take effective action, and the vast majority of people neither know nor care enough to try to work out who is telling the truth. 11. KP: Paul summarises reality as follows: There is simply this huge difference between what actually goes on and what the mainline public debate on the issue is. The general population is just not interested enough to absorb this stuff. Its too technical and buried in the appendixes of reports that are too hard for most people to understand. And at the end of the day, the population votes for growth before they vote green so they dont really want to know either. The experts all know what is going on, but even if they bother to vent their views in public, the journos have to fit their writings within the dominant story on this which is shaped by the big players. So while the underlying realities are visible for those who want to know, for the vast majority the actual issues are over-shadowed by the shouting between the big boys. And think of the incentives of the big players: the opposition is quite happy to go along with the pretence that its the carbon tax that does the job, rather than the bribes and the foreign pretence-reductions. The reason for this is that the opposition thinks the carbon tax can be spun as a vote-winner for them. The civil servants in the Climate change ministries loves the pretence because it makes it seem they are achieving something and are at the international forefront of things. Instead of being seen to have achieved nothing, they suddenly are in charge of internationally debated policies. Woohoo! Industry is happy their lobbying has paid off and they wont be asked to do anything real, so they are happy investing in the emission booms of tomorrow. The Greens have their token success and can pretend to their voters that this is the thin edge of the wedge. And the government is honouring an election pledge and its deal with their coalition partners. So all the big players go along with it for their own reasons and keep quiet about what’s lurking beneath. Similar things go on abroad. At the end of the day, our populations just don’t really care enough about something that might cause problems in the far future, so they want the politicians to pretend to be doing something as long as it doesnt interfere with business as usual. [↩]
Paul’s sundry writings on climate change together make a formidable body of work, which I will link at the foot of this post. But they’ve been given added impact by recent news about the demise of the much-discussed theory of “peak oil”, by which many hoped that physical reality would soon intervene and compel drastic reductions in human CO2 emissions through huge price increases driven by increasing resource shortage. Those hopes have now been dashed, as George Monbiot despairingly acknowledges:
Peak oil hasn’t happened, and it’s unlikely to happen for a very long time. …
So this is where we are. The automatic correction – resource depletion destroying the machine that was driving it – that many environmentalists foresaw is not going to happen. The problem we face is not that there is too little oil, but that there is too much.
We have confused threats to the living planet with threats to industrial civilisation. They are not, in the first instance, the same thing. Industry and consumer capitalism, powered by abundant oil supplies, are more resilient than many of the natural systems they threaten. The great profusion of life in the past – fossilised in the form of flammable carbon – now jeopardises the great profusion of life in the present.
There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground.
An even more stark appraisal by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone highlights both the objective seriousness of global warming and the improbability of anyone doing anything meaningful about it in the short-medium term:
Sometimes the irony is almost Borat-scale obvious: In early June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled on a Norwegian research trawler to see firsthand the growing damage from climate change. “Many of the predictions about warming in the Arctic are being surpassed by the actual data,” she said, describing the sight as “sobering.” But the discussions she traveled to Scandinavia to have with other foreign ministers were mostly about how to make sure Western nations get their share of the estimated $9 trillion in oil (that’s more than 90 billion barrels, or 37 gigatons of carbon) that will become accessible as the Arctic ice melts. Last month, the Obama administration indicated that it would give Shell permission to start drilling in sections of the Arctic.
However, McKibben’s proposed solution is almost mind-blowingly naive and improbable; declaring popular war on the oil companies by convincing the people to feel moral outrage:
So pure self-interest probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.
Leaving aside the usual “Occupy …” claque of mung bean lefties, the chances of any popular mass movement fuelled by outrage in the short to medium term are miniscule …
Leaving aside the usual “Occupy …” claque of mung bean lefties, the chances of any popular mass movement fuelled by outrage in the short to medium term are miniscule, for reasons again outlined by Paul Frijters:
On reflection, these anticipated changes in climate are very fast from a geological point of view, but from a human point of view they are painstakingly slow. You would be forgiven for not noticing any changes in your lifetime, which is of course precisely why I deem it folly to expect the world to really get anxious about this.
The world might actually get anxious when the immediately experienced consequences of global warming impact on us to such an extent that even the most obtuse Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt fan will no longer be able to swallow their nonsense. But that’s likely to be 30/50 years away and by then it will be too late to do anything to reverse quite drastic adverse change.
So what should a rational government, which believes the advice of its scientists but also recognises the real world constraints imposed by easily manipulable public opinion and short-term self-interest of powerful forces, actually do? There are some obvious and achievable policies in my view:
- Desirably keep in place the current carbon pricing regime. It’s modest in size, imposes minimal costs on the economy, and gives us the framework to respond quickly and effectively in the unlikely event of meaningful international action in the short-medium term. However the carbon price certainly should not be cranked up any further until meaningful international action occurs, and to be blunt I wouldn’t be overly concerned if Abbott gets elected with a Senate majority that allows him to abolish the current regime.
- Immediately begin implementing planning measures to progressively move housing and other infrastructure back from low-lying coastlines and tidal riverfront areas.
- Implement building regulations requiring all new housing to be engineered to cope better with extremes of heat and more frequent and intense storms. Perhaps the sorts of cyclone-resistant and thermally efficient designs now required in tropical Australia should be extended much further south.
- Invest in research and development into appropriate agricultural crops and cropping regions (e.g. parts of tropical Australia) that will allow us to future-proof our food production.
- Similarly with aquaculture. Develop (if necessary by genetic engineering) marine species which thrive in warmer more saline marine environments.
- Invest in research and development into geo-engineering solutions, so that we’re in a position to take quick desperate action when the world does eventually wake up and emerge from self-denial about the extent of the threat.
- Significantly increase our humanitarian migration intake (e.g. to at least 25,000 people per year). This quota should come not only from refugees in the Convention sense from our near north, but also in due course from countries that will in a few decades or less be affected by serious inundation e.g. Tuvalu, Maldives, Bangladesh and parts of India. Working constructively with these countries would put Australia in a strong ethical position at least, and might conceivably help to reduce the risk of invasion as climate change triggers forced mass migration not seen at least in our region in the last century if ever.
- However, as a precautionary measure we also need to maintain and increase defence readiness, which would appear to be the reverse of the short-term stance currently being taken by the Gillard government.
Anyway, as I foreshadowed at the outset of this post, here are links to Paul Frijters’ impressive body of blogosphere work on this vital issue, starting with the oldest in 2007:
- The role of collateral in global environmental action
- Was Vaclav Klaus right in fearing the climate alarmists?
- Flannery and engineering solutions to climate change
- How far are we in the science of geo-engineering?
- Carbon tax policies on both sides ignore the truth: it’s not going to help (Symbolic Climate Policies, part I)
- Symbolic Climate Policies, part II: why exempt coal exports?
- Symbolic Climate Policies, part III: how to produce climate public goods?
- Climate Change: how can we adapt?
- Gentlemen’s wagers on carbon emission policies
- Bluntly explaining Climate Change policies to the Maldives
- An update on geo-engineering and solar power prices