What to do about Greenhouse: or Sam Roggeveen on Martin Wolf on climate change: how depressed should we be, and what can be done – Part Two

sahara projectI concluded my last post on this topic with asking rhetorically whether I was optimistic that we’ll find our way through, and what measures might be taken to maximise our chances of a happy ending. Here’s the second part of the argument which was published in an edited form on the Lowy Blog.

Firstly some reasons for optimism.

  • The establishment of even a small carbon price (even if it’s insufficient to reduce emissions as much as we’d like) is actually very worthwhile because it creates incentives for technology change that are substantially greater than the existing incentives to just economise on fossil fuels. There’s often a surprisingly big difference in incentives between a bit and nothing. Particularly in the long run as firms choose between existing technology options and also consider investments in building new technologies. And uncertainty about future carbon prices imparts option value to carbon abatement technology.
  • I also think that if US politics hadn’t gone so toxic we would be a lot further down the track. I’m not expecting US politics to get less toxic in a hurry but I think over time, the votes going to the centre (which is to the Democrats, on any reasonable reading) meaning that the Republicans may be forced to become less extreme. Huge progress has been possible on ‘social’ issues like gay marriage. So things may change quite fast at some stage though exactly when is hard to anticipate. Just as virtually no-one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, I don’t know too many people who were predicting a year or so ago that even Republicans would come under political pressure on gay marriage. The pundits will keep getting paid for overconfidence in making predictions (studies suggest that if you want to convince people that you know what you’re talking about, the most effective and easiest way to do so is to be overconfident rather than to actually know what you’re talking about).

So what does this mean for the sort of position Australia should adopt in the situation we find ourselves in?  In short, given that the letter of international agreements like Kyoto will be breached or their words will be hedged in with weasel words it’s important to protect the spirit of such agreements. And that has direct implications for individual countries that want to make progress. Firstly we should be prepared to relax our own attention to the letter of the agreement and prepared to breach aspects of the letter of agreements that poorly reflect our own and/or the world’s legitimate interests (for instance where it’s likely that carbon pricing will simply shift production to laxer countries without global gains in emissions abatement, we should allow emissions intensive exports easier access to abatement than other domestic emitters. At the same time our negotiations and delivery on commitments should reflect generous conditionality something which the conditionality in our own offers within the UNFCCC reflects to some extent.

I put forward some ideas in the spirit of the principles set out above in thinking of Australia’s interests in a post-Kyoto world here.  I think there’s another important point to make about democratic politics and the culture of what I’ve called ‘vox pop democracy‘ (pdf). The thing about climate change (and I think this is true of a whole suite of things) is the disparity between people’s views in general and their views once subjected to various propaganda campaigns.

There was a very strong majority of the Australian population in favour of taking action on climate change in 2007. But once our adversarial politics gets into this, the consensus falls apart. One of the major parties opposes what most experts and considered reasonable people think is worth doing. Instead it’s in the interests of the Opposition to argue the opposite. After all, if they go along, the Government will generally get the credit for the leadership it’s apparently showing in taking the country forward and making hard decisions. It turns out that it’s in the Opposition’s interest to oppose government policy even where most informed people think the Government is right, perhaps even where most of the people think it’s right. After all, if it goes along, how will the Opposition get its view into the public consciousness? How will it put political pressure on the Government.

Now a bipartisan consensus can often hold against vested interests. But once this situation arises, it’s no longer in the Opposition’s interests to play along. Whereupon the process of undermining community sentiment about something which begins apace. After all, if it’s about economic reform it’s an abstract and complex subject. And lots of effort can be expended emphasising uncertainties, nursing resentments, breaking the law to obtain emails and then using them to smear scientists’ motivations etc. Who cares that careful investigation showed that these emails didn’t illustrate what they were taken to illustrate? By then the caravan has moved on.

Other areas where there’s been strong consensus based around expert opinion which have then been exploited by oppositions – include tax reform of virtually every hue from the mining tax to CGT, FBT and GST reform.

Is there an antidote to all this? ‘Popular opinion’ is nothing more than what everyone thinks about something at a given time. But at any given time, most people don’t know much about it. So their opinion doesn’t count for much as far as making an informed decision. The trouble is, if one simply delegates the decision to an elite – as we do with monetary policy or judge made law for instance – then there can be questions of democratic legitimacy.  Of course if elites behave well, then things work out – and indeed people can be brought to support such elites – as most of us would defend the judiciary, or monetary policy independence.

But we have one time honoured institution in which we establish a special purpose democratic elite. A jury is a random selection of ordinary people who we ask to turn themselves into a cognitive elite regarding a particular matter – a legal case – with a view to their making a determination regarding the facts.  This cuts through the weaknesses of ‘vox pop democracy’. Such people have access to ‘experts’ and, in discussion with each other, can make up their own mind. They have minimal incentives to do otherwise, their career does not depend on their decision.

Notice how little shock jocks claim that juries are out of touch or question their authority for they are one of the most unimpeachably democratic institutions we have. So I’d like to see this kind of deliberative democracy brought into the kinds of issues I’ve discussed above to at the very least influence democratic decision making. I’d be happy to set up a carbon pricing system and then give some important role in managing the price to 150 Australians chosen by ‘representative sortition’ (random selection subject to representative quotas for ratios regarding age, location, gender etc).

For illustration’s sake one might establish an expert body to issue a report with  recommendations in it and the citizen’s assembly would then deliberate and decide what course of action to take. The body would be permanent, but each year a third of its members would be replaced. They’d be given the resources they need to consider the issues (access to experts, the Parliamentary Library and the time to deliberate) and then they’d decide on the carbon price.

This would be very disruptive of the worst pathologies of our current system which give vested interests great power where the foundations of that power rest on the public’s ‘rational apathy’ about getting informed (we can’t all get to the bottom of all public issues to be responsible voters), vested interests abilities to manipulate uninformed opinion and the careerism which prevents so many people of good conscience from supporting the right side because of allegiances to employers, political party or whatever. (Choices to give one’s allegiance to such collectives are typically driven by motives of careerism).

Developing institutions of deliberative democracy such as the one outlined here is one of the few ways I can think of to give us a fighting change of developing the democratic resources to start disrupting tyranny of vox pop democracy to give our future a chance against the 24 second news cycle.

 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
15 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Adam
Adam
8 years ago

Nicholas

I would argue a reason for optimism are cost trends for different renewable energy generation mechanisms, I guess a follow-on to your first dot-point. Rather than having to worry about the politics of climate change, fossil fuels will likely simply be increasingly displaced by renewables whose costs continue to be reduced by a virtuous cycle of investment and efficiency gains.

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam

Only if we don’t try to hard to help – viz the EU.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

Nicholas
I think that your idea would need a population that was much more scientifically literate, no?

The collapse in support for Carbon taxes is partly down to the fact that ,for many, we are in a depression .
I would suggest that another factor is that it looks like yet another of the insincere great moral challenges, for the sake of make activity, that Labor seems to specialise in these days.

derrida derider
derrida derider
8 years ago

There’s often a surprisingly big difference in incentives between a bit and nothing. Particularly in the long run …

A point that bears repeating repeatedly. In general, price elasticities of supply of energy are low in the short run (you have to use existing production), moderately high in the medium term (you substitute production between existing technologies) but high in the long run (the lure of profit means you develop new technologies).

That is the argument for starting early but modestly on pricing carbon – if you leave it any longer you need much stronger action to be effective. Unfortunately we’ve already wasted twenty or thirty years (thanks a heap, denialists). If we leave it much longer we really will need a “great big new tax on everything”.

Ian Milliss
8 years ago

The New Democracy Foundation has been promoting citizen juries and other innovative participatory decision making processes for some. Politicians have a tendency to support them only after they have lost power. http://www.newdemocracy.com.au/

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago
Reply to  Ian Milliss

Ian you will start another Switzerland stoush , if you are not careful .

Ian Milliss
8 years ago

some time
I meant.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
8 years ago

Nick,

you are trying too much in one post here, I think. Whilst I agreed with almost every sentence of part one, I find myself disagreeing with much of this one so we clearly take different conclusions from an almost identical view of the problem!

Let me suffice with two remarks:
-the way in which the carbon price is implemented is in fact the same as an increase in the price of fossil fuels (the carbon accounting basically just adds up the fossil fuels used). Indeed, the technicalities of the accounting (the ‘usual technology’ presumption on the actual use of fossil fuels) means a disincentive for firms with very low efficiency to upgrade (only upgrades far above median levels get subsidised). So no, it is not the case that the current scheme is better than nothing. It really is just smoke and mirrors and in some ways it is worse than nothing.
– we too are weasiling, right at this moment. Buying up spare European emission rights wont abate anything. Its just a free gift to Europe.

In short, I think you are being too generous to our current policies.

derrida derider
derrida derider
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

Buying up spare European emission rights wont abate anything.

Won’t buying up European permits drive their price up, and hence (marginally) abate European emissions? Or have I missed something here?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
8 years ago

yep, you’re missing something here. These are spare rights that otherwise would not be on the market (otherwise the price would drop to zero). Only in a far-flung future maybe would buying up these spare rights (of which there are something like 3 years worth of the total Australian emissions) drive up prices then.

James
James
8 years ago

Demarchy.