Ken Henry as climate scientist — is the game shifting to ‘reducing emissions’?

It is only a coincidence that today’s post starts with a reference to another Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, whom I have never met, to the best of my knowledge, and who went to UNSW, not UNE — though he is another country boy (Taree), like Bernie Fraser (Junee) and me (Armidale). I heard him on the ABC suggesting that an emissions trading scheme is far and away the best way to reduce emissions — every economist thinks so, he added. He didn’t say, at least on air, that we ought to reduce emissions, but that was at least the message I heard.

Now to be fair, economists are people who look at what you want to do, and suggest the better way to do it. Ross Garnaut, whom Henry mentioned, is a good example. Nicholas Stern is another. But it is not long before the economist is drawn into defending not merely the mechanism he or she has suggested, but the purpose for which the mechanism was suggested, and both Garnaut and Stern have become ‘believers’ or at least ‘defenders’, and not simply of their proposed mechanisms.

There is a widespread view, it seems to me, that ’emissions’ ought to be reduced. ‘Emissions’ sound dirty, and can be connected with ‘pollution’, as they indeed were in the phrase ‘carbon pollution’, much used by the previous Labor governments. And, given that the present Government doesn’t like the word ‘carbon’, at least in the phrase ‘carbon tax’, it may be that the game is shifting to a softer, more appealing phrase — ‘reducing emissions’. I’ve heard people argue that it’s a good thing to do anyway, even if it doesn’t much affect global warming. If you ask them why, you get a hand-waving expression of virtue: we should be better stewards of the planet, there’s too much dirt, too many gaping holes left by miners, we need to clean up the world, pure air is important, and so on. ‘It’s just a good thing to do anyway,’ they’ll say.

It’s probably time for those of us who are sceptical that carbon taxes and their like could have any beneficial effect on our society (and who are still waiting to be shown that the earth is actually warming and, if it is, that the warming will be catastrophic, or even harmful) to put in a good word or two about the likely benefits of leaving carbon dioxide emissions alone. For those who worry about it all, let us start with the recurring television image of what appears to be smoke belching from power station chimneys, especially the wide-based ones. What you see there is actually steam and water vapour, and has nothing to do with carbon dioxide.

Even the real smoke issuing from real chimneys is not carbon dioxide: it is a mixture of particulate matter, like soot, and other partly burned residues of whatever the fuel was. It also contains quite nasty gases like carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. CO2 is certainly there, but invisible. Australian power station chimneys employ ‘scrubbers’ to ensure that what goes into the air is as clean as possible. A minimum of 95 per cent of particles, and most of the gases, are removed. We have done a pretty good job of reducing those emissions. Plainly some other countries, like China, have a long way to go, but they will do it in time, too, as we did. In the meantime, more carbon dioxide has meant a greener world, as some Australian scientists showed recently (and yes, in a peer-reviewed paper too).

Carbon dioxide is neither visible nor a pollutant in any way. It is the essential food for all plants, and therefore the basis for all animal life that depends on plants, our own life included. I drove a lot through forests over the last few weeks, and it was salutary to realise that every tall eucalypt that I saw owed its height, strength and mass to the carbon dioxide that it drew from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. I am in favour of planting trees too, but my approval is based on the microclimates that trees generate, the way they keep water in the soil through their shade, and their beauty. Yes, they extract carbon dioxide from the air, but it is a loan only, because the tree will eventually die, burn or be chopped down, and over time that carbon dioxide will return to the air.

So why are we agonising about ‘reducing emissions’? Well, it is code, I think, for The Great Problem: humanity’s supposed despoiling of the planet, as the extreme environmentalists see it. I know that Mr Henry is a protector of wombats, just as I have a certain sympathy for the huntsman spider. But that doesn’t make me a believer in AGW, and I hope that Mr Henry has enough commonsense to recognise that there really isn’t any compelling reason to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

But, like Mr Fraser, he may have become a ‘believer’, in which case he will have abandoned common-sense for faith and an attraction to theory, because that is really all AGW is based on, untested theory.

I finish with an oldie but goodie. The King summoned his Economist to complain that people were unhappy, unemployment was high, productivity was low and revenue was shrinking. He asked for a policy, and the Economist, after due consideration provided a prescription for what should be done and the way it should be handled. The King did not like the proposal, and followed his own commonsense. A year later he recalled the Economist.

‘I didn’t much like your prescription, he said, ‘so I followed my own hunch — and you see, it worked! The people are now happy, everyone is in work, productivity is right up there, and revenue is rolling in to the Royal coffers!’

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ replied the Economist dismissively. ‘That’s all very well. But where’s the theory?’

Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Yes, they’re still the same goalposts. They used to be called AGW and CAGW, and Bob Carter now calls it DAGW (“dangerous AGW”). Such terminology was too direct, so “climate change” became the new term for the same goalposts. You may be right, Don, that “emissions reduction” is emerging as the new term, for just as “global warming” started to lose its credibility when the darned planet refused to keep warming in total lack of consideration for the very people who were caring for it so tenderly, so “climate change” may be losing its sheen as those cold and wet northern winters persist and the ocean rise becomes even more lackadaisical.

    So let’s just change the name of the goal posts; nobody will notice, will they?

  • Don Amoore says:

    I feel the whole problem has always been in the “antropoginic” bit, ie too many people- so an “emissions reduction” applied to human procreation could be the best solution to all our problems

  • David says:


    “Carbon dioxide is neither visible nor a pollutant in any way.”

    Nice try. 🙂

    The whole point of the AGW debate is to determine whether CO2 in concentrations greater than 400ppm should be regarded a pollutant. Simply asserting that CO2 isn’t a pollutant just waltzes around the whole issue.

    Any substance can become a “pollutant” in certain concentrations,
    even the essentials for life such as oxygen or water. For example patients in
    hospital with obstructive airways disease are monitored for oxygen toxicity and
    people who drink large quantities of water will suffer from hyponatremia, which can cause seizures.

    PS in my view Ken Henry is a national treasure!

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Fair point. But I do think Don also has a point about how the issue has been presented here very often, as it really has been here in Australia, that any additional carbon dioxide is polluting the atmosphere. Actually, here in the antipodes we go further, we forget about the dioxide bit, and just call it carbon! And you’re right, Ken is a good bloke, but that doesn’t mean I agree with him on everything. As I suspect I don’t with you. But I think you’re worth knowing.

      David, may I digress? What do you want? What sort of world would you like to see? (I think it’s a world I would probably like to see, but perhaps the real issue we need to consider together, is how we might get there.)

      And for goodness sake, keep posting. I’d be upset if you didn’t, and I wouldn’t know why you’d stopped.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      Why do you think ‘the whole point of the AGW debate is to determine whether CO2 in concentrations greater than 400ppm should be regarded a pollutant’? Historically I doubt that you can show that at all plausibly. The 400 ppm mark is simply roughly where we are now,while the AGW scare was (several years ago) that the warming was unstoppable and would lead to catastrophe for the planet and its life, ours especially. I don’t recall anyone saying a few years ago that above 400 ppm CO2 would be a true pollutant. If I’m wrong please show me.

      The 2 degreeC addition, as some kind of unpassable barrier, is likewise a recent development, and has no basis in science or even in politics, other than it was a figure that could be agreed upon.

      I agree that any substance can become injurious in certain circumstances, but that is not the essence of the AGW scare.

      • David says:

        Ok Don

        For you benefit I will restate

        “.. the whole point of the AGW debate is to determine whether CO2 in concentrations greater Xppm should be regarded a pollutant”

        The issue is Don, some people think CO2 in higher concentrations is a pollutant and others do not. Its all about context.

        In low dose warfarin is used to treat atrial fibrillation in people and in higher doses it is used to kill rats. My point is that no one can simply say something is or is not a pollutant.

        “I agree that any substance can become injurious in certain circumstances, but that is not the essence of the AGW scare.”
        No that is precisely the essence of the AGW “scare” as you call it.

        • DaveW says:

          Ok David

          For you[r] benefit I will restate

          CO2 is a naturally occurring gas and the debate is about if an infinitesimally small ppm in the atmosphere doubles to a slightly less infinitesimally small ppm in the atmosphere then will the Earth as we know it be destroyed? The CAGW people say yes, but they have no proof, only shonky models and lots of bloody shirt waving. The ‘context’ is a naked grab for power. It has nothing to do with science.

          O2 is by far the most dangerous gas in the atmosphere, but we wouldn’t be here without it (or without CO2 either). Yes, too much O2 is bad, but its variation by a few ppm is not worth worrying about. Too much water is bad too, but are the oceans just giant sewers? (The answer is yes, but not because of the water.)

          To quote you “My point is that no one can simply say something is or is not a pollutant.” In that case, you cannot claim CO2 is a pollutant. Where did you learn logic? I think you need to stand back and ask yourself why you care so much about a bloody shirt being waved by a host of charlatans who only want to control your life for their own benefit, and not for any benefit to the planet or to future generations.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            I give up! Of course, anything in excess is bad for you. But it is not at all clear that higher levels of CO2 are bad for plants, animals or the ecosystem generally.They certainly haven’t been so far. Until that is settled, referring to CO2 as a pollutant, now, is excessive.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            My giving up was in relation to David’s comment, not DaveW’s!

          • David says:


            These sorts of a priori arguments about what is a “small”
            or ‘large” concentration need some context. For example arsenic in proportions greater than 10ppm in the blood stream will cause death. So should arsenic concentrations of 15ppm be considered “small” or “large”? Depends on the person, I suppose.

            You also argue that I “… cannot claim CO2 is a pollutant.”

            I don’t.

            I claim, that CO2 above a certain concentration is a pollutant.

            Since you ask, my logic is the product of a good public school education.

  • Morph says:

    Contrary to denialist groupthink, the concept of catastrophic global warming is based on real science and reinforced by the current and growing body of scientific knowledge.
    In fact, the entire world is growing in understanding and acceptance of this reality as the earth’s climate changes at greater rates. It will only be a few more years before all discussion regarding globalist/one world order/random John Birch society paranoid fantasies of climate scientist conspiracy theories will be met with rolling eyes and derisive laughter.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      That PNAS paper is now some six years old, and a lot has happened since then, like the acceptance by ‘real science’ that warming has not continued to grow as carbon dioxide accumulations have done. The control knob that CO2 was thought to be is now plainly not the case, but ‘climate science’ does not yet have an explanation that is other than a guess.

      Perhaps you should do some more reading.

  • DaveW says:

    Well Don, you seem to have attracted more than one troll now. I guess that could be interpreted as a sign of success. However, I’m waiting until the ABC warns me about how evil you are to admit your success.

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