I’ve mentioned Roger Pielke Jnr on this website before, most recently here. He writes well and always thoughtfully. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I like to read it. He has an essay in the current edition of Foreign Policy that kept me thinking, and since it is directly relevant to the carbon tax issue, I thought it would be worth talking about it here. I pinched its title for the title of my own essay, because it fits the bill.

His central point is one that I have been arguing too over the past year and more. He puts it like this:

Consider this: If the goal is to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a low level by 2050 (in precise terms, at 450 parts per million or less), then the world would need to deploy a nuclear power plant worth of carbon free energy every day between now and 2050. For wind or solar, the figures are even more daunting.

For several decades, the dominant view among climate specialists was that imposing a high price on carbon emissions — whether through a tax or a traded permit system — would create the economic incentive necessary to stimulate the green energy innovation needed. Unfortunately, the track record of such schemes is not encouraging. Any policy that depends for its success on creating economic stress on consumers (or voters) to motivate massive change is a policy doomed to fail. Voters typically respond to higher energy prices by voting out of office any politician or party who is perceived to be working against their economic interests. Supporters of carbon pricing have no good answer for the politics.

We have seen that in the outcome of the Australian elections. Very generally, most of us are happy to see other people pay for improvements to the environment, but our own marginal dollar is a precious thing, and we hand it over grudgingly. When governments were flush, back in 2007, they could act for us, and subsidise wind and solar through regulations and taxes.

But governments are no longer flush, and neither is the electorate. What is worse, from the perspective of governments, is that none of the golden visions made by the advocates of green schemes and alternative energy have come to pass. No matter where you look, fossil fuels still power the great bulk of the world’s energy systems, and there is no sign whatsoever that somewhere, somehow, soon, the hoped-for new, green, reliable, non-polluting, sustainable energy source will appear.

As I have said also, many times, the gaze of all governments has to be on jobs, because if it is not, and lots of people are out of work, our society is unhappy and vulnerable in many ways, and it tends to kick governments out quickly. So the incoming Abbott Government will do almost anything to get growth in GDP going, unempoyment falling, and a mood of sustained confidence returning. As Pielke says, ‘if there is one ideological commitment that unites nations and people around the world in the early 21st century, it is that GDP growth is non-negotiable’.

So what are political parties to do — and I have the ALP in mind. We know what the Abbott Government intends at least to try and do. It seems to me that Labor is caught in a bind over the carbon tax, about which I wrote yesterday. Here is Pielke again: ‘[many of the world’s leaders are] focusing their attention on jumpstarting economic growth, [and] environmental issues have taken a back seat. Leaders’ attention to climate policy is not coming back — at least not in any form comparable to the plans being discussed just a few years ago.  

Labor set up a number of schemes that were said to be in the right direction. We Australians were to lead the world on one account, or more modestly, to be with the right people doing the right thing. But in fact the actual contribution of all these schemes to a lowering of emissions and thus a lowering of temperatures has been infinitesimal — and would be infinitesimal even if the schemes continued to 2050. Yes, there is a lot of roof-top solar, but those of us who don’t have it are supporting those who do.

Really cheap alternative energy needs no subsidies. It’s just not here yet, and it won’t be until we can store it simply and cheaply. There is bound to be a debate in Parliament before long on the carbon tax, and when it eventuates Labor in Opposition will not be able to draw on the public service. The Government will have that pleasure, and it will have a counter for every proposition the Opposition puts up. I don’t even expect that the learned academies will join enthusiastically with Labor on ‘climate change’: the money flow is now controlled by an at least moderately sceptical lot.

To repeat my take-home message from yesterday — it is worth Labor’s while to go calmly on this one, and look very hard to see whether the game of defending its ‘belief’ in ‘climate change’ is worth the candle.

(Postscript: Judith Curry devoted one of her threads to Pielke Jnr’s essay, and you can read the vigorous comment on it here — so far there have been 410 comments!)

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Peter Lang says:

    With change of government this is a good time for those advocating GHG emissions reductions to change tack.

    I suggest a way forward may be to advocate for solutions
    that are consistent with the Liberal’s and libertarians philosophies. That is: small government, lower taxes, less
    regulation less ‘nanny state’.

    There is a strong push in the Coalition to reduce regulation
    and to deveop infrastructure to improve productivity. They want to tap the $1.4 trillion held in
    self managed super funds. Infrastructure
    bonds are being considered (see point 5 here:

    How is this relevant for reducing Australia’s
    GHG emissions from fossil fuel energy use?

    People want:

    a secure
    supply of energy

    a reliable
    supply of energy

    cheap
    energy (as cheap as possible)

    safe
    energy (at all points in the energy chain)

    lowest
    practicable environmental impacts consistent with the above four points.

    There is strong support for reducing GHG emissions as long
    as it does not compromise the above five points.

    How can we have all this? One large and increasing component of energy
    is electricity. And the cheaper
    electricity is compared with other forms of energy (e.g. petroleum and gas) the
    more electricity will substitute for these other energy sources. So we need to move to electricity that is
    cheap and meets all five requirements.
    And, if we want substantial progress during the period of this
    government, we need to advocate for policies that are consistent with Liberal
    and libertarian principles.

    Electricity, generated mostly by nuclear power would meet
    all five requirements if we can get the cost down to less than that of coal and
    investors can believe their investment is secure. To make it a good, relatively safe investment
    for investors, especially SMSF trustees, an ideal solution would be relatively
    secure infrastructure bonds paying market returns for the level of risk.

    The investors and market will provide the signals on what is
    an acceptable risk adjusted return. This
    will give clear signals on how to structure the infrastructure bonds to reduce
    the investor risk. I expect the market
    will want / demand:

    low
    sovereign risk

    low regulatory
    risk

    the
    government will not interfere and change the rules over the life of the project,
    and if it does, the investors will be fairly compensated

    low
    risk of construction cost increases and construction time increases

    low risk
    of O&M and fuel cost increases over the life of the project

    Low
    risk of another of a competitor beating them on price in the future.

    • Peter Lang says:

      Why is the formatting such a mess when I compose in Word and then paste in here. This is the only WordPress web site I know that has this problem.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    In a recent posting you posed the following questions and many would agree that they are fundamental:

    Is climate change happening at all? In what ways? Are we sure? How dangerous to humanity, let alone to Australia, is whatever is happening? What is the most efficient and effective method of dealing with whatever it is that is the most worrying aspect? How long have we got?

    Interestingly, the CSIRO, a research institution with some credibility in Australia , states on its website that “Greenhouse gas emissions at or above present rates will cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century. It is very likely that these changes will be larger than those already seen in the past century”.

    But in your posting today, the underlying subtext revolves principally upon economics and money flow as suggested in the following phrases:

    ‘economic incentive necessary to stimulate the green energy’

    ‘economic stress on consumers (or voters) to motivate massive change is a policy doomed to fail’

    ‘Voters typically respond to higher energy prices by voting out of office any politician or party who is perceived to be working against their economic interests’

    ‘GDP growth is non-negotiable’

    ‘the money flow is now controlled by an at least moderately sceptical lot’.

    There is little doubt that the LNP sees the carbon tax as an ineffective way of dealing with the most worrying effects of climate change and many Australians agree. Why should Australia, even if pollutes above its weight, be disadvantaged in a trading sense by absurd self-imposed costs?

    The answer, I believe, is that in the coming decades, if responses to your fundamental questions take a turn for the worst, the costs of addressing the issues around climate change will be exponentially more later.

    H. Washington (2013) writes that denial around climate change is a delusion and that ‘when it impacts on the health of oneself, or society, or the world it becomes a pathology. Climate change denial is such a case. Paradoxically, as the climate science has become more certain, denial about the issue has increased’.

    The fundamental questions you pose provide an excellent framework to focus discussion and by and large your articles focus on these. In a reply to a previous posting of mine, you suggested I conduct a Google search around some of the issues. It is true there is some doubt, equivocal findings etc but there also serious grounds for concern so this is an issue that will not go away – even in the new parliament.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Peter,
      I would agree that we do not know how things will play out through our adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but there are statements you make or quote that I think are wrong. For example, I don’t think it can be credibly argued that ‘climate science has become more certain’ — it has surely become less certain, more equivocal. There is abundant evidence to support this.

      ‘denial about climate change is a delusion’ It’s hard to know what this means. I don’t deny that climates change, and I have been where a fundamental change has plainly taken place, as in Libya, once a great wheat-belt. It is not delusory to question the basis of the AGW scare, and that is all I do. I don’t have a rival theory, other than for the moment that natural forces seem to be behind much of the temperature change we can observe over the last forty or so years.

      My suggestion is that you assemble what you think are the ‘serious grounds for concern’ and then ask questions of them, along the lines of the ones I raised in my earlier post — particularly, how do we know, and how sure are we?

  • […] extended to the others. One of the seven is Roger Pielke Jnr, whose research I have written about before, who was so upset by the attacks on him, which he described as ‘a politically motivated witch […]

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