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!)