After his inauguration as US President Joe Biden took little time to signal a reversal of many of Donald Trump’s policies. There has been a virtual hurricane of activity to affirm the left-wing policies of the Democrats. As I write the incoming President has already signed off on fifty executive orders to signal his opposition to Trump’s policies. And of course a significant area of policy where the USA will now make a major shift is with respect to climate change. Biden is to take the USA back into the Paris Climate Accord and commit to a target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050.
Unsurprisingly Australia’s climate evangelists have jumped on the bandwagon insisting Australia must do likewise or risk being isolated by the rising fervour of the climate faithful to make the 2050 target a universal one. (The more cynical of you will no doubt scoff at the setting of targets that are way beyond the political life of current politicians. You might be tempted to call it “virtue signalling”!)
What’s more, Biden seems likely to set an ambitious target for 2030. No doubt that will result in a shrill chorus from Australia’s climate warriors for us to follow suit.
Now it seems to me that we have no need to follow the international example of other countries when it comes to our climate change response, no matter what the climate zealots say. The coalition has continued to argue for Australia to exercise its sovereignty on issues such as our covid response and how we handle refugees. Why is it then necessary for us to follow the lead of the USA and the “woke” Europeans when it comes to climate change?
Before I continue, let me state as clearly as I can my position on climate change.
I am not a climate change denier. I believe that climate change is happening. It would be unusual if it wasn’t. The geological history of planet earth indicates many such changes have occurred in the eons past. Most countries have reliable meteorological records for the last 100 years or so which as a result provide a very limited snapshot of our climate. But, no doubt there is climate change as there has always been. However I remain agnostic about whether the climate change we are experiencing is human induced.
Additionally I believe the climate change catastrophists are probably wrong in posing climate change as an existential threat. All their dire predictions so far have not eventuated. All they have done in trying to unduly promote dire climate predictions is to scare the living daylights out of a generation of young people who have been denied the opportunity of hearing alternative points of view. (It is well worth reading Michael Shellenberger’s book Apocalypse Never –Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All).
The predictions of the computer models that the climate doomsayers rely on contain assumptions and approximations that skew their results. As a result, to date, they have had little success in predicting future climate trajectories.
Now a complicating issue is the fact that the climate warriors believe that man-made CO2 emissions are the cause of climate change. Therefore the only way to avoid the apocalyptic future they anticipate is to reduce CO2 emissions to zero. This is an immensely expensive undertaking which results in only miniscule improvements.
The hype about climate catastrophe sucks people in emotionally to commit to dramatic responses without giving due consideration to the economics. As much as we might like to think otherwise, we only have limited resources available to us to advance human welfare. Nobel prize winning economist and President of the Copenhagen Consensus, Bjorn Lomborg, points out the Paris Accord is not only prohibitively expensive it is also very ineffective. He writes:
By the UN’s estimates, if all nations live up to their promises (including Barack Obama’s promises for the US), ….it will reduce global temperatures by less than 0.05C by 2100.
But, even worse, Australia is a minor contributor to the world’s CO2 emissions. The government’s then chief scientist, Alan Finkel, admitted in June 2017 that if Australia stopped all its CO2 emissions there would be no discernible impact on global climate.
Consequently if Australia takes dramatic steps to curtail its CO2 emissions, we will likely drastically impact our economy with virtually no impact on global warming.
But despite our efforts to curtail emissions, they are still increasing globally. A 2019 report by global energy giant BP, indicates that average greenhouse emissions around the globe are rising at twice the rate of those of Australia.
Moreover, large emitters such as India and China have sought to defer their greenhouse response. Their emissions dwarf those of Australia.
Not surprisingly, many third world countries are desperately trying to increase their energy consumption because first world countries have demonstrated the correlation between energy consumption and wealth, better health outcomes including increased longevity, increased food production and many other indicators of lifestyle improvement. They (rightfully in my mind) complain that advanced economies are preventing their access to a better quality of life by restricting their options to access cheap energy. When the only energy you can access is burning animal dung or wood from the local environment there are inevitable health consequences and environmental impacts. We know that villagers in developing countries can improve their lots immensely just by having access to electric power for cooking and lighting. There are still millions of people who don’t have any access at all to electricity, which we would describe in our society as a basic necessity.
Tellingly in his book Michael Shellenberger quotes MIT climate scientist, Kerry Emanuel, who said:
If you want to minimize carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2070 you might want to accelerate the burning of coal today. It doesn’t sound like it makes sense. Coal is terrible for carbon. But it’s by burning a lot of coal they make themselves wealthier, and by making themselves wealthier they have less children. The population doesn’t grow, and you don’t have as many people burning coal. You might be better off in2070.
Even in industrialised countries like Australia, the burden of high electricity costs (which have escalated in recent years due to the increased uptake of renewable energy in response to climate change) falls unfairly on the working class, pensioners and the poor. More wealthy electricity consumers are able to take advantage of government subsidies, for example, to install rooftop solar panels and thus reduce their electricity bills. But those subsidies serve to increase electricity tariffs and poorer people pay for this in their electricity bills. Higher electricity prices make energy intensive industries less competitive reducing job opportunities for working class people. It is not surprising then that the chief advocates of renewable energy are inner city professional people who are less affected by the hike in electricity prices and who have anyway the financial capacity to cope with rising prices.
But overall, whether in developing or developed countries, it is the poor that bear the brunt of increased electricity prices. For example in Great Britain it is estimated that up to 24,000 elderly people die from illness and hypothermia each winter because they cannot afford proper heating.
In rural Australia many elderly people in colder areas who burnt wood to keep warm in winter have had this source of heating denied by environmental legislation and can’t afford to replace it with electric heating. News reports also suggest that some elderly Australians have been overwhelmed by the propaganda of climate activists such that they don’t turn on their heaters in fear of the CO2 they might cause to be generated as a result. Consequently they spend their winters with their houses shut up, with multiple layers of clothing and often in bed to avoid the cold. Surely we need to provide such people with more comfort without guilt!
Now I would like to examine two issues with respect to climate change viz.
- The political response, and
- A more reasoned response.
In Australia, particularly in inner city electorates, the Labor Party is sensitive to the inroads being made into its membership by the Greens. Consequently it has attempted to promote a very aggressive agenda with respect to climate change. But whilst this might have helped them compete with the Greens in the inner city electorates it hasn’t at all engaged the population at large. In fact is can be cogently argued that this climate aggressive stance has been a major factor in their loss of the last two elections.
Unfortunately, Labor seems to think that the frenzied traffic from the progressives on social media represents the voice of the average Australian. This is, of course, a fatal mistake. The one Labor voice in the wilderness (driven also by self-preservation) is Joel Fitzgibbon who makes the case that many traditional Labor supporters are alienated by the Opposition’s climate and energy policy. Polls indicate that climate change is a significant issue for only 20% of Australians.
Paradoxically Labor believes that Joe Biden’s recommitment of the USA to the Paris Accord somehow strengthens their position with respect to climate change. I don’t believe that is the case and Biden’s stance might be proved to be over-reach. As Bjorn Lomborg points out:
Climate change, according to Biden is an existential threat, to our communities, economy, national security and environment. To combat it Biden wants to spend $US500bn each year on climate policies – which is about $US1500 per US citizen.
I suppose if you asked the average Australian citizen would they be prepared to have the government tax them more to combat climate change most would agree. The telling question is not whether you are prepared to spend more on climate change but how much? In the US, polls suggest that the majority of voters would only agree to spend something a little over $US20/annum to advance the cause of ameliorating climate change. Once they become aware of the cost to individual households of Biden’s policies it is likely many Americans will be dismayed.
In order to advance their political position the Opposition likes to portray Australia’s response to climate change as laggardly. But this is not at all the case. In fact we are likely to be one of the few signatories to the Paris Accord to meet our promised targets. As well, among the developed nations, we have one of the highest investments in renewable power. (We invest 25% more in renewable energy than Europe’s top four economies.)
So if we didn’t kowtow to the virtue signallers and run off pursuing expensive targets that have little real effect on global warming but a major effect on the economy, what should we be doing? What indeed would a more reasoned response look like?
I have a number of suggestions.
Firstly I think it is prudent to do what we can to reduce Australia’s CO2 emissions. We need to decarbonise our economy as soon as we can but not at the expense of rendering our economy uncompetitive internationally. In that vein I believe that it is not helpful to commit to targets but to commit to progressively reduce our emissions as the opportunities arise.
In order to do this I think it is prudent to invest more in research of renewable technologies. If we do this, inevitably technologies will develop that allow us to generate our electricity from renewable sources at a cost that can compete against other sources of electricity without subsidy. In this way we can expand our renewable energy sources without compromising our economy. (For technical reasons that I won’t go into here, there will still surely be a place for gas and coal fired generators for some decades yet.)
Secondly many climate catastrophists focus only on mitigation as a strategy. It is a sign of insecurity that they want to reproduce the past rather than confront the possible future. Consequently adaptation strategies, which might help us cope with a different future, are unexploited.
Humankind is extremely adaptive. We have learnt how to exist in hot climates and cold, dry terrains and wet, in fertile regions and the most arid. Modern science and technology can facilitate such adaptation.
Let me give you a small example.
I was the chair of a research institute that focussed on sustainable regional development. In Central Queensland where I live, cotton is a major crop. One project we were associated with began an experiment planting cotton a month or two later than is customary. When I asked the researchers for the rationale behind this research they told me it was an insurance against global warming. If they could find strains of cotton that would germinate later in the season when the ambient temperature was a few degrees warmer, then they were confident that they could continue to plant cotton as a viable crop even if the predictions of global warming transpired.
Similarly there were projects that concentrated on using less water during the cultivation of crops if indeed it turned out that we had to contend with a drier future.
There are many, many things we can do to prepare our society for a different climate future if it eventuates.
Now another problem we have with respect to global warming is that many, alarmed by the climate catastrophists, assume that the outcomes will be universally bad across the globe. This is far from the case. Indeed in the colder areas of the earth global warming would result in milder climates which would be welcomed in many regions. As I related above, cold kills many people. Indeed cold is a far greater killer than heat around the globe. As well milder climates in many areas will improve crop yields and expand the amount of arable land available for agriculture.
Finally, the effects of global warming are far from uniform.
In Australia it would seem that streamflows on the eastern seaboard have on average been reducing since the 1950’s. We have also seen the incidence of cyclones on the east coast of Australia reduce while the incidence of cyclones on the west coast have increased. Consequently, for example, rainfall in the Kimberleys has increased resulting in the increased growth of forests. Yet in the south west of Western Australia there has been a trend of diminishing rainfall. So if climate change is occurring, its effects vary greatly across geographical areas.
Our society needs to be nimble enough to tailor specific responses to these various impacts and that requires particular knowledge about water usage and storage options, agricultural and pastoral adaptation strategies, energy efficiency and long term land use strategies including augmenting soil carbon and reafforestation.
(I mention increasing soil carbon because this has great potential for removing CO2 from the atmosphere whilst enhancing soil fertility.)
In summary, I can see no reason to jump on the bandwagon of committing to zero net emissions by 2050. Just as in other significant areas of policy, Australia should assert its sovereignty and make decisions in the best interest of Australia and not seek to appease critics that have capitulated to the unlikely thesis of climate catastrophism.
It is better that we move in a measured way to reduce our carbon emissions but not at the expense of our economic future. Whilst I don’t entirely agree with the coalition’s approach to climate change, they are far more pragmatic and practical in their response than the opposition.
So I would advocate that rather than jumping for Joe, we should tell Joe to go jump!