Thursday, April 18, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

Climate sums fail
Our debate looks only at one side of the ledger

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten snapped at his Darwin press conference today, calling for an end to the “malicious and stupid” technophobic debate about Australia’s response to climate change. He is dead right: we only ever talk about the cost of action, and never about the cost of inaction, which is spiralling out of control. And the debate about the cost of action, when we do have it, is myopic. It was already looking grim when Prime Minister Scott Morrison coined the term “fair dinkum power”, but we hit peak ridiculous last week with warnings that a modest target for new electric vehicle sales by 2030 meant the death of the weekend.

Things got slightly more serious in Adelaide on Tuesday, when a grumpy Shorten declined to take questions about the cost of Labor’s emissions reduction targets, and today The Australian suggested a figure of $25 billion [$], by adding up the total value of international permits that may be bought over a decade under Labor’s baseline and credit scheme for heavy industry. The prime minister promptly raised that to $35 billion, and for good measure opened the door to uneconomic, unsafe nuclear [$] energy – another example of outmoded thinking.

Shorten let rip: “First of all, it is just a nonsense claim,” he said of the suggestion that Labor’s carbon reduction policy could cost business $25 billion. He continued: “It is built upon the back of a big lie. It says somehow that using international offsets to help abate carbon is a bad thing.” In terms of the costs, Shorten said that the Labor plan relied on the same the same public modelling as the government.

Shorten continued: “The News Corp climate change deniers and their ally, the prime minister – a coal-wielding, climate-denying cave-dweller on this issue – they all say, ‘Look at the cost,’ but never mention the cost of extreme weather events, do they? They never mention the cost of not getting into renewables, and they never mention energy prices, do they?”

Shorten said that the rest of the world was increasingly investing in energy generation from renewables. “It is stupid to want to miss out on what the rest of the world is doing,” he said. “It is stupid to say to people that you don’t need to change, that nothing needs to change, and you can all have it all very good in the future without change. This is a malicious and stupid campaign … Do you know what? In climate change, there will never be enough figures to satisfy the climate sceptics. If you don’t believe in the science of climate change, no amount of evidence will ever convince you because, fundamentally, it’s a stupid position not to take action.” Amen.

It’s not just a bad case of “billionitis” – debating projections over a decade, as Annabel Crabb wrote for the ABC yesterday – although that’s bad enough. The figures in The Australian are so rubbery they are meaningless, based on wild guesses about future carbon prices and the share of abatement that will be bought offshore. The whole point gets lost. Letting big polluters buy overseas carbon credits is meant to save them money – it’s like a pressure valve, in case the cost of cutting emissions gets too high at home. Business supports it, and so did the Turnbull government. The Greens are opposed because it lets business off the hook, which is partly why their carbon price is forecast to raise a much greater $66 billion over the course of a decade. The Greens’ Renew Australia 2030 policy proposes to pick up where Labor’s emissions trading scheme left off when it was abolished by Tony Abbott in 2014. The carbon price started at $23 a tonne in 2013 and was indexed. Had it remained in place, it would have risen to $32 a tonne by 2019–20, the Greens calculate, and would head north thereafter. The Greens’ costing assumes that liable trade-exposed polluters emitting more than 25,000 tonnes per annum would start out with 80 per cent free permits, gradually reducing, and that households would be compensated through a 30 per cent increase to the energy supplement, with wider eligibility.

At the University of Melbourne last night, economist Ross Garnaut gave the second of his lectures on the economic framework for climate decision-making, and what’s changed since his landmark reviews in 2008 and 2011, still the world’s first economy-wide attempt at modelling the costs of unmitigated climate change. Back then, Garnaut considered scenarios of warming of 2 and 3 degrees, and arrived at the view that the benefits of mitigation matched the costs at two degrees: “At 2 degrees the costs were matched this century if you simply focused on narrow economic effects, but were overwhelming if you went beyond 2100 and took account of values beyond those reflected in market exchange.” The problem, Garnaut explained, was the that costs of mitigation come early and they’re easily accounted for, while the benefits come late, and only some of them are amendable to quantitative analysis. That gets you into an arcane discussion of discount rates, and Garnaut concluded that changes since his review – especially to technology and prevailing interest rates – “justify substantially stronger and earlier mitigation today”.

With unmitigated climate change, Garnaut said during questioning, “it’s unlikely that the global political order would hold together”. But there was also a transformative opportunity for this country: “we can have much cheaper energy with the new technologies relatively soon, and with the whole world moving towards low-emissions production systems – and I think the whole world is, despite Donald Trump and Mr Morrison and his lump of coal – then that will give Australia a distinctive advantage. In fact, on purely economic grounds, it’s hard to see any reason why, if Australian iron oxide can be exported at a billion tonnes a year, why we wouldn’t turn our sun and wind into hydrogen and reduce iron oxide into metal before sending it away.”

Here’s a non-economist’s take: add up the cost of extreme weather events and sea level rise, then build in the cost of adaptation, times all that by a sixth wave of extinctions, put all that to the power of the number of people whose lives are going to be destroyed… We simply can’t afford the cost of inaction any longer.


“Sadly, and too conveniently, a charge of anti-Semitism is used to stifle reasonable criticism, and, yes, to intimidate those who would question Israel’s actions. Melissa Parke, whose sympathy for the Palestinians is well documented, is the latest casualty.”

Former Middle East correspondent and Nine columnist Tony Walker on this week’s withdrawal of Labor’s candidate for the Perth seat of Curtin.


“Stunts involving blackface and other taboos. Doing videos that cause controversy. Burning of U.N., ANTIFA and ISIS flag. Possibly the Quran as well, would make global news.”

One of several text messages proposing ways to get Senator Fraser Anning re-elected, obtained by the ABC’s Background Briefing.

The Number

The amount of the Coalition’s planned $230 billion in tax cuts over the next decade that would go to those earning more than $180,000 per annum.

The Policy

“A Shorten Labor Government will prioritise the health and wellbeing of First Nations peoples by delivering a $115.1 million package that will put First Australians at the centre of decision-making – from primary care delivery to health research … Improving the health status of First Australians is critical to our journey towards reconciliation.”

The list

“Peggy Frew’s two previous novels have been concerned with family and the consequences of frugal parental love. Here she’s addressing the same theme but in new ways. She knows what she’s doing: assembling her cast, then letting them unravel in a series of scattered acts that at first might puzzle but later swerve around to psychological revelation.” 


“‘There’s an eyeball in my margarita.’ Australian artist Fiona Hall is illuminating her drink with her phone’s flash for a better look (it’s a sheep’s eye). We’re five hours into a wildly theatrical nine-course meal based around edible invasive species: the fancy protein-y morsels are relentless (a single hare tortellini in a pool of spiced-starling broth; a roasted pigeon claw overhanging its little bowl), and we’re all going a bit mad.” 


“If Australia has spent the past decade looking for a tennis hero who embodies all the myths and values we like to apply to ourselves – stoic but warm, a great improviser who’s also committed to hard yakka, unpretentious, suspicious of officialdom and mildly uncomfortable with success – she’s finally arrived. We would have seen her earlier if we weren’t so fixated on the men.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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