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July 31st 2011 print

John Dawson

Our fossil fuel legacy

“This is the moment where Australia turns its back on the fossil fuel age” proclaimed Greens senator Christine Milne as the carbon tax was announced.


“This is the moment where Australia turns its back on the fossil fuel age” proclaimed Greens senator Christine Milne as the carbon tax was announced.


The Greens’ cheers were echoed by young Australians who have been taught nothing about the fossil fuel age except that it began with dark satanic mills and ended up dooming the planet to climatic meltdown. But before we consign them and their children to a “clean energy future”, we should spare a moment to count the legacy we inherited from those dark polluting fuels.

Our ancestors had hunted and gathered for hundreds of thousands of years, then farmed for thousands more before they started burning coal and oil to power industries. During those interminable pre-industrial millennia our numbers increased slowly, haltingly, vulnerably, until there were a billion of us spread across the planet. That milestone was reached about two hundred years ago – soon after James Watt invented his steam engine. Now there are seven billion of us, and most of us can expect to live longer, less painful, more enjoyable lives than our ancestors ever dreamed possible.

Consider for a moment what kept the world’s pre-industrial population below one billion. It wasn’t that the general population abstained from sex or used contraceptives; population growth was constrained by low fertility and high mortality due to poor health and nutrition and periodic plagues and famines – i.e. by human misery. Such was life when we relied on some “renewable” power (from firewood, waterwheels and windmills) but mainly on muscle power (animal or human including that of slaves). Then James Watt and “big polluters” discovered how to release energy stored under the earth to power the industry and technology that so dramatically increased the productivity and quality and quantity of human life. But according to some Greens the productivity is “rape”, the quality is “affluenza”, and the quantity is a “cancer”.

Consider the life preserving and life enhancing benefits of the fossil-fuelled age: the comfort that envelops us, the treatments that heal us, the knowledge at our fingertips, the power at our feet, the music at our ears, the world in front of our eyes. These marvels weren’t the product of central planners or inter-governmental panels or government imposed penalties and subsidies, but of individuals who were free enough to think for themselves and decide the best way to work, produce, trade, invest and live. But to those who learnt nothing from the collapse of the dirty command economies of last century a free market is an anathema – if they can’t beat it they are driven to manipulate or cripple it. Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, who is proud to have been a propagandist for the Soviet Union, wants coal mining banned within a decade – not to be replaced with uranium; her planned economy would be powered by windmills.

Even if trillions of dollars are invested in wind and solar industries they still won’t be able to supply more than a fraction of the power supplied by fossil fuels – and the reduced power supply will be less reliable and much more expensive. Greens, however, are imbued with the “political will” to eliminate fossil fuels in order to create the unspecified “green jobs” of a postmodern economy powered by these “renewables” – the reduced productivity, living standards and populations implied will cure our affluenza and the earth’s cancer! They have progressed beyond sacrificing individual people’s interests to “the people” – they now consider it virtuous to sacrifice people to what Tim Flannery calls the “Gaia system”, which is to be served by a “human superorganism”, a Star Trek Borg controlled no doubt by the world parliament advocated by Senator Bob Brown.

The “inconvenient truths”, hockey-stick histories and apocalyptic prophesies are pseudoscientific cover for a Green religion with an Orwellian liturgy. Carbon pollution is not carbon or pollution, it’s CO2 that we breath out and plants breath in; they are not “big polluters”, they are people who keep us warm, fed and alive; it’s not “hate press” it’s free speech; it’s not “regime change” its an election we want; and we are not holocaust “deniers”, we are all the people who can’t be fooled all the time. If the case for a “carbon” tax was scientifically and economically sensible its advocates wouldn’t have to rely on newspeak, demonization and alarmism of biblical proportions.

An ABC documentary portents a meltdown that will return the world to Jurassic park; Robert Manne pontificates that our step into the fossil fuel age was “the most fatal misstep in the history of humankind”; Clive Hamilton intones a “requiem for [our] species”; Tim Flannery crusades to save “life on the planet”; James Lovelock preaches that man made global warming will kill ten billion people this century – now that’s a scare campaign! And yet even in Lovelock’s apoplectic book of revelations more people are left on the planet than it could sustain before the “big polluters” made our “most fatal misstep”.

Consider the improbability of computer models and UN panels predicting the effect we will have on the climate centuries ahead, when they can’t get it right a decade ahead. But shouldn’t we curb emissions just in case, as insurance? Since we cannot be sure what form future catastrophes will take, let alone how best to deal with them, the most prudent insurance is economic and scientific progress that will equip us to deal with whatever problems eventuate, be they man or nature made. Of all the complex conjecture involved, only this is certain: curtailing the emission of CO2 will reduce our prosperity, impede progress, and leave us more vulnerable. 

The first step towards the new Green world order is a carbon tax designed to rob five hundred demonized Peters to pay favoured Pauls and bribe millions of voters. But the tax will have no measurable effect on CO2 in the atmosphere let alone on global warming, not even if the rest of the world follows suit, which it won’t. When the tax or ETS is ratcheted up until it impoverishes us, it will still have no discernible effect unless the rest of the world follows suit, which it won’t. When the fabled farmer took an axe to the goose that laid the golden eggs he at least gained a roast dinner. We have nothing to gain from a carbon tax, but a great deal to lose. We must axe the tax, not the goose.