There can no longer be the shadow of a doubt that the agenda for carbon-reducing measures is suffering from acute stress, with many of the global warming scare’s leading promoters displaying nowhere near the rhetorical ardour that has marked their earlier pronouncements of doom.
First, hardly anyone would now accept the Kevin Rudd fantasy that the issue can be solved at a cost of $1 a day per person.
Second, as the price of achieving the required emission reductions developed countries, the only ones with any emission-abatement policies, now only account for about a third of the global emissions, and within these only one group, the European Union (accounting for barely 12 per cent of global emissions), has any credible reduction policy.
At the many UN conferences on climate change, the most recent in Warsaw, developing countries have refused to commit to any concrete emission reduction measures.
Moreover, any workable policy to abate emissions must include a target, allocated by nation, and an enforcement regime. This means some form of world government. Former Greens leader Bob Brown suggested Australia might be the ideal location for such a world parliament, presumably unaware that Australia’s small population would not justify a single representative. Realistically, there is no constituency favouring such a surrendering of national sovereignty, a clear indicator that the issue is not recognised as sufficiently important or credible.
Third, the global warming scare is suffering from a famine of facts. Notwithstanding record high temperatures in southern Australia, the fact remains that the world has failed to warm for 17 years, and it is average global temperatures, not local measurements, that are the gauges of climate change. And, despite the publicity they receive, unusual events like hurricanes have been reducing in both intensity and numbers. There is also an unpredicted increase in Antarctic ice and the Arctic, having been warming for many years, has also ceased to do so for a decade. Polar bears, which the warmists’ would have us believe are hurtling towards extinction, are also seeing their numbers increase.
Kevin Rudd described the climate change agenda as the great moral challenge of our time. For the “intelligentsia” acceptance or rejection of this contention has been a stylised fault line dividing political perspectives in much the same way as socialism did in the twentieth century.
People concerned about global warming regard action to abate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as crucial to a productive world economy, perhaps even to the continued existence of large swathes of humanity. They consider a market-based system unable to incorporate costs sufficient to suppress the required quantum of greenhouse emissions and greater political guidance of the economy is therefore necessary.
Those considering that human-induced climate change is real, costly and should be prevented by regulatory action have included many prominent free-marketers. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promoted action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, though she never proposed the degree of political intervention favoured by today’s advocates of mitigatory action, later coming to see its proponents as anti-capitalist zealots.
Many supporters of measures to offset emission levels are, or pretend to be, infused with the merits of using ‘market mechanisms’ involving a tax on emissions or an allocation of rights to emit which might then be traded. Both of these mechanisms offer potential cost savings because the price penalty encourages users and consumers to seek out low-cost ways of reducing their emissions and this recruitment of those most directly affected encourages emissions to be confined to activities where they have the greatest value. The cost penalty also provides incentives to reduce emissions through technological innovation, as well as encouraging inventors to seek profitable ways to facilitate such reductions.
Irrespective of the case for abatement action and the merits of market mechanisms, few supporters of abatement reject all “direct action” measures. Most have a mistrust of markets and seek to reinforce such instruments by command-and-control measures like carbon-reducing product standards and renewable energy requirements.
The Abbott government’s Direct Action approach is a hybrid market and command-and-control scheme. It incorporates a winner-picking interventionary approach which targets those activities it considers can be most cheaply addressed. But it also envisages forms of trading by allowing abaters to bid for funds on the basis of their reduction programs.
Targeting particular activities has problems stemming from bureaucratic ignorance and political favouritism, while formidable administrative difficulties are presented in ensuring that one firm’s emission reductions, having been rewarded, are not then taken up by another emitter. An obvious case would be where an aluminium smelter pulls out of Australia and is able to sell its emission credits, but its production is simply replaced by output from a Russian factory.
The quarter of a century since action to abate greenhouse gas emissions was first mooted has led to a more intensive analysis of the need for action and greater understanding of its costs. With Australia’s carbon tax scheduled to be repealed and the budget and off-budget subsidies being pared back, the focus is on the renewable energy rort. The lobby for this imposition on electricity consumers is as strong as might be expected from an industry that cannot exist without the $5 billion a year in subsidies it receives. Politically, its handling will present a test of the government’s resolve to eliminate waste where this means facing a well-financed lobbying and PR campaign.
There is now a greater recognition that serious emission-reduction measures entail considerable increases in household energy bills and the cost-induced closure of many businesses. These factors may also be denting the confidence of those insisting human actions are causing dangerous climate change. Perhaps reflecting this, NGO attendees at international conferences on global warming are sharply down since the 2009 Copenhagen Conference ended in total failure. And Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, is also adopting a more nuanced approach. In 2011 he said climate science deniers should not be given an equal platform with mainstream scientists, and he criticised the media for giving sceptics the space to make their arguments. In a recent article in The Australian, though maintaining his warmist beliefs (and clarifying that he is not a climate scientist), he calls for “a healthy and constructive discussion based on all the empirical evidence”.
At this rate, pretty soon we’ll see the warmist hangers-on in full retreat, excusing their dogmatism on the basis that they were simply following “the best available advice”.
Alan Moran is the Director, Deregulation, at the Institute of Public Affairs