Saturday, July 09, 2011

Saturday morning musings - climate change thread

This Sunday, the Australian Government will release details of the new carbon tax. I haven't written much on either the discussion around the tax or the sometimes heated debate on climate change itself. I simply haven't had anything productive to say in what has become almost a theological discussion.

Guppy, Flanner, Steffen I wrote my original posts in this area to try to enhance my own understanding. This included an understanding of alternatives, including carbon capture in soils.

This photo shows Dr Chris Guppy (left) of the School of Environmental and Rural Sciences at the University of New England explaining the use of the specialised equipment in the soil carbon lab to Climate Commissioners Tim Flannery and Will Steffen (right).

UNE's Primary Industries Innovation Centre (PIIC) soil carbon lab is part of the work being done under the Government's soil carbon initiative.

One of the points I tried to make is that action to reduce green house gases could not be costless. Further, it was not just absolute cost, but distributive cost. Macro modelling may give measures of absolute cost, but says little about relative winners and losers. All this may seem self-evident, but quite recently I found a newsletter in our letter box from local MP Peter Garrett (the former environment minister) effectively denying that there would be costs.

I support action to address climate change. However, I am a bit tired of very simplistic arguments. With the independents now lined up with the Government, the legislation is going to go through to the chagrin of the opposition.

I have written quite a bit on the role of the New England independents. Tony Windsor in particular has a very measured way. He won't be rushed, nor is he bound by the type of broader party considerations that affect (infect?) Government and opposition. Just as with the Murray-Darling basin, he has actually created a structured process that has aided decision making. You may like or dislike the results, some of the criticism has been virulent, but the process is not reactive and can be understood.

From Sunday discussion will focus on the detail of the Government's proposals. It's all very dramatic, with PM Gillard planning to wear her shoe leather out selling the package, while opposition leader Abbott runs round the country crying Big Tax, Big Tax. Pro and anti advertising campaigns are in preparation. Herein lies a problem. How do we all retain level heads in the roar of battle with the political froth and bubble exercising its own special fascination?

In fact, I just don't think that it matters very much. Enjoy the show would be my advice! This, is, after all, just a first step in a longer journey, one that (hopefully) may further flesh out some of the issues.

I am a fairly simple minded person in the sense that I like to understand things and am prepared to ask very basic questions to the point that it sometimes makes me seem quite dumb and boring. To my mind, the key issues remain just those that I sought to understand in my original posts:

  • what combination of actions/changes might give rise to the type of reductions in green house gases that might be required?
  • what might this mean in on-ground terms?

I am a supporter of market mechanisms as the best way of dealing with a problem like climate change. However, that support is qualified. Let me explain why.

One of the academic papers I gave this year was on social change in New England 1950-2000. This was a period of dramatic social and economic change in which national and global changes swept away entire structures and ways of life. The nation may have gained measured in economic terms, but New England lost.

To my mind, New England to Australia is just like Australia to the global economy. In fact, Australia's position is arguably worse since New England was a larger proportion of the Australian economy than Australia is of the global economy.

While I know that some people will challenge this, I think that we have to accept on the basis of the science as its stands at the moment that the probabilities are that global warming will be be a significant problem with a chance that it may become a very big problem indeed. This means in turn that there will finally be global action that is likely to incorporate global market mechanisms with a wide variety of direct action all tempered through national self-interest in which those with the most muscle will be best able to protect their positions.

Given this logic chain, while I am prepared to accept that global market mechanisms are a key element in handling climate change, I make no assumptions about the gains or losses to Australia. This brings me to my next point.

In the industry development work that I have done, two key but often ignored elements were time and pre-conditions.

Time is important because both adjustment and new developments take time. New developments depend in their turn upon the establishment of the preconditions for success. If you are going to build something, then you have to have the skills, structures and resources required to do so.

I am not saying anything profound. My point is that I don't think in our discussion we have focused on these issues at all.

There is a quite explicit assumption in much discussion in this country that adjustment to climate change is going to create win-win situations, that jobs and economic activity created through things such as renewable energy will offset job losses elsewhere. Now that may be the case, but I find it interesting that pretty much every developed and major developing country in the world is using similar arguments.

I find it hard to believe that every country can be successful in this regard, nor can I see any any objective reason why Australia should be successful relative to others. We have neither the market size nor the present industrial base.

Just at present, clean energy appears to be in global retreat. Nuclear power has been badly discredited, while renewable energy is stagnant. The difficulty with renewable energy is that it has been reliant on push factors, essentially Government action. Government policies have proved inconstant, especially since the global financial crisis, while research spending has tended to focus on existing technologies, locking us in to existing solutions. You can see this in Australia, but the problem is not unique to Australia.

NSW problems with solar panels and the price to be paid for the electricity from those panels is a classic example replicated globally to some degree, as are the fights over wind farms or the abolition of the Green car program. Most investors who have chased the dreams of new energy futures over the last decade have been badly burnt. Warehouses are full of things from pink bats to solar panels to wind farm components produced in anticipation. Over two decades, recycling bins have been filled with discarded policy statements, plans, prospectuses, invitations to investors.

We have also invested heavily in energy intensity. While there have been constant campaigns to try to reduce energy intensity in things like refrigerators since the 1980s, these have been more than offset by the rise of the computer and new consumer electronics. Our homes are full of new electronic equipment, we have centralised services from health to insurance, we live in the clouds serviced by an ever growing number of servers. All these things require energy.

This is not an argument against new technology, simply a recognition of the tensions and inconsistencies built into current and immediate past approaches. I don't think that we have even started to come to grips with the issues involved.

This has become a longer muse than intended. Let me finish by returning to the question of time.

My feeling all along has been that effective action on climate change will require a combination of direct action with market based mechanisms, with direct action focused especially on longer lead time items where markets may be slow or ineffective in delivering results. I have also felt that effective action is likely to require a multiplicity of responses, that it is easier to get one hundred one percent changes than one one hundred per cent change.  

All this takes time. If some of the scientific projections are in any way right, then we don't have that time. Global responses are likely to crab along behind actual developments, accelerating as those developments become clearer. Recognising that Australia is such a small part of the global economy, we are going to have to respond to actions to halt or limit climate change on one side, the on-ground effects on the other.

Of course, if the sceptics are right, none of this matters. One hopes, in fact, that they are at least part right.

The personal problem that I have is that victory for the sceptics means that the world's scientific community has become victim to a case of group think on an unprecedented scale. I am inclined to doubt that, although it's possible.

I will pause here. In a later post I will return to what I see as the continuing risk of very silly Australian policy decisions responding to actual and perceived threats. By then, we will also know what the Government plans. 


Two very brief follow up notes.

John Quiggin has continued his series on reasons to be cheerful. His latest post, Reasons to be cheerful, Part 3: Energy efficiency, contains links to two previous posts. I mention the series because he is trying to do something I looked at earlier, looking at actual trends and ways in which required changes might be met. This bears upon my point about multiple changes.

On Ochre Archives, Phillip Diprose's Wind Turbine Information Pack records problems with the wind based power system installed on the farm. Those who not have followed my previous references to Ochre Archives may find this post obscure.

I have written a number of posts about farm based experimentation. Phillip is a case in point. Too far from the grid for mains power, he installed a farm based power system. They have also installed a community water supply, as well as carrying out a variety of experimental pastoral techniques. My feeling is that farm and community based action is part of the solution. Some things will fail or only be partially successful.       


Neil said...

Very thoughtful, Jim. I agree entirely about simplistic solutions being a pain. On the other hand I think the chances of the so-called skeptics being right are absolutely minimal!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil. I think on the sceptics that you are right, yet I do so hope that they are right!

I really struggle with some of the current debate. We are both pontificators, yet we both just try to make people think. In the end I come back to this: have I learned something? Have I advanced my own thinking? I think that that's all we can hope.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a very good statement of basics. Thank you Jim


Legal Eagle said...

I hate the whole climate change thing. I find I can't have a reasoned discussion with anyone (present company excepted).

I am worried that it will be very costly, badly administered, inefficient and a costly ideological gesture which will achieve nothing other than to salve consciences that we are "doing something".