Democracy in the carbon sandwich

By Andrew L. Urban


[Elements of this paper form a submission to the Australian Select Senate Committee on the Scrutiny of New Taxes, August 15, 2011.]


In the interests of democracy,Australiashould re-frame the discussion on climate policy as soon as possible. The focus should shift from reducing emissions to dramatically increasing research.


Democracy is the meat in the carbon sandwich as a result of the intractable positions in which the climate debate has forced politicians and the public alike. Politicians stand like statues in immovable postures on the subject and the people are ferociously divided behind them, as suggested by the increasingly unpleasant tone that is evident in public forums and in the media.


Elevated to the level of ideology, this debate has certainly heated up our political climate; it has not resulted in anything approaching public consensus.


It is a dangerous, damaging time for the democratic fibre of our society – but there is a way to take the acrimony out of the debate and bring us all together – while still pursuing achievable renewable energy options. More on that in a moment.


The damage to democracy comes from a combination of factors we all know: the tortured path along which this debate has developed, from the high moral ground of the Kevin Rudd model to the scrapped Rudd model, to the pre-election commitment to a Citizens Assembly by Julia Gillard, instead of a carbon tax, to the sudden post election epiphany of a carbon tax … and all the while the Opposition trumpeting its own version – a direct action plan to achieve the same 5% reduction of emissions by 2020.


The result of this simplistic shouting match is that the public (and even sensible commentators) are reduced to scoring pathetic points for or against either side. The culprit is populist politics and the absence of rational debate. The divisive nature of the debate ever since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth turned our attention to global warming as a moral challenge has meant the debate would stay divisive.


Scientists keen to alarm politicians into action overstated their case and subsequently found that plan backfired; once it was revealed, public confidence in the science dropped in tandem with the rise of public confusion. That continues as the complexity of climate science makes itself more evident with every scientific paper published on the subject. Contradictory information reaching the public domain reinforces the uncertainty.


Citing a ‘scientific consensus’ as an argument is also problematic; less than 400 years ago (early in 1615) Galileo was denounced to the Roman Inquisition for supporting Copernicus’ cosmology (developed less than a century earlier) which stated that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way round. The consensus view until then regarded the earth as the centre of the universe. Galileo dissented from that consensus. He was eventually forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.


By then, in 1600, Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake for his theories which went further than Copernicus, proposing that the sun was a star and that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings. He was found guilty of heresy.


These are lessons many dismiss as being notes from a past that lacked our vision, our intelligence, our progress. Judging by the schisms in our social fabric in the context of climate policies, I am not overly confident that – collectively and in the context of such a heated, divisive debate that has been elevated to levels of ‘belief’ – we have learnt this lesson.


By reducing the issue to a meaningless yes/no proposition – do you want to save the planet – the debate has lost its legitimacy. Of course we all do. But that question is not about policy, it’s an emotional appeal with no rationality. It’s about as useful to the debate as the question, ‘do you want world peace’ is to a debate about foreign policy. It also primes the extremist to be intolerant and to demand consensus from all.


We harm our democracy when we apply extremely divisive pressure on our society over an extended period on a subject which is seen by most people as having no conclusive, correct answer. As Welsh born mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.”


There are those who will immediately call for my beheading for suggesting that there is no good evidence either way on climate science, but I ask them to hold the axe. That reaction is precisely what is overtaking the democratic process of rational argument. For one thing, whatever is said about scientific consensus, citizens are evidently not convinced, as polls indicate. The perception at large reflects uncertainty and confusion. Into this uncertainty, political parties are feeding their maggots of irrationality.


Those maggots are the various declarations about how much more effective one emission reduction scheme is over the other. Trying to reduce emissions around the world has so far proven beyond the desire or the capability of the world’s leaders. Common sense tells us that global emissions would only be reduced by global cooperation.


Irrational and simplistic, Australia’s current policy settings are determined on the basis of being ‘first’ to avoid being ‘last’ or even ‘second’ in any possible carbon pricing future. Where is the leader who recognises this irrationality and sets out a more rational and unifying way to help achieve a clean energy future?


The other underlying reason current policy settings are not embraced by the majority is that the projected outcomes are too far in the future to be tested or assessed, yet the costs and societal shifts are immediate. There are no effective and transparent ways to determine whether either strategy would a) reduce emissions by the target amount (assuming it can be reliably measured); b) whether the reduction as measured forAustraliarepresents a similar net reduction in global emissions; c) can the costs be accurately measured; d) if so, has the reduction been worth the cost. With all these uncertainties, the community is unsure about it all.


There is also a feeling that the insistence of humans trying to change the climate is laughable. Climate, or nature, is a massive, complicated, multi-faceted system beyond our control. Nature laughs at computer modelling as God is said to laugh when we show him our plans.


Yet, there is a way that we can re-frame this debate, satisfy common sense, neutralise the acrimony and make a genuine contribution to a clean energy future. The first step is to take the focus off emission reduction as the instrument of policy. A more rational policy would be to concentrate all available resources – from brainpower to money –  on research that will deliver a cleaner energy future that is far less reliant on fossil fuels. Jettison the wasteful expenditure and put it into research.


It is a good goal in itself; it would be sensible to reduce our heavy reliance on oil and coal if a new source – or a combo of sources – provided for our needs.


And this is whereAustraliashould come to the fore on the world stage. As a major coal producer and exporter,Australiais a natural world opinion leader; it makes sense thatAustraliaestablishes a dedicated set of research programs designed to explore and invent energy sources that can meet our clean energy aspirations.Australiawould be seen as visionary and would be well placed to induce several other countries to co-operate in such a research effort.


Every $10 billion we waste on useless and cost-inefficient ‘green’ schemes is $10 billion lost to genuine research. Every new bureaucracy we create to manage, administer and police carbon taxes is a waste of resources that are not used for the core purpose of developing clean energy.


We should take note of Bjorn Lomborg’s [1] rational stand on this subject:

“The main climate economic models show that to achieve the much discussed goal of keeping temperature increases under 2C, we would need a global tax on carbon emissions that would start at nearly $100 per tonne and increase to more than $3700 per tonne by the end of the century.


This would cost the world $40 trillion a year by 2100, according to calculations by noted climate economist Richard Tol. But all in all, this spending would be 50 times more expensive than the climate damage it seeks to prevent, according to mainstream calculations of expected damage.


In other words, a carbon tax that is set high enough to meaningfully rein in temperatures would cause widespread economic damage. This is because non-carbon-based alternative energy sources are not ready to take over from fossil fuels.


What is required instead is a transformation in our energy infrastructure to make low-carbon energy sources cheaper than fossil fuels.” [2]


Not only does it make sense to focus on the search for new energy and have a clear objective on which more or less everyone can agree, irrespective of their view on climate science, it would stop tearing apart the fabric of our democratic society.


Of course neither of the parties are willing or able to make such a radical change in their policies after welding themselves to their positions. It would take a leader of great vision and courage to call a halt to the current divisive fight over how best to reduce emissions in favour of a unified stand, citing the damage being done to our democracy.


The  clearly articulated objective would be to putAustraliaat the forefront of a focused global research and development drive. Drawing on the scientific community,Australiawould develop a series of research programs in association with other developed countries.


One vehicle to start the new era of climate policy settings may be a multi party summit which would formulate key policy settings and set clear objectives.


Pragmatically speaking, this sort of statesmanship could only emanate from Government – specifically, from the Prime Minister. To make the transition as smooth as possible, the Government does not have to ditch everything it has done to date. It could simply but dramatically reduce the carbon tax level to a rate that doesn’t impact so highly on the economy but still raises significant funds. Additional funds could be allocated from the proposed mining tax.


With the focus on research and the co-operation of scientists and research organisations around the world,Australiacould be a major player in the greatest economic challenge of our time.




1 – To neutralise the increasingly vitriolic carbon tax debate which is ripping the fabric of Australian democracy – but retain a policy framework that addresses long term energy concerns;

2- To reframe policies: instead of attempting to reduce emissions (at best a hopeful but futile objective), focus heavily on research and development to seek effective new and/or better developed sources of clean energy;


Action: Dramatically reduce the level of proposed carbon tax; earmark all funds raised for research; allocate significant portion of proposed new mining tax to research; invite international co-operation in R&D programs.




[1] Bjorn Lomborg is adjunct professor at theCopenhagenBusinessSchool. He is the organizer of theCopenhagenConsensusCenterand author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It.


[2] Extract from article published in The Australian,July 11, 2011

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