JONATHAN PAUL MARSHALL: The Rhetoric Climate Action is too Costly

Mar 24, 2020

Bjorn Lomborg presents an ambiguous type of anti-climate action rhetoric. He argues that the recent bushfires were insignificant, and that we should not research renewable energies because of cost, while also recommending costly research.

His argument depends on ignoring effects of greenhouse gas emissions, and downplaying the costs of climate change and the existing system.

Many people argue that climate action costs too much, or disrupts the economy. We can observe some of this rhetoric through looking at a recent article in The Australian by Bjorn Lomborg, entitled “We don’t have money to burn on green mania.”

The article opens by arguing that the recent bushfires were not significant and do not call for “drastic climate policies.” He writes that in 1900 “11 per cent of [Australia’s] surface burned annually. These days, 5 per cent of the country burns every year” but gives no evidence. Everything I’ve read (see the Climate Council) reports that the bushfires, were more extensive than any since we developed modern firefighting techniques. The fires behaved in a manner seen rarely by firefighters; such as burning back over the same areas (making hazard reduction burns less useful than normal), generating their own weather, burning down previously untouched rainforests, and so on. It is the intensity and destructiveness of burns that matters, not the area of burning. Even points out: “The deadliest bushfires in the past 200 years took place in 1851, then 1939, then 1983, 2009, now 2019-20. The years between them are shrinking rapidly”. It is not unreasonable to posit that climate change is here.

Lomberg uses the suggestion the fires were moderate to argue we should not do much more than improve hazard reduction and house designs. He asserts, again without references, that “for decades to come, solar and wind energy will be neither cheap enough nor effective enough to replace fossil fuels.” Many experts (including the CSIRO) do not agree. See also [1], [2], [3], [4], [5].

It is correct that that International Energy Agency states that the amounts of energy currently (2018) coming from renewables is trivial (2.6%), but this is an argument for more effective action now, and despite the poor global figures, renewables are already significant in countries such as Iceland, Sweden, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Portugal, or the UK (where the major cost is the Hinkley Point reactor which will boost electricity prices way above their current levels). Increasing renewables is not impractical.

Lomborg then implies we need innovation and that people advocating for renewables and climate action don’t really want innovation, writing: “We need to find breakthroughs for batteries, nuclear, carbon capture and a plethora of other promising technologies. Innovation can solve our climate challenge. Unfortunately, many reports on Australia’s fires have exploited the carnage to push a specific agenda.”

However, the only people opposed to science or innovation are those wanting to cling on to fossil fuels. Almost the first move of the Abbott government, (cf The Land), was to open a war against science and the CSIRO, and this war against innovation and accurate data has continued.

However, while innovation is good, putting all hope on radical innovation is foolish; we must also work to improve what we have. We cannot guarantee innovation will come in time, or in the form we want it, or cheaply enough to use.

In his remarks Lomborg suggests we research nuclear, Carbon Capture and Storage and batteries. However, nuclear seems to need massive taxpayer support, not only to get built and decommissioned, but for insurance purposes. Furthermore nuclear projects can run late and massively over budget. Carbon Capture and Storage is also hugely expensive, and nowhere near ready to solve any climate problems. Despite the money thrown at CCS by Governments, little has eventuated.

Two out of three of Lomborg’s recommended research areas are costly and impractical, despite his objection to costs and, the third, batteries are only needed for renewables. So while I agree with Lomborg that “We need to spend far more resources on green energy research”, his argument undermines actual green energy research, even of the kind he advocates.

Again, despite his professed concern for costs, Lomborg neglects the existing cost of subsidies for fossil fuels through direct taxpayer handouts, or special tax and royalty favours.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute writes: “Conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year…. European Union subsidies are estimated to total 55 billion euros annually.”

An IMF working paper, argued that figuring in destruction (including deaths from air pollution) as part of the cost of fossil fuel, shows subsidies grew to $4.7 trillion, representing 6.3% of global GDP, with annual energy subsidies in Australia totalling $29 billion.

Fossil fuels bring death through pollution, despoliation of the environment, climate change, and cost taxpayers large amounts of money. Any good is far outweighed by the bad.

From my discussions with business, local councils, community energy and so on, it appears that the main obstacle to renewable energy in NSW is not lack of subsidy, but government regulation which favours established power companies. This makes doing supposedly simple things like having solar power on one roof power a building over the road, or on a new piece of property, more or less impossible. Likewise electricity grids are not where the renewable power stations are due to be set up, and the market regulator was effectively cutting off new business until the late 2020s. So if lowering costs is important, let’s remove these restrictions, or start an infrastructure program to extend and refurbish the grid, which might be costly but is simple, will pay for itself and could be in harmony with the NSW government’s latest declarations of “expanding transmission infrastructure into [its Renewable Energy Zones] to open new parts of the grid for renewable energy projects, like wind and solar farms”.

We also need to look at the costs of not reducing emissions and climate change. We can assume they’ll be massive. For example the Australian Tourism Export Council estimates via a survey that its members will lose $4.5b this year (cf [1], [2]) because of the fires. This loss will be exaggerated by the coronavirus which may have nothing to do with climate change, but illustrates how crises can interact and magnify each other; this is inevitable with the cascading crises from climate change.

Established food supplies will be threatened by the runs of days over 40 centigrade, and people will have to move out of the outback. Antarctic temperatures recently hit 20 degrees Centigrade, a few days after breaking previous records, and that will lead to more melting and sea level rises. Some suggest that we may have 2m rises within this century. If so, coastal cities will become non-functional.

While the do-little idea may be true that “if Australia were dramatically to change its climate policy overnight, the impact on fires would be effectively zero”, the opposite is not true. We cannot pretend that increasing emissions forever comes without increasing cost or danger.

If we do not decrease emissions, the situation will get worse, increasing costs, destroying living standards, wealth, political stability, national standing, and provoking refugee movement. Furthermore Australia has to reduce emissions to help political action to slow emissions elsewhere, as we are one of the highest per capita emitters in the world (without counting fossil fuel exports). Who will reduce their emissions if wealthy countries like ours will not?

The simple point Lomborg ignores is that if we pollute more than the planetary ecology can process and take more from the earth than it can replenish, then we will end up bankrupting our economy because we have made our country unliveable. There may be no certain solution to climate change, but risks have to be taken and current costs, and costs of inaction have to be reckoned, or else we will truly face disaster.

Jonathan Paul Marshall is an ARC supported researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney, investigating problems with climate technologies.

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