MUNGO MACALLUM. Avoid the problem by changing the subject.

Feb 25, 2020

Scott Morrison’s technology diversion remains a roadmap without a destination, without milestones or landmarks, without a recognisable path and without even a clearly defined starting point.

Scott Morrison’s government of denialists and cowards has found a new evasion to dodge the reality of climate change: it is re-running a favourite buzzword: technology.

Or, as ScoMo puts it, “You want to get global emissions down? … You need technology that can be accessed and put in place, not just here in Australia, but all around the world. Meetings won’t achieve that, technology does. And I can tell you taxes won’t achieve it either.”

Apart from the ridiculous belief that accessing technology somehow comes without cost to end users – tax free – this blind faith in science last week is in marked contrast to the years of dismissing it when the very existence of climate change has been queried by the coalition, including by Morrison himself when it has suited him.

Now, apparently. it is not only to be accepted, it is to be the solution. Even if Morrison is still reluctant to utter the words “climate change” he is finally talking directly about tackling reducing emissions. But is he actually serious?

His cheerleaders have thrown themselves behind the rhetoric – this, they say, is the long-awaited road map they, and everyone else, has been longing for. But if so, it remains a roadmap without a destination, without milestones or landmarks, without a recognisable path and without even a clearly defined starting point.

My dictionary gives the primary meaning of technology as “the branch of knowledge that deals with the science and engineering or its practice as applied to industry; applied science..” One of Morrison’s many problems is that he can’t actually tell us what is entailed in the science and engineering, beyond vague thoughts about carbon capture and relying on natural gas to replace coal –except we are in no hurry to replace it, and his coalition partner actually wants to ramp it up.

And in any case, while this may marginally reduce emissions, it can never bring them down to the net zero by 2050 demanded by the scientists. Morrison vision is yet again, for miracles – that the new technology can be discovered or invented and that it can and will be implemented in time for the disastrous future to be averted.

Well, it may be – but if it is, it will be no thanks to Morrison and his serial procrastinators. Even now the prime minister speaks in terms of accountancy and marketing – he insists that he will never to commit to a program without telling the public the precise cost to the economy. But the very essence of science research and application is that the costs – and also the benefits – are by definition unquantifiable.

However, what can be estimated is the cost of ducking the issue, the continuing damage of the extreme weather events which have already had a terrible impact on Australia with the certainly of more and worse to come. One International panel says failure will lead to is for a decline of 25 per cent in productivity.

Morrison talks glibly about the billions of dollars needed to restore the countryside after drought, fire and flood, and seems unfazed at the prospect of handing out taxpayer funds in compensation – fair enough, but surely a prudent leader would be taking out some insurance for the future.

Prevention is better than cure – assuming that cure is possible, that the injuries have not already proved irreversible. But even now, there is little point in throwing money at treating further disasters that could have been avoided in the first place. But ScoMo’s signature tune is the echo of hoofbeats receding in the distance as the stable door bangs open in the wind.

And the argument that Morrison can not or will not provide an estimate of the cost of reducing emissions is patently absurd, given the vast resources of his bureaucracy. Indeed, he doesn’t even need that as a starting point.

The Business Council of Australia, a conservative bunch dragged reluctantly to the realisation that its members will suffer is nothing is done has done a back-of-the-beer-mat calculation based on the preliminary costs and benefits of Snowy 2.0 to suggest that cutting down Australia’s emissions to zero will run to about $22 billion a year until the target is met. This sounds like a lot of money – hell, it is a lot of money.

But as we have been repeatedly warned, business as usual will be a lot more expensive, and the price will keep rising every year, every day, of continuing delay. So if technology is in fact the answer – and even the BCA admits it is very much a second best, that by far the most effective and the cheapest remedy is an emissions trading scheme, which the coalition parties will refuse to countenance even in the mildest form – we had better get on with it.

But once again there is a catch. As Andrew Leigh, one of Labor’s more thoughtful analysts has pointed out, getting the sluggards in private enterprise – including, especially, the Business Council — off their collective arses will be an exercise that makes building Snowy 2.0 the merest doddle.

The giants of private enterprise have made it clear for years that they are not just immune to the blandishments of innovation and technology, they are not interested in investment at all. Their priorities, indeed their entire schedule, is based on avoiding risk in any form; much better to concentrate on mergers, takeovers, cost cutting and delivering easy profits.

And it makes a cynical kind of sense: after all, if the government can get away with bluff and bluster, distraction and procrastination, and keep being re-elected, what is the point of trying to implement Morrison’s empty rhetoric? If his constituents – the voters – can be satisfied with regular supplies of bullshit, surely a smaller quantity of that plentiful commodity can be enough to keep the shareholders quiet.

So the Morrison roadmap is little more than a pious hope – no more explained than the policy Anthony Albanese reaffirmed last week and which Morrison has dismissed and derided. But Albo has at least joined the science, most of the rest of the world, and the Business Council in committing to a zero emissions target by 2050. ScoMo cannot even do that. Even if the troglodytes in his own party room could be persuaded, his loyal coalition partners will never let him.

Mungo MacCallum is a former senior Canberra correspondent.



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