The current chaos around climate and energy policy brings to mind George Santayana’s caution that: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That is exactly what we are witnessing, albeit with far more profound implications even than the advent of the Second World War.
In November 1936, Winston Churchill, concerned at the dangers posed by the Third Reich, warned the House of Commons about the refusal of the British establishment to face up to reality:
“They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent……Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have now entered upon a period of great danger ….. The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In it’s place we are entering a period of consequences….. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now …..”
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not to be diverted from the appeasement path, returning from Munich in September 1938 waving his “peace in our time” paper signed with Hitler. The rest is history; the war started a year later.
So it is with the National Energy Guarantee (NEG). Conjured out of nowhere, with experts press-ganged to provide underwhelming technical credibility, warning lights flashed red when the little Hitlers of the Coalition’s right wing, such as Craig Kelly, Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott himself, gave effusive support. Most media commentators demonstrated their profound ignorance by instantly heralding the NEG as the answer to our energy prayers, despite a total absence of detail and minimal reference to the climate implications.
For climate is the key. Until climate drives energy policy, there will never be the certainty for investment, reliability, security and affordability, that everyone craves.
Kelly gave the game away by letting slip the magic word “backloading”. Put simply, to satisfy these little Hitlers, when detail of the NEG does emerge, it will guarantee business as usual for energy supply, ramping up coal and CSG, with any attempt to reduce carbon emissions in line with our wholly inadequate Paris Agreement commitments, left until the last possible minute prior to the 2030 deadline. The rationale being that the cost of compliance by then will be greatly reduced due to technology improvements.
In that one word, the government has completely abrogated its first responsibility to safeguard the people and their future wellbeing, for everything about this “elegant” solution is wrong.
Many parliamentarians still do not believe human-induced climate change even exists; a view closely correlated with massive political donations from the fossil fuel industry. For a country whose wealth has been based on the sensible application of science and technology, a parliament so corrupt and lacking in basic scientific, technical and economic understanding, and commonsense, is the greatest threat to our future security and prosperity.
In the real world, beyond the Canberra goldfish bowl, human-induced climate change is accelerating far faster than expected. The unprecedented hurricane season in the Atlantic, devastating bushfires in California and extreme heat in many parts of South Asia are only the most recent portents of what is to come.
The lower Paris objective, of limiting temperature increase to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, is no longer achievable. Staying below the upper objective of 2oC requires a halt to the burning of fossil fuels today. That will obviously not happen, but the more carbon that is pushed into the atmosphere, the greater the overshoot beyond 2oC and the greater the catastrophic conditions we create for ourselves. For Australia, as one of the hottest and driest continents, this is extremely dangerous, particularly for our rural communities and for Northern Australia.
The climate impact of carbon emitted today does not manifest itself for years to come. In these circumstances, to seize upon “backloading” as a key policy plank, deliberately encouraging Adani and other Galilee Basin coal mines, the expansion of domestic coal-fired power, and CSG which is worse than coal from a warming perspective, is the height of irresponsibility, for it would automatically lock-in catastrophic outcomes. Emissions have to be reduced now, not a decade hence. Lower energy costs will only come from a major investment in renewables, improved energy efficiency and changing social values, not from massively expanding fossil fuels and continuing to subsidise them by refusing to price carbon.
For the last twenty years, beginning with John Howard, both major parties have continually played the appeasement card on climate policy. Howard signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and as a result triggered the first design of an Australian emissions trading system, completed in 1999 (see disclosure below). Despite strong business support, he shelved it when George W Bush refused to sign Kyoto. Business interest in climate action evaporated and fossil fuel industry resistance grew. To appease the fossil fuel lobby, every proposal subsequently has been used as a starting point to further ratchet down sensible climate policy ambition, the most recent example being the Finkel Review.
In good faith, Alan Finkel put forward an honest proposal for a politically acceptable climate and energy policy, albeit far from ideal. It was simply taken as the starting point to be ratcheted down again to the magical vision of the NEG.
Those who have any genuine concern for the future of this country need to call out climate appeasement for what it really is, namely the destruction of our security and prosperity by a bunch of ignorant, self-serving ideologues who have no regard for the Australian people they so earnestly claim to represent.
Appeasement never works. The devastation wrought by Hitler pales into insignificance compared with the risks to which we are now exposed by the government’s refusal to adopt sensible climate policy. The period of consequences is upon us and there are certainly no Churchills in sight.
Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a Member of the Club of Rome.
(Disclosure: Ian chaired the AGO Experts Group which designed this first emissions trading system for Australia under the Howard government in 1998/99)