Changing climates

Changing climates

The Direct Action path to poverty

AAP/Alan Porritt

The current gallery of columnists at The Australian are always interesting to read. There is a core of them that display the views of Coalition politicians only with more colour and erudition, and often more transparently than Canberra soundbites and doorstops would allow.

Where government ministers might be seen attacking an institution or a policy, these columnists are adept at rallying to such an attack, be it on the ABC, human rights, education, health, foreign affairs, the public service and, of course, climate.

One such occasional columnist who chimes in over climate change is the Danish “sceptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg.

Lomborg is well-known for subordinating the importance of climate change to other global issues such as health and development. His work effectively focuses on short-term solutions to “immediate” problems, arguing that global warming will actually provide a net benefit to the globe up until 2065 by reducing cold-related deaths and improving crop production, after which, he tells us, heat will take over as a health and food security problem.

Lomborg’s disregard for the plight of subsequent generations might appeal to politicians whose sense of time is tightly bound to electoral cycles. But it does not sit well with anyone who has even the smallest appreciation of telos.

In his column last week, Renewables pave path to poverty, Lomborg went all-out attacking renewables, just as the Renewable Energy Target (RET) and Direct Action was beginning to spike in news cycles across the country.

Lomborg is unusual. He is not your regular climate change denier and says, as government ministers do, that climate change is real and that we have to tackle it.

But also like the government, Lomborg’s suggestions for tackling climate change are so riddled with doublethink as to render his claims to have accepted the science as implausible and disingenuous.

Critics of Lomborg’s work on the economics of addressing climate change describe him as a dangerous propagandist working on behalf of vested interests (namely the fossil fuel industry); that he “advocates what he does not believe in”; and that “all he cares about is how he can make the general public react the way that he wants”.

Does this sound familiar?

Lomborg’s arguments look impressive because he cites a large amount of economic statistics and data, but such a technique is marred by the fact that the statistics are demonstrably twisted and flawed; that he generalises them out of context; and that they are replete with deliberate errors.

Take his column last week. Lomborg argued that:

…the carbon tax and the RET have contributed to household electricity costs rising 110 per cent in the past five years, hitting the poor the hardest. A Salvation Army report from last year found 58 per cent of low-income households were unable to pay their electricity bills on time’.

Here, Lomborg seems to be associating the Salvation Army report with climate mitigation policy, which the report does not even mention anywhere. He doesn’t provide a source to substantiate the 110% figure and its attribution to the RET and carbon tax.

Making this link is grossly misleading, a matter dealt with by a factcheck here at The Conversation. The greatest component of electricity price rises in Australia have to do with privatisation of the providers, transmission costs, distribution costs (“poles and wires”) and retail costs.

Lomborg then goes on to list a great deal of questionable statistics from nations around the world in order to recycle a suite of vexatious arguments that he has been pushing for over a decade. These include:

  • that renewable energy is a luxury that makes middle-class consumers feel good, but puts up the price of energy overall which hits low-income groups the most;

  • that renewable energy is not affordable and does not deserve to be funded at all. Instead, funding should go into long-term research to improve it or make it affordable.

His illustrations of the “energy poor” from around the world are selective and wildly exaggerated. In Greece, he says:

…more and more Athenians are cutting down park trees, causing air pollution from wood burning to triple.

Seriously?

In Britain:

Pensioners burn old books to keep warm because it is cheaper than coal; they ride on heated buses all day, and a third leave part of their homes cold.

Lomborg also complains that:

Wealthy homeowners in Bavaria can feel good about their inefficient solar panels, receiving lavish subsidies essentially paid by poor tenants in the Ruhr who cannot afford solar panels…

None of these claims are substantiated with sources, and are so general as to guard against falsifiability. But one wonders what Lomborg would make of the recent study in Australia showing that the highest rooftop solar uptake is still the highest in low-income suburbs, and that the reason for this is that this demographic can’t afford the pricing of the privatised fossil fuel providers.

What also would Lomborg make of the study by the Clean Energy Council showing that axing Australia’s 20% renewable energy target will lead to increasingly higher electricity bills from 2017?

As for the claim that current renewable technologies are not up to the job, in 2013, they accounted for 43.6% of all new power sources to come online around the world.

Last year, Lomborg also proved to be at the ideological centre of the groupthink displayed by the Coalition and Australian business leaders around questioning climate change science, a groupthink which is alive and well in 2014.

In this sense, it is worth looking at how Lomborg’s views have influenced key Coalition figures including environment minister Greg Hunt. When he was shadow minister for climate action, Hunt gave a speech to the Sydney Institute where he revealed Lomborg as the researcher who had shaped the Coalition’s “Direct Action” policy.

Lomborg has an unpaid position – running the “Copenhagen Consensus Center” (based, oddly, in Massachusetts), a centre which appropriates the word “consensus” that otherwise carries the power of denoting the 97% agreement amongst climate scientists worldwide.

But the consensus that Lomborg’s centre is concerned with is amongst economists, not climate scientists. Lomborg managed to sign up a great many economists to his centre including four Nobel laureates, none of whom have expertise in the relationship between greenhouse gas and climate change.

In his speech, Hunt refers to one of Lomborg’s expert panels charged with the task of finding the cheapest way of solving the world’s problems. For several years, Lomborg has set these panels the task of finding the best ways of advancing global welfare if they had US$75 billion to spend.

As documented on controversial IPCC dissident Judith Curry’s blog, in 2012 these economists placed climate change as 17th in a list of priorities, behind items that included a program to deworm school children and a salt-reduction diet campaign.

Hunt says:

Let me just summarise. A considered panel of the world’s most eminent pure market economists concluded that of 15 different systems for cutting emissions, the three worst, the three least effective, the three most costly per tonne of abatement were variations of the carbon tax or ETS. By comparison, their top solutions were all about smarter technology.

What Hunt fails to mention is that this exercise has been beset with problems, and that in 2008, a member of the expert panel published a public communiqué saying that:

Lomborg is misrepresenting our findings thanks to a highly selective memory.

Specifically, Lomborg was accused of deliberately distorting their analysis in claiming that global economic benefits would accrue right up to 4 degrees Celsius increase in global average temperature.

Lomborg’s particular brand of environmentalism – which says yes, the world is warming but it is nothing to worry about – is particularly appealing to the Coalition government. It is an approach that doesn’t have to get tangled up with opposing the science and also public opinion, while it is able to take a purely economic approach to doing nothing.

Or better yet, do something, but not at the expense of big business.

In fact, it is better to pay big business not to pollute, which makes the debt levy being flagged for the upcoming budget all the more comedic. The A$2.4 billion per year fuel tax credit scheme, which managed to escape the Commission of Audit, are simply handouts that go directly to the immense profits of mining companies.

These two forms of corporate welfare reveal the true nature of the government’s class war agenda, which goes beyond keeping election promises, as we see a corporate state materialise by the minute.