"For the extreme left it [the existence of climate change] provides the opportunity to do what they've always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the left...and really they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.” – Nick Minchin, Liberal Senator and former Australian Government Minister.
I happen to think carbon dioxide re-radiates energy within the infrared spectrum. I also believe combustion of a million years of fossilised carbon within the space of a year, as well as deforestation of large tracts of the world’s forests, is likely to lead to a material increase in carbon dioxide within the atmosphere. All other things being equal, I think this is likely to lead the Earth’s atmosphere to trap greater amounts of the sun’s energy, leading to an increase in global temperature. I also think that if we make emitting carbon dioxide more expensive and harder to do, we’ll reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit and moderate temperature rises.
Does that make me a communist?
People that expressed concern for their children’s wellbeing from lead in petrol were never yelled down as communists. Restrictions on cigarettes have often been pioneered by people within the Liberal Party. And no one suggests that workers with mesothelioma are part of some leftist plot to undermine capitalism because they seek compensation from firms that produced asbestos. None of these problems with everyday, widespread products were immediately and unambiguously evident to us, it took a considerable amount of time and a large body of evidence to accumulate before action was taken. While the firms involved vigorously lobbied against government controls and penalties, these were not seen as issues dreamed up by one side of politics. They were seen as matters of proving cause and effect, to be determined through scientific study.
Yet, within Australia, climate change science has become tarred as a cause of the left rather than an objective physical phenomenon. Attempts to use a price signal or a market in carbon permits to control the problem, one of the least communist ways of controlling emissions, are represented as the end of the world as we know it. We are told to expect mass job losses, a deep economic recession, the lights going out and even the loss of our democratic freedoms.
Some of this hysteria is clearly the product of public relations exercises by cold, calculating firms looking after their own self interest, as I touched upon last Friday (Carbon prices and the economics of self-interest, March 2). But that doesn’t fully explain the thoughts of someone as intelligent as Nick Minchin. Nor a range of other prominent Australian business people who have strong views on climate science, yet generally wouldn’t give two hoots about any other matter of scientific inquiry. If you look at the hard economic numbers around the likely impacts of a carbon price, there appears to be little sitting behind such hysteria. So it is hard to believe that clever people such as Minchin and other business leaders could be duped by a PR campaign.
For these people this is about far more than a price on carbon, this is about a battle for Australia’s destiny. These people have a grand vision where Australia will become rich and prosperous, helping pull the poor of the world out of poverty on the back of our minerals and energy resources. As John Howard put it, Australia could become an "energy superpower”.
According to this vision, the people of China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, need huge quantities of metals and energy to take their economies into the 21stcentury. Australia, with its close proximity and plentiful access to metals and energy, is in the box seat to supply these nations’ needs. For these visionaries this is not just about making themselves personally wealthy, this will make the world a better place. This will be Adam Smith’s enlightened self interest writ large. The Chinese and Indians will gain much improved standards of living and Australian workers will obtain well-paying jobs.
These visionaries are now being proven correct in the insights they made back in the 1990s and early 2000s, so you can understand why this vision is held so fervently.
While the carbon price, as currently envisaged, poses no real threat to development of Australia’s energy and minerals projects, even the acknowledgement of climate change as a genuine problem is problematic for these visionaries. Fulfilling such a vision is not just about making money for these people, it’s what gives their lives purpose. To say that burning fossil fuels is bad is to call into question everything they’ve spent their lives working towards.
For many of them climate change is seen through the lens of a broader battle against the left’s attempts to curtail achievement of their vision. This is perhaps best personified by someone like Hugh Morgan, former head of Western Mining and president of the Business Council of Australia. Morgan has been a major driver of Australia’s resources industry and has led fights on industrial relations, Aboriginal land rights, and other constraints on development of minerals resources. When climate change emerged as a major problem in the 90s, Morgan was quick to act with the establishment of the Lavoissier Institute.
This association of climate change with broader causes of the left has been incredibly unfortunate. It means we now have a significant and incredibly influential segment of the business community that is almost irrational in its approach to government policies to control greenhouse gas emissions. Using a price signal or carbon permit market to control greenhouse gas emissions would be the most business friendly way of controlling our greenhouse gas emissions. It should not be seen as some kind of communist plot.