A Price on Carbon: the New Greenmail


Hidden from view during the Australian election, a carbon price is back on the political agenda. This comes as no surprise. Anyone following the debate, however, will see that it has nothing to do with the environment. For some time we have been urged to “act now”, but the grounds keep shifting and changing. Early on it was the drought. Then the Great Barrier Reef. After that the Bali Conference. Then the election of Barack Obama. Next came the Copenhagen Conference. Then being “left behind” in clean technology. Now, apparently, “inaction will cost more in the end”. All have come and gone – including the drought which was supposed to be with us forever.

Even so, we are assured that a price on carbon is “inevitable”.

The frantic search for a rationale is driven by the plain fact that there is no environmental reason for Australia to have a carbon price. In tandem with efforts to manufacture urgency, there has been an equally devious campaign to misrepresent the process of climate change, or at least the IPCC’s “consensus” version. Crucial has been the cynical manipulation of words like “pollution” and “clean”. “Carbon pollution” is a scientifically absurd term designed to distort the basic issue. If the “consensus” science is right, the problem is with the concentrations of carbon dioxide, not the natural, clean, life-giving gas itself. Most of the public associate “pollution” with “dirty” emissions such as exhaust fumes and particulate matter. By definition, reducing such pollution is good. Many, if not most, still believe this is what climate action is about, thanks to obscurantist Greens and others. In the same way, “clean” energy is seen as the antidote to “dirty” or “polluting” gases. Who can be against cleanliness? Derivative terms like “the big polluters” are also deceptive.

Greens, activists and others with a stake in climate action live in mortal dread of the public grasping the truth. Since the concentrations are the issue, rather than carbon dioxide as such, Australia can do nothing about climate change. Our share of global emissions is too small. Nor do the world’s highest emitters show any sign of caring about what we do.

No Australian Prime Minister did, or could have done, more to push climate onto the world’s agenda than Kevin Rudd. Asked about the Copenhagen fiasco in the dying days of his prime ministership, Rudd delivered this famous outburst: “There was no government in the world like the Australian Government which threw its every energy at bringing about a deal, a global deal, on climate change. Penny Wong and I sat up for three days and three nights with 20 leaders from around the world to try and frame a global agreement.” The UN assigned Rudd a special role drafting the text of the prospective protocol. Ultimately, he was rebuffed by large and small emitters alike. The face-saving accord was cobbled together without him.

Australia can’t combat climate change directly by reducing its own emissions, or indirectly by encouraging larger emitters to reduce theirs. If we lack the power to prevent adverse climate effects, should they eventuate, we can’t avoid any higher costs of delayed action. Forget the constant bleating about China “doing its part.” Now the world’s largest emitter, China’s official policy is to reduce the “carbon intensity” of its economy (the carbon emitted per unit of GDP), not to cut emissions. This means emissions will continue to rise, although (possibly) at a diminishing rate. The point is this “action” is way short of what the IPCC considers necessary to make a difference. Greens keep asking the wrong question. It’s not whether China does “something” that matters, but whether that something is relevant. India does even less. As for the second largest emitter, opinion polls suggest a carbon price will remain dead in the United States after the November mid-term elections.

So why must Australia have a carbon price? One thing is for sure: it has nothing to do with climate. In his early interviews as Minister for Climate Change, Greg Combet referred to it, repeatedly, as “a very important economic reform”. Calling it an environmental measure would raise too many awkward questions. Certainly, a carbon price has serious economic impacts, but gracing it with the label “economic reform” is disingenuous. The word “reform” connotes improvement. Economic reform is designed to spur growth by improving productivity and efficiency. In contrast, a carbon price damages productivity, by raising cost inputs, and hampers efficient resource allocation. It isn’t economic reform. It’s an environmental measure, but utterly futile.

Climate activists were elated when Marius Kloppers, the boss of BHP Billiton, recently declared that a global carbon price is inevitable, so Australia should get in early. His grounds for this belief are a mystery. All the evidence suggests that a global price on carbon will be as elusive as world peace. He would have been on firmer ground to restrict his prediction to Australia. Still, environmental factors were far from Kloppers’s mind. As the arguments for a carbon price fall in succession, one lingers on. Endless speculation is undermining investor confidence, so the argument runs, and producing uncertainty in industries with long investment lead times, like the capital-intensive energy industry. This can only be ended with the swift introduction of a carbon price. Of course the argument is entirely circular. The activists, politicians and journalists who push this line are themselves instrumental in generating the speculation, uncertainty and paralysis, and for obvious reasons.

Back in the 1980s, “greenmail”, an amalgam of blackmail and greenback, referred to the practice of buying enough shares in a company to threaten a takeover, thereby forcing the company to buy the shares back at a premium. As the practise and word have since faded away, perhaps it’s time to revive the term “greenmail” and invest it with new meaning. Greenmail occurs when officials and activists with media power disrupt stability and certainty in a particular industry, maintaining pressure and an air of crisis, to intimidate business leaders holding out against some senseless green measure.

If Australia does end up with a carbon price, it will be due to greenmail rather than any rational consideration.

This article first appeared at The New City Journal.

Photo by Amit (Sydney)

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No emission too small

"Australia can do nothing about climate change. Our share of global emissions is too small."

Every step forward is a good one. Putting a price on carbon will spur innovation in the energy sector and reduce pollution (yes, even a little bit is a good thing).