Obama ends Abbott’s coal comfort

While President Obama tugs at our heartstrings with the Great Barrier Reef, Prime Minister Abbott still expects voters to get gooey-eyed about coal.

Emotion is a big part of the debate over climate change action, and those advocating stricter emission controls use it as much as those who do not.

The former talk of droughts, bushfires, and islands disappearing beneath the waves, while the latter talk about collapsing businesses, third world poverty and ‘$100 lamb roasts’.

Even President Obama used the emotive symbol of the Great Barrier Reef to drive home his climate-change message when he addressed students at the University of Queensland on Saturday.

It works as a symbol because, like Obama, we all like the idea of the reef being there in 50 years’ time for his “daughters’ children” to visit.

In geopolitical, ecological and economic terms there are much bigger issues. As Business Spectator explained last year, protecting the underground aquifers feeding the northern plains of India and China is far more important.

Water levels there have been dropping by around half a metre a year, and if the ‘foodbowls’ they feed fail, billions of people face decades of ‘resource wars’ and starvation.

But the reef is discussed instead because it does a better job of tugging at our heartstrings.

Prime Minister Abbott is also tugging at heartstrings with his claims that without Australian coal, billions of people will remain impoverished.

He told radio station 2GB over the weekend: “Sure it’s important to protect the environment, but we’ve also got to raise living standards. And there are 1.3 billion people around the world ... who have no access to electricity at all and the only way they are going to get access to electricity is if we continue to use affordable and efficient coal.”

In one sense, Abbott is right. Some of the poorest cities on the planet desperately need affordable energy, to maintain public health, power educational facilities, and develop prosperous futures.

But in another sense he is wrong. The people in those cities will eventually starve if changing patterns of weather systems throw natural and agricultural eco-systems and existing economic structures into chaos.

And that is likely the future if emissions of heat-trapping gases are not brought under control. As Obama put it: “If China, as it develops, adapts the same per capita carbon emissions as advanced economies like the US or Australia, this planet doesn't stand a chance.”

That speech, and the climate agreement struck by China and the US last week, has focused world attention on what rich, high-emitting Australia is doing about climate change.

And that attention is exposing two errors built into Abbott’s long-term ambivalence on climate change action, and his ardent support for the coal industry as a means of helping the poor.

First, Abbott’s main attack on Julia Gillard’s emissions trading scheme was that pricing carbon was a major drag on the economy.

The numbers simply did not support the argument. A one-off spike in inflation of around 0.7 percentage points (less than what the GST caused) was the major effect.

That did not stop the ‘wrecking ball’ myth taking hold. One newspaper headline screamed “Carbon collapse - catastrophe as a firm fails every hour”, and noted that 11,000 SMEs had collapsed under carbon pricing ... without noting that 187,000 businesses were created in the same period. (The misery of good government to come, April 23 2013).

So mistake number one is that a rich economy such as our own cannot afford the ‘wrecking ball’ of adequate emission reductions. We can.

Embarrassingly enough, however, we can’t afford adequate emission reductions via the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund. While it might, just might, be able to hit the bipartisan ‘5 per cent by 2020’ target, it would be grossly unaffordable if used to hit more stringent targets post-2020.

Mistake number two is to suggest that coal is the developing world’s salvation.

While we all feel an emotional response when we hear about third-world denizens sitting around in dark huts at night, recent history has shown time and again that the principle of ‘appropriate technology’ is the key to fast-tracking economic development.

A good analogy is found in the use of mobile phone networks to boost development goals in sub-Saharan Africa. Building fixed line infrastructure was too slow, too expensive and too complicated for many regions. Instead, entrepreneurs at the ground level mastered the technologies to roll out and maintain handsets. Many impoverished Africans have learned to use them for everything from education to banking and microfinance.

The same is true for many impoverished regions where grid-distributed power is, again, too slow, too expensive and too complicated.

In Bangladesh -- one of the nations most exposed to the effects of climate change -- over a million ‘dark huts’ have been given enough electricity for light, and mobile telephony for that matter, through a micro-finance scheme that makes ‘solar home systems’ available.

Grameen Shakti, the group running the scheme, is an affiliate of the Grameen Bank which has used micro-lending to alleviate poverty since the 1970s.

One of the most elegant aspects of the scheme is that villagers who take out the loans for the solar systems pay less each month than they were already spending on other fuels such as kerosene.

In his speech at the University of Queensland, Obama spoke of poor nations “leapfrogging” the high-polluting phases of industrialisation seen in the West over a century ago, or in China and the eastern bloc nations in the latter half of the 20th century.

For them to do that, wealthy nations will have to provide poorer nations with financial and technological assistance. The US has just pledged $US3 billion to the ‘Green Climate Fund’, which is set up to do just that.

But such assistance will back a host of different technologies, not just coal. Gas, nuclear, renewables and small-scale non-grid technologies are all important.

To argue that the world needs coal is to put the cart before the horse.

The world needs power and continued economic growth, but if there is one thing the US and China have made clear during the G20 meetings, it is that both must be achieved without 20th century-style emissions.

The only outbursts of applause during the Obama speech were when he mentioned climate action.  His message was clearly aimed at the younger generations, for whom this is a key issue.

Obama said: “We make investments, and companies start depending on certain energy sources, and change is uncomfortable and difficult.

“...(but) leaders must be held accountable, even though it’s uncomfortable sometimes ... if you lead a country there are times where you are aggravated with people voicing opinions that seem to think you’re doing something wrong. You’d prefer everybody just praise you. I understand! But that’s not how societies move forward.”

The sooner the Abbott government gets ‘comfortable’ with the new currents of global politics, the better.

The sooner it foregrounds the message that ‘growth’ can be decoupled from ‘emissions’, rather than continue flogging the ‘coal is good’ message, the less backlash it will suffer from younger voters.

Abbott is a master of slogans that make an emotional connection with the electorate. But ‘spare a thought for poor people who want coal’ will struggle to cut through.

Younger voters have a lot of emotion, a lot of sympathy. But there is a risk they will start to see Abbott’s message, as the Rolling Stones sang, as sympathy for the devil.