Playing politics with renewables: how the right is losing its way

Image 20170221 18633 1hntzv4
Rocking the boat: Scott Morrison and his infamous lump of carbon.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

David Holmes, Monash University

This summer has seen a concerted attack on renewable energy coming out of Canberra, featuring everyone from One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts to Coalition ministers channelling the far right of their party. So absurd and illogical has the broadside been, it is tempting to conclude that conservative politics is at risk of losing its way entirely. The Conversation

In 2017, talking down renewables while advocating “clean coal” smacks of desperation and political recklessness in the face of the wider forces that are now lighting up the path to a renewable future.

Here are my picks for the top four most absurd attempts at gaming the politics of energy from right-of-centre politicians.

1. The poll that backfired

In the top spot is Malcolm Roberts – former coal executive, current senator and full-time climate denier – who held a poll on Twitter to see how much voters hate “green energy”.

Source: Twitter.

The only problem was that his poll (as unscientific as these things are), ended up showing overwhelming support for renewables, at 87%.

Of course the premise in his question is disingenuous, as the Coalition government has recently attempted to divert some of the money originally set aside for renewables into some decidedly non-renewable projects. Which brings us to…

2. ‘Clean’ coal

Funding “clean coal” – a term invented by a coal industry PR firm, would be a spectacularly brazen repurposing of green energy funding. It hinges on the idea that techniques like carbon capture and storage can help coal become clean enough to compete with zero-carbon energy sources like wind and solar. Under this perverse reasoning, coal would thus qualify for subsidies from the very funding bodies that were set up to end our reliance on coal.

The campaign, which kicked off with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s National Press Club Speech on Feb 1, reached its apex when Treasurer Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal in parliament. But as Lenore Taylor pointed out last week, the argument for clean coal, which the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has been pushing for many years, has the government looking like the adman.

3. Attacks on ‘ideology’

While pushing clean coal at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, the Coalition has ironically also been warning us of Labor’s “ideological” campaign for renewable energy.

In a scalding attack last week, business analyst Alan Kohler accused the government of being “evangelists” for coal, and wondered what has happened to the Malcolm Turnbull who once sacrificed his leadership to his progressive personal convictions on climate. He wrote:

…one suspects that Morrison and Turnbull know too – we all know, really – that the only reason coal is “cheap” is that the cost of dealing with the carbon dioxide that comes from burning it is not included in the price.

Coal is by far the most expensive fuel for generating electricity, full stop — if the cost of dealing with climate change is taken into account.

The MCA and the Turnbull government are among the few groups still resisting the inevitable.

Source: Twitter.

4. Using the weather as a weapon

Despite the Coalition looking increasingly isolated on energy policy, the rearguard action against renewables continues. For weeks now we have been hearing about the need for an energy mix that is secure, reliable and affordable, as energy minister Josh Frydenberg told us on ABC radio on Monday.

This platform of energy security has been used to launch a disingenuous attack on renewables, based on their alleged unreliability (which is allegedly even worse during climate-induced bouts of extreme weather).

The first such attack came in the wake of the cyclone in South Australia that triggered a statewide blackout last September. South Australia’s wind energy industry was again singled out for criticism after a heatwave prompted more outages this month.

Turnbull took the opportunity to draw a link between the blackouts and SA’s high penetration of renewable energy:

If you want to have a larger and larger share of intermittent renewables in your energy system then you need to have the backup … when the wind isn’t blowing.

The day after the blackout (and with the heatwave bearing down on Sydney), Morrison held up his coal in parliament and pledged not to let business “fizzle out in the dark” as he claimed Labor would.

However, a week later the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) apologised to the 90,000 households and businesses affected by the blackouts, attributing them to load-shedding and pointing out that a software error cut off 60,000 extra consumers unnecessarily. AEMO added that because heatwaves have grown more extreme under the warming climate, it was unable to forecast accurately how much extra supply would be needed.

The anti-renewables message finally came unstuck last weekend, when it was revealed that Turnbull and his ministers had already been advised that renewables were not to blame for last September’s incident.

Meanwhile, as the heatwave moved across New South Wales, there is evidence that renewables such as rooftop solar dramatically reduced the need for load-shedding.

But one of the biggest ironies of the Coalition’s decision to pick on SA’s wind farms is that many of them were put there by federal government policy.

As Ben Eltham wrote last week:

After eight years of treating energy policy as a plaything for political gain, the federal Liberal Party is now so wedded to climate denialism and fossil fuel loyalty signalling that it knows no other way. In the process, Malcolm Turnbull has abandoned nearly everything he once stood for … except perhaps the only real thing he ever stood for, the gaining and holding of power.

In attempting to distance the Commonwealth from projects that are actually making progress on climate, Turnbull has executed a complete reversal of his own personal convictions on climate change. Perhaps party-political expedience really is the only explanation for the ongoing war of words on renewable energy.

David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Tax and dividend: how conservatives can grow to love carbon pricing

Andrew Hopkins, Australian National University

In some political circles, hostility to climate policy has become a way of showing off one’s conservative credentials. But a suggestion for pricing carbon, grounded in classic conservative principles, has now emerged in the United States. The Conversation

It has come not from the populist Trump administration, but from an eminent group of Republicans with impeccable conservative credentials, several of whom served as cabinet secretaries in previous Republican administrations.

Last week they published a manifesto entitled The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends. In a nutshell, the proposal is for a carbon tax – yes, a tax – with the proceeds to be returned to all citizens as a “carbon dividend”, every quarter. More details in a moment.

The group accepts that climate change is real and that, regardless of whether it is human-induced, a human response is urgently needed. Moreover, they say:

Now that the Republican Party controls the White House and Congress, it has the opportunity and responsibility to promote a climate plan that showcases the full power of enduring conservative convictions.

Tax and dividend

The plan envisages a tax on fossil fuels at the point at which they leave the refinery or coal mine and enter the economy. It would start at US$40 a tonne and increase over time. This would force up the price of many commodities – most obviously petrol – and might be expected to anger consumers, were it not for the dividend strategy.

The dividend would be paid to all Americans, via the social security system. A family of four might expect a dividend of US$2,000 in the first year, rising over time in line with the tax.

The manifesto’s authors include eminent establishment Republicans, including James Baker, Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State for George H. W. Bush; and George Shultz, Secretary of State in the Reagan administration and a former member of Richard Nixon’s cabinet. They are certainly sensitive to the political unpopularity of new taxes.

Their response is that this is not a tax that will accrue to the government, because it will be “revenue-neutral”: all of the money will go back to citizens. The carbon-pricing scheme introduced in Australia under former prime minister Julia Gillard was also revenue-neutral but returned money to consumers partly through income tax relief, which is less visible than a direct dividend.

The high visibility of a carbon dividend to the consumer arguably makes this a more politically palatable policy. For this reason the manifesto’s authors call their proposal a carbon dividend rather than a carbon tax. They calculate that the dividend would leave 70% of the population financially better off, particularly among working-class taxpayers. As they put it:

…carbon dividends would increase the disposable income of the majority of Americans while disproportionately helping those struggling to make ends meet.

The group argues that this proposal is consistent with conservative principles in various ways.

First, it is a market-based solution to the problem of climate change which maximises freedom to consumers and producers. Second, it will facilitate the rollback of Obama-era regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, which conservatives regard as the epitome of heavy-handed regulation. As the Congress has discovered with relation to Obamacare, it cannot simply repeal unwanted Obama legislation without replacing it with something widely seen as better.

Finally, they argue that the repeal of heavily bureaucratic regulations would eliminate the need for a bureaucracy to enforce them. This would facilitate smaller government, one of the abiding aspirations of conservatives.

Apart from these matters of principle, the group points to several other political advantages – not least the chance to bring the Republican Party back into the mainstream on climate change:

For too long, many Republicans have looked the other way, forfeiting the policy initiative to those who favor growth-inhibiting command-and-control regulations, and fostering a needless climate divide between the GOP and the scientific, business, military, religious, civic and international mainstream.

The manifesto’s authors point out that climate change concern is greatest among under-35s, as well as Asians and Hispanics – the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic groups. A carbon dividend policy would enhance the appeal of the Republican Party to all of these groups.

They acknowledge that it may be an uphill battle to win over the anti-establishment Trump White House. But, they say:

…this is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the conservative canon by offering a more effective, equitable and popular climate policy based on free markets, smaller government and dividends for all Americans.

Back in Australia, many conservative politicians such as Senator Cory Bernardi – who this month defected from the government so as to promote more freely his conservative principles – still decry carbon pricing. Bernardi described the idea of returning to carbon trading as “one of the dumbest things I have ever heard”. This is hardly a conservative response given the ramifications for our climate.

Conservatives like Bernardi continue to equate carbon pricing with socialism. Yet for these establishment US Republicans, taxing carbon is entirely consistent with their conservative principles. Bernardi and his like-minded colleagues in Australia would do well to consider the possibility that there is indeed a conservative case for a carbon tax.

Former Republican congressman Bob Inglis will speak about the conservative response to climate change at Australia’s National Press Club on February 22.

Andrew Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.