Wayne Swan, class warfare and the economic wisdom of melting the ice caps

March 8, 2012
Zero Carbon Australia 2020 has proposed a 100% renewable energy grid for the country.

It was a week which started with federal treasurer Wayne Swan having a go at the mining billionaires for distorting our democracy, but which soon entered a new phase whereby the Labor party illustrated the rather narrow range within which our two party system has room to move.

Swan called out “the greed of a wildly irresponsible few” mining magnates for using their cash to distort public debate around the mining tax and carbon tax. He told the National Press Club on March 5: “The debate over the future of our country is at risk of being distorted and decided not by the strength of ideas, but the strength of influence.”

Swan said this was “a deeply disturbing development that we must understand properly so that we can resist it forcefully”.

Agreeable sentiments, to be sure.

This ruffled a few feathers, including shadow treasurer Joe Hockey and former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, who both accused Swan of engaging in “class warfare”.

Just as this brouhaha was developing, an internal Greenpeace document outlining campaign strategies to stop or slow down the huge expansion of Australian coal and unconventional gas exports conveniently found its way into the media’s hands.

Conservative commentators demanded that Swan and his ALP cohorts condemn the document. If Swan wanted to escalate his supposed agitation for “class warfare”, here was his chance. He could defend Greenpeace’s right to question the wisdom of the mining expansion, or at the very least just keep his mouth shut.

Instead he obligingly sunk the boot into Greenpeace, describing them as “deeply irresponsible” and “completely irrational”. He said: “The coal industry is a very important part of our national economy, it’s a very important part of our energy supply and I think it’s very important to the global economy.”

Federal trade minister Craig Emerson also weighed in, telling Sky News that Greenpeace activists were “delusional” and lived in a “fantasy land”. He said: “The idea of flicking a switch from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable energy cannot be done.” Emerson claimed a move from coal to renewable energy would cause “a global depression” and “would mean mass starvation”.

But on what basis does Emerson claim that a relatively rapid (say, decade long) transition from coal to renewables “cannot be done”? Would the supply of electricity not be able to match demand since, as some like to drearily assert “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow”?

Would grid upgrades to link geographically diverse solar thermal and wind plants be technically unfeasible, or too expensive?

Is not wind, the cheapest and most proven of the renewables family, quickly closing in on coal as the cheapest form of new generating capacity?

Would rolling out tranches of successively larger solar thermal plants not deliver economies of scale and bring down the price of each new round to be built, as has been projected by independent analysts with a wealth of experience in building power plants?

If Emerson were to actually take up any of these more specific points he would then have to defend his stance against real world evidence, as can be found in documents like the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 report by Beyond Zero Emissions.

Instead, Emerson has taken a much simpler and easier to defend position — “renewables cannot be done because they cannot be done”, also known as “renewables cannot be done because Craig Emerson said so”. This is intriguingly similar to “renewables cannot be done because the mining industry says so”.

Pesky engagement with the known parameters of the actual subject matter — modern renewable energy generation technology and those strategies that guide its efficient and effective use — is conveniently avoided by sticking to vacuously broad (and incorrect) sound bites.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard weighed in with some Greenpeace-bashing too, repeating a mantra spoken by herself, Kevin Rudd and Greg Combet many times before: “The coal industry has got a great future in this country. We’ve made that clear all along. You’re seeing that future being built now as we see expansion in our coal exports particularly.”

And so the excellent two party system of democracy in Australia, in which the Greens get 12% of the vote in the lower house and have one seat out of 150 to show for it, provides us with two clear choices. We can either have a coal and unconventional gas export expansion on steroids… or a coal and unconventional gas export expansion on steroids.

Bravo, two party democracy — you’re really hooking us up with options here. You’re really putting the people in the driver's seat.

But hey, it's about the economy isn’t it, stupid. It’s a field best left to the experts. And mainstream, neoliberal economics — as espoused by Emerson, Swan and pretty much the entire Lib-Lab duopoly — is not ordinary economics. No — mainstream economics in fact exists in an interesting parallel universe whereby knowingly causing irreversible catastrophic warming is an economically sensible idea.

Indeed, it’s the neoliberal consensus that this approach is the “best practice” option.

The elite consensus is that cutting emissions to maintain our relatively stable and benign climate, so that all productive economic interactions and optimal levels of food production can continue within it, is a “luxury” we cannot afford; least of all in the current economic climate.

As Swan puts it, such an approach would be “irrational” and “destructive”.

Mainstream economics says that digging up and exploiting the planet's entire “fuel tank” of accumulated cheap fossil energy as quickly as possible is an economic “necessity” — despite the availability of proven renewable alternatives.

Only those of us living in “fantasy land” would actually think that it is economically desirable to maintain such frivolous and unnecessary things as “the polar icecaps which regulate the earth’s temperature and weather patterns” or “glacier fed river systems that provide food and water to over a billion people”.

I can just see the inheritors of the Lib-Lab tradition 100 years from now, proudly explaining to the world how the unceasing barrage of floods, droughts, heatwaves and associated pestilence and famine are the result of prudent economic choices made at the turn of the millennium.

Our great grandchildren will surely look back and thank those supremely forward thinking paragons of economic wisdom like Gillard, Swan, Emerson, Tony Abbott and Hockey who selflessly battled to ensure we didn’t even attempt something so economically “irresponsible” as switching to renewable energy.

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