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

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 apparently has room to move.

Image credit: Alan Porritt(AAP) from http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2010/05/11/2896442.htm

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, telling the  National Press Club on March 5 that “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 Described this as “…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, with Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett accusing Swan of engaging in “class warfare”.

Just as this brouhaha was developing, an internal Greenpeace document outlining campaign strategies to try and stop or slow down the massive expansion in Australian coal and unconventional gas exports conveniently found its way into the media’s hands. Conservative commentators in turn 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 ‘irrational’ and said that “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.”

Greenpeace Pasha Bulker laser projector stunt, 2007. Image from http://knowledge.allianz.com/energy/fossil_fuels/?673/energy-profile-coal

Federal Trade Minister Craig Emerson then also weighed in, telling Sky News that Greenpeace activists were “delusional” and were living in “fantasy land” and said that ‘‘The idea of flicking a switch from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable energy cannot be done.’’ Emerson claimed that moving from coal to renewables would cause “a global depression” and “would mean mass starvation”.

On what basis is Emerson asserting 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 the (necessarily) geographically diverse solar thermal and wind plants be technically unfeasible, or too expensive?

Enercon e-126 wind turbine erection. Image from http://www.stprojektai.lt/Vejo%20jegaines%20ENERCON.html

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- period? 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’.

Zero Carbon Australia 2020 proposed 100% renewable energy grid. Image from report which is downloadable for free at http://beyondzeroemissions.org/zero-carbon-australia-2020

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

Prime Minister Julia Gillard weighed into the Greenpeace bashing too, and repeated a mantra spoken by herself, Rudd and 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 drivers seat.

But hey, its 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 – aint no 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 is actually the ‘best practice’ option. Cutting emissions to maintain our relatively stable and benign climate so that all productive economic interactions and optimal levels of food production can continue occurring within it is a ‘luxury’ we can’t 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 planets entire ‘fuel tank’ worth 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 one hundred 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, Abbott and Hockey, who selflessly battled to ensure we didn’t even attempt something so economically ‘irresponsible’ as switching to renewables.

1 Comment

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One response to “Swan, class warfare, and the economic ‘wisdom’ of melting the ice caps

  1. Kath Leahy

    As I have said before – you are one of my heroes – I hope you live to see the Great Energy Transition (and peace) in your lifetime, for you have consistently remained an absolute ‘Trueheart'(that’s a braveheart who ‘fights with his brain for good things!) and you deserve to win.
    PS I hope you can get a ‘proper’ job that pays you a decent wage for decency.
    Dr Kath Leahy

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