Rorts Sports

The “sports rorts” saga that has lately claimed the privileged position of Bridget McKenzie has consumed many newspaper front pages and exercised many peoples’ outrage – and not just those of us on the left. McKenzie is gone, relegated to the back bench for a token period of contrition.

(If there’s one thing the last week and Barnaby Joyce’s resurgence should have taught us, it’s that no matter how egregious the sin, the redemption is only a few news cycles away. After all, McKenzie knows first-hand how deeply embroiled the office of the PM – and conceivably, the PM himself along with Cabinet – were with this and other electoral misuses of public funds. It seems entirely likely that McKenzie’s demotion is a handshake deal with the understanding that her star will once again rise, given enough water under the bridge.)

Many in the ranks of the Liberal and National government may be relieved that the erstwhile Sports minister fell on her sword. McKenzie’s elevation to cabinet and the deputy leadership was unexpected and (some argue) unwarranted. McKenzie herself perhaps never expected to receive such a prominent role. Upon reaching the big chair she and her department have been the subject of many a scandal and rort. She seems to have capitalised on the perks of the job for all they’re worth, notching up the government’s largest travel bill in 2019.

McKenzie was not a high-performing minister in her other roles. In her capacity as Minister for Agriculture, arguably one of the Nationals’ core constituencies, McKenzie earned the ire of her colleagues for her poor communication skills, lack of visibility and poor organisation.  Nationals were furious that McKenzie capitulated quickly to demands from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, allowing PHON to claim credit for something the Nationals themselves had been agitating for over many months, something McKenzie had argued could not be achieved so quickly.

Most importantly, of course, the finding from Phil Gaetjens that McKenzie breached ministerial guidelines by not declaring the gift of a membership to a shooting club (which had, quite coincidentally, been given a grant under McKenzie’s funding program) allows the Liberal/National coalition government to safely demote the Minister for Sports without copping to the much more substantial claim that said funding program had been systematically rorted.

Because of course, that rorting was entirely according to Coalition policy and methods. McKenzie was not an outlier running a private little game. She was doing exactly what she had been told and what was expected of her.

We know this, even if the government won’t come out and admit it. The government knows this, and they know we know it. We know it, because they’re effectively admitting to it.

On ABC radio this week, Nationals MP Damian Drum admitted, on air, that “Every jurisdiction does it… “.

It’s hardly a new observation. Just after the 2013 federal election Sophie Mirabella, smarting from defeat in the battle for the seat of Indi against Cathy McGowan, claimed that “I had a commitment for a $10 million allocation for the Wangaratta Hospital that, if elected, I was going to announce a week after the election. That is $10 million that Wangaratta hasn’t had because [independent] Cathy [McGowan] was elected.”

The Coalition has a long tradition of paying back its benefactors. After all, this is why the Coalition is so hell-bent on sending the planet to hell, supporting the coal/oil/gas/fossil fuels industry against all scientific advice, despite world opprobrium and against the economic and environmental interests of the Australian public. Not because coal and fossil fuels are essentially good for us. Not even because the sums add up. If making plans to ditch coal would really send Australia’s economy into freefall you could understand the government’s position, but any rudimentary analysis shows that the market for coal and gas is a very short road indeed, and if we have not made significant inroads into renewable energy and associated industries by the time nobody else wants to buy our coal, we will be deep in it.

No, the reason the Coalition won’t ditch coal is that they owe their benefactors. The Liberals, like the Lannisters, always pay their debts.

So the idea that a voter needs to vote for the Coalition to secure any love from a Coalition government feels right at home. The thought of granting, or withholding, funds for a needy project not on the basis of need but because of the political party in control of that seat, is just and right in their eyes. Or if not “just and right”, it’s a case of “Every jurisdiction does it.”

Which raises two questions. Do they? And should they?

To be clear, we’re not talking about the time-honoured Australian method of “pork-barrelling” here. It’s true that both Labor and the Coalition talk the talk when it comes time for an election. An election is a battle of purses, each contender seeking to out-promise the other without ever stepping over the tenuous line beyond which the electorate wonders how the debt will be paid. We understand this. We accept it. To some extent, we reward it – politicians wouldn’t commit themselves to spending promises if it didn’t work at least some of the time.

The sports rorts is a deeper issue. Rather than promises to spend money in your electorate should you vote the correct way (and the promiser be in the position to grant their beneficence), these grants are intended to be retrospective. It’s not “Vote for us and we’ll do something for you”. It’s “See what we’ve done for you? Vote for us and you’ll get more.”

The corollary being, “Vote for somebody else and you won’t get a dime from us.” Or, in the case of Indi, a hospital.

We’re talking about a government, which actually has its hands on the levers of government, being partisan in the distribution of its funds. We’re not talking about fulfilling election promises.

So is Labor just as bad – or, as Damian Drum avers, worse? It’s hard to tell. I am not sure if the required analysis has been done. There certainly have not been as many scandals under Labor governments than Liberal ones, but perhaps Labor is better at keeping the lid on it. They appear to be better than the Liberals at many things, winning elections being the notable exception.

If it’s hard to tell whether it’s true that “every jurisdiction does it” – and let’s assume, for the sake of convenience, that they do – then, should they?

After all, MPs are expected to advocate for their electorates. They bring the needs and desires of their voters to those Ministers with the wherewithal to provide government support. Some would argue that Coalition MPs have better access to Coalition Ministers and receive a friendlier ear.

But this means that projects of merit can only receive funding if it suits the government of the day. It means that some electorates suffer in neglect due to being safe seats for either party, while marginal seats are showered in largess. It means that public funds – money coming from Australian taxpayers – is overtly funneled for political purposes, and only secondarily for public gain. I would argue that this should not happen. But how to avoid it, in a democratic two-party system where only the government of the day can call the shots?

If only there were an independent body, something like an overarching Sports Australia body, which could give advice as to the merits of any applicants to a funding scheme. A body with appropriate expertise – for the sake of imagination, let’s call it Infrastructure Victoria, and let it rule on the cost/benefits of something like the East/West Link. If only governments would commit to evidence-based policy.

But what kind of a political party would ever countenance such a thing? Certainly not the one we have now.

(Co-published on The AIMN.)

Doing it for ourselves

I’ve previously written about conservative politics being unconvinced about the very purpose of government. It is becoming clearer, through repeated example, that the Australian people are unconvinced about the very purpose of government.

The recent bushfires and the ongoing drought are just two of the more recent examples that show how Australians will step up to the challenge, dig deep, give generously and demonstrate just how all-round spiffy they are.

The point that gets forgotten in this ongoing round of self-congratulations is that they shouldn’t have to.

We maintain a government not because we desperately want somebody to rule over us, but because there are things in a modern society we should not have to do for ourselves.

At least some of us recognise this. If we look just a little below the surface of all the many examples of altruism, we can see an undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

When Australians are able to make statements such as “They are facing catastrophic conditions. The town has been left to fend for itself”, when we read articles that “Volunteers are keeping Australians safe, not the Government”.  When we can seriously suggest that “We have reached a point where the long-running downgrading of our institutional apparatus of government means that the most efficient way of getting money out to people in desperate circumstances is via non-government organisations like Vinnies and the Red Cross” we need to ask if our government is doing the job we pay it for.

The bushfire crisis has been on the front page for a month or two. The ongoing drought crisis has been going much longer, and here also we see individuals stepping in where the government has not.

“I feel f—ing sick because I am taking honest people’s money and they shouldn’t be helping me. But 100 per cent, the government is where the money should be coming from.”

All this is just the latest symptom of a long-standing ideological disagreement about what government is for. Conservative governments have an ideological opposition to providing assistance.

The idea that governments should provide services such as healthcare and hospitals, education and schools, social security and welfare, is relatively recent in historical times. Prior to the 1700s all these services would be provided by the churches or not at all. Government’s role was to maintain law and order and support the armed forces, and that was about it.

If you look at modern-day Coalition budgets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s what we’ve returned to. In any area you name the Coalition has, since its election in 2013, slashed and burned, cut and where possible dismantled. Government bodies have been merged, defunded or decommissioned. Public benefit projects like the NBN have been hollowed out and repurposed to avoid them becoming useful to the undeserving poor. Public benefits have been taxed, indexed and regulated into submission.

Coalition governments are welded onto the idea of privatising profits and socialising losses. That’s how they approach energy generation, mining, any provision of services where they can get away with it. And allowing the public to pay out of their own pockets what they should instead expect from the apparatus of State is the ultimate outcome of this ethic.

As I previously wrote:

Money to pay for education, fire services, health, broadband, has to come from somewhere. The social structures – primarily church – which previously might have supported these things no longer have the resources or the popular support to be able to take up the slack. Charities around the country are crying out for support and berating the government for not providing enough basic resources/support; something has to give. In this environment, the idea of “small government” doesn’t make sense.

The government has to be big enough to do the things that the monasteries aren’t around to do anymore.

Of course, the budget cuts that cut deepest are not the ones to frontline funding. The government has learned its lesson from Tony Abbott’s 2014 shocker budget: the Australian people do not like to see cuts to the bottom line of the ABC, of healthcare and social security and roads.

Instead the government makes budget cuts that are relatively invisible: slashing and burning a path through the public service. This allows them to crow that they are “increasing funds” to education, healthcare or other services, while concealing the fact that there’s nobody left in the responsible Departments to process the paperwork. So waiting lists blow out, but also, money is left unspent at the end of the financial year. Not because services don’t need it, but because those who needed it could not access it. Thus we have money left in the NDIS allocation that can be re-allocated to drought relief. Does anybody want to make a wager that this funding will be effectively used in a timely manner?

The Australian people want these services. They have come to expect them. But Coalition politicians just want to win elections, and they’ve convinced themselves (with some justification) that the way to win elections is to cut taxes. When they cut taxes, they can’t afford to pay for these services.

That’s when the beneficent Australian public – the battlers, the Quiet Australians – rise to the challenge. This is when we see crowdfunding campaigns to pay for playgrounds, to enable life-saving operations not covered by the PBS, to support art bodies that have lost their funding or to provide hoses and trucks and face masks to firefighters. And we give. Australians want these services and we’ve shown that we’re happy to pay for them.

This is evidence of a disconnect in the electorate. The same people who donate generously to charitable causes are often the same people who will cheerfully vote in a Coalition government and cheer on the hollowing-out of any ability or willingness Government might have to do its part.

Of course no politician ever saw a way of raising money they didn’t like.

Now we have political aspirants crowdfunding their election campaigns.

We have government bodies, starved of public funds, reduced to fundraising to be able to achieve the things their constituents want.

When we accept the thought of crowdfunding to pay for services that should come out of our taxes, we let governments off the hook. We allow the argument to be framed in terms of what we can afford. When we allow politicians to sway our votes on the basis of promised tax cuts, we should remember that in doing so we are contributing to a worldview in which governments don’t pay for firefighting, individuals do. Where governments don’t pay for healthcare, societal infrastructure: instead the market will provide.

But there are certain things only Government can do. Nobody can crowdfund a closure of coal power stations, or the building of solar farms. We can’t crowdfund an ETS into existence. How, practically, can we the people contribute to the things our Government ought to be doing for us?

Every time we see an article about What you can do to save the planet or confront a blog comment challenging you about how often you fly and whether you use light bulbs, this is contributing to the distraction campaign. Individuals, acting alone, cannot save us from global environmental collapse. Not while governments continue to support coal mining, gas exports, coal-fired power and the infrastructure that supports them.

So don’t let the government get away with claiming that it can’t afford to pay for these services. Don’t allow it to laud the efforts of well-meaning, altruistic Australians without demanding an explanation of why the private altruism was necessary. We have a government for the purposes of providing healthcare, emergency management, social welfare and a host of other social provisions that we can’t do on our own. We expect our government to provide these services without fear or favour, to the needy regardless of how loud or visible they are.

If our government is not doing these things, it is not fit for purpose. So why exactly does it exist?

(Co-posted on The AIMN)

Enemy of the Good

For many years I have been furious with the Greens for their sabotage of Labor’s ETS in 2009. Perhaps the policy was flawed. Certainly it did not go far enough. But it would have been a start. Imagine if the CPRS had begun more than a decade ago? Rather than a decade of arguments over whether we should act on pricing carbon, we could have spent the decade refining the targets and methodologies. I’m still mad about it. But in the wake of the 2019/2020 summer bushfires I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m making exactly the same egregious error.

More than one opinion article has been published in recent weeks suggesting the Morrison government might use the fires as an excuse, a trigger, to recalibrate the Coalition’s approach to climate change policy. Each time I read such an article I find myself thinking along a well-worn track:

Don’t do it! Don’t start taking climate change seriously. Don’t deal with the deniers in your own ranks. Don’t suddenly start sounding reasonable!

We know that the bushfires have focussed Australia’s attention in a way never before achieved. We know that the last vestiges of AGW denial are crumbling in the real world. We don’t want the Coalition to be a part of the real world. We prefer our Coalition politicians to be outliers, historical artefacts, easily pushed aside in favour of progressive parties whose policies are obviously simply better.

Fantasy politics

There’s a narrative that has the Coalition remaining intransigent on the issue, clinging stubbornly to coal mines and fossil fuel oligarchs, carbon exports and the revolving door of post-politics coal company directorships. In this fantasy world, Labor drops its own recidivist approach, ceases clinging to coal and instead brings a decent selection of climate policies to the next election. And the Australian public, woken up by repeated disasters and environmental collapse, consign the conservative parties to history where they belong and sweep progressives into power across the country.

It’s a good dream – but it’s little more than a fantasy.

2019 was supposed to be the climate change election. The Coalition came into that election clinging stubbornly to coal and gas. By contrast, Labor brought a stable of progressive climate policies, along with the Greens on the far left. This was supposed to be the election at which Australia stated, loud and clear, that the preceding decade of policy stagnation and climate inaction would not continue.

And we know how that turned out.

When polled about important electoral issues, climate change ranked highly in the estimations of Australians. When push came to shove, though, it was not as important as taxes, cost of living and “death taxes”. (Never mind that the Coalition is higher-taxing, presides over escalating costs of living and entirely made up the threat of death taxes.) The Australian people increasingly understand the importance of climate change, but they won’t vote for decent environmental policies if it means foregoing franking credits.

Obviously there were many factors at play in the 2019 election. But that’s the point. There will always be many factors at play in any election. Climate change may persuade some hesitant Australians that environmental policies are needed, but the Coalition can play that game – they like to wave fig-leaf policies around, just enough to assuage conservative voters that they have the issue in hand, while not enough to actually force any kind of change. The expectation that climate change policies will be a vote-changer, let alone an election-decider, has so far proven unfounded.

It’s seductive, thinking that our dying environment (or, really, any one major issue) could be the defining factor in the next election, in the contest of ideas and the competition for government. It’s always foolish. There are no single-issue elections.

What’s a single-issue voter to do?

For many voters, the exigency of global warming and the existential threat to human civilisation trumps all other considerations. To the extent that if the Coalition had the best suite of climate policies on offer (and any feasible likelihood of being serious at carrying them out) a single-issue voter would need to consider voting for them, against their better interest in every other area of social policy. Climate change is so important that it can take priority over healthcare, education, tax policy or industrial relations.

So far in the 2010s and 2020s, there has not been a need to weigh climate change policy against other progressive issues. The progressive parties have also offered the best climate and environmental policies.

But what if the Coalition were to pivot to a decent environment strategy? How would that impact on the left, who fully expect – nay rely on – them to remain troglodytes on the issue?

The problem with being a single-issue voter is that political operators like to neutralise issues. If climate change is a perceived area of weakness – which it undeniably is, for the Coalition – then they will seek to minimise its impact in any election, through a combination of downplaying the issue’s importance, and offering policies so it can appear to be interested in doing something.

Adopting a single-issue approach willfully ignores and demotes the dozens of other defining policy areas on which the parties compete. It relegates consideration of a rejuvenated NBN. It discounts overt corruption, pork-barreling and electoral tampering. It devalues the Coalition’s continual budget cuts to the ABC, childcare, social security and just about any other area excepting the military and politicians’ salaries.

There are so many other political issues worth our attention. But in this hyper-partisan age it hurts us to consider that in any specific area, let alone the area of possibly greatest consequence for the future of the country, the other team might get something right. If it’s difficult for conservative voters to imagine the Coalition’s approach could be wrong, perhaps it could be almost as hard for us on the progressive side to give credit for things they do right.

Of course, this is likely all academic. It doesn’t seem likely that the Coalition will change its stance. They are too riddled through with entrenched climate change deniers. Too embedded with the mindset that coal is the energy source of the future and will be the backbone of Australia’s economy for the foreseeable future. Too dependent on the financial backing of their masters and supporters in Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and the Minerals Council of Australia. They seem unable to grasp that the market for coal exports will die, suddenly and quickly, and that climate change action can bring economic benefits rather than costs.

Most likely, I’ll never be confronted with the cognitive dissonance of the Coalition finding the way forward on climate change. I just need to accept that there’s a big part of me that hopes they never will.

(Co-posted on The AIMN)

Dystopian Reality – a Climate Change Future

A Climate Change Future

Predicting the future is a no-win scenario. There are so many variables that virtually anything is possible. Futurism inevitably becomes a matter of balancing likely outcomes from current trends, known factors and easily predictable future developments. Any attempt to predict the future will result in either one possible future or a range of possible futures. The one certain thing is that almost all the visions of the future must be wrong, because only one can be right.

This article offers one possible timeline for the next few decades, sketching environmental, socioeconomic, technological and military developments. This article considers the future between now and 2050 – well within the lifetimes of many reading this blog today. Consider it a thought experiment, designed to encourage consideration and discussion.

This timeline deliberately eschews disruptive events such as global pandemics, nuclear terrorism, asteroid impacts or the eruption of Yellowstone. These developments are possible, even (in the case of pandemic infections) likely, but placing them into a timeline would be entirely arbitrary, and the future may well unfold without them. Similarly, no deus ex machinae are included: there is no recourse to world-saving geoengineering or biotechnology developments. Altogether, what follows is a not unreasonable extrapolation of what the near future might hold for us, our children and our grandchildren.

These developments are all sourced in current literature and scientific research and linked directly to supporting evidence and analysis. These are processes that are happening now, and unless human civilisations immediately and radically change course, will continue to their inevitable end. An understanding of these likelihoods is necessary before we can honestly address the challenges of climate change, as the Paris agreements of 2015 recede into our past.

2016 – 2025

In the third world, civil unrest that arose in the early years of the 21st century continues unabated. Over the decades, the US and allies expend profligate effort to viciously subdue Islamic insurgencies in Syria and Iran, but new conflicts spring up more quickly than they can be put down. By 2025 the American people are thoroughly tired of continuing wars and American deaths and the US scales back its involvement, followed by its allies. The Middle East and large parts of the South-East Pacific dissolve into squabbles and conflict, swelling the ranks of refugees from tens of thousands into the low millions. The spark for all of these conflicts is increasing food scarcity and lack of drinkable water.

In Europe, the continued and growing influx of migrants contributes to the rise of right-wing political movements and a tightening of borders. In a desperate attempt to preserve the EU as member countries squabble over refugee policy and relative responsibilities, the Common European Asylum System border protection policy is progressively tightened and, slowly, refugee resettlement efforts give way to the establishment of giant refugee camps in barely habitable areas. The misery in these camps puts Australia’s Nauru to shame.

In Asia, China is pushing strongly for hegemony in the Pacific and the Arctic and Antarctic. Small chains of islands in the Pacific are claimed by China and forcibly pacified despite opposition. The territorial claims include oil fields and China doesn’t take long to start enforcing its ownership there. Other nations suffer as a result as they lose energy sources, but can’t challenge China. China is taken to international courts for a variety of cases, but while the legal proceedings drag on for years, China doesn’t hesitate to consolidate its hold, building artificial islands and industrial city-complexes as bases for its military forces. At the same time, enormous resources are poured into renewable energy generation. China begins to take a lead in solar and wind technology but does not share this technology easily. Large parts of China are becoming desertified at a rapid rate, with internal displacement of millions of Chinese into more fertile areas. Chinese cities, already congested, become ever more crowded and poor. China responds by commencing construction on new urban centres, completely powered by renewable energy, each built as industrial or research hubs.

Drilling for oil by US companies commences in the Arctic. However, China and Russia are also exploring here and not inclined to respect national borders and national territorial claims. This instability leads inevitably to clashes of forces, first between commercial enterprises (and, occasionally, environmental campaigners) and, later, military forces as all sides start patrolling the area with their own navies to protect the operations of their drillers. The distinction between US government and commercial entities begins to blur, to match the situation with both China and Russia. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change continue to accelerate. Tornadoes and freak storms batter coastal cities such as New Orleans, while unprecedented bushfires rage across large parts of the continental US and destroy many consecutive seasons of crops. Food prices, already increasing rapidly, escalate further.

In Australia, the narrow election victory of a Labor government in 2016 gives brief hope to many climate observers, but these hopes fade as it becomes clear that the new government, whilst not as outspokenly climate hostile as the Abbott/Turnbull regime it replaced, is still constrained by the narrative created by it and by the general attitudes of a climate-skeptical populace. Policy adjustments to reduce reliance on coal and oil and to increase renewables are slow and tentative, and by 2025 Australia is still heavily coal dependent and still exporting large volumes of coal and LNG. However, as predicted in the early parts of the decade, the demand for coal has decreased markedly as target markets accelerate their move towards renewables as well as their own domestic sources. Accordingly, the export price of coal and gas has fallen significantly, putting increasing pressure on Australia’s economy.

The economic downturn causes problems for Labor. The 2024 election sees a return to power of conservatives, but after eight years in the wilderness this new breed of liberals are far truer to the description and bring a raft of climate policies to the table, painting Labor as being “the friend of Big Coal”. By 2025, deep government “transition” subsidies to existing fossil fuel companies are on offer, but this disrupts the burgeoning renewable energy market which has until now been dominated by new entrants and innovators. 2024 sees the start of a process where most renewable energy companies and entrepeneurs will be bought up by BP, Shell, Exxon and others. By 2024, the first generation of university leavers, beneficiaries of Labor’s education investments, are graduating and entering the workforce.

It is likely that the first off-Earth colony will be established on Mars. Manned exploration of near-earth asteroids is either planned or commenced.

2025 – 2050

Rising sea levels, declining rainfall and frequent heatwaves are combining to turn vast swathes of South Asia uninhabitable. Asian and African countries are slowly but surely depopulating, both through climate refugee immigration and through deaths to disease, dehydration and starvation. Climate refugees are now an unstoppable tide numbering in the millions, swamping Europe as they arrive daily by the thousands. The EU is attempting to enforce borders with paramilitary forces but the refugees are too desperate and borders too expansive to be successfully patrolled.

Europe is now populated by two subgroups: Citizens and non-Citizens. Two parallel economies now exist. The grey economy is populated by and largely serves illegal immigrants. Not being covered by social support or healthcare from European governments, immigrant populations look after their own needs as much as possible, but are treated as second-class citizens. Crime, while still low on a per-capita basis, has exploded and public areas are now constantly patrolled by heavily armed police forces.

Populations already strongly influenced by hard-right governing parties, the first pogroms of the 21st century commence in some European countries.

In Asia, territorial wars are breaking out. Some are short skirmishes but the whole region is a simmering pot of conflicts. North Korea annexes South; without the US being willing to come to the aid of the South, the North has military superiority. However, within a few years the unified Korea is on the verge of collapse as, rather than benefiting from the economy and technology of the South, the whole of Korea starts to devolve towards its conquerors. By 2050, Korea attempts military expansion elsewhere but fails in its attempt at imperialism, and Korea collapses into a failed state. Japan is now fully self-sufficient, imports no oil and is falling behind economically; however, powered almost entirely by nuclear, the populace is relatively content. Rising sea levels are a concern for Japanese policymakers and resources are poured into levies and protection efforts. China is aggressively advancing its space exploration program and has a permanent settlement on Mars (and one on the Moon). It is starting to mine asteroids for rare minerals and metals.

China’s investment is starting to pay off, with thousands of high-level scientists and engineers living in custom-built technology cities, many completely enclosed in atmospheric domes: technology developed for their Mars colonies is now adapted for use on Earth. Inland desertification is continuing and food production is the country’s biggest ongoing concern. Coal is completely phased out for energy generation. At the same time, laws are passed banning export of fossil fuels. China begins construction of enormous enclosed farms for fish and crops, and continues an aggressive program of purchasing arable land in Australia and other locations. These efforts are now meeting with resistance as other governments see the signs but global courts and national economic systems are slow to react.

The global oil crisis plunges America into a deep depression, as the price of oil extraction climbs to make fossil fuels uneconomic. Attempts are made to leverage renewable and distributed power generation, but the process has been too slow and costs are extreme: the transition was not accomplished while energy was cheap. The US reduces its military spending to focus on a new insular approach – gone is the “muscular diplomacy” doctrine, as the government simply can’t afford to continue it and still put the resources into decarbonising the economy. Strong legislation is drafted to recraft the economy, putting caps on corporate and individual profits and ensuring a greater proportion goes to government revenue. Rebates and exceptions are drafted if individuals put significant resources into approved renewable energy projects. Belatedly the US starts subsidising renewable energy generation programs, but the oil crisis puts a significant brake on these efforts. Exacerbating the concerns for America, many of its cities are slowly becoming too hot for habitation. Americans still live in New York and Washington, but the hotter climate is having a measurable impact on productivity.

By 2030, China has banned the use of coal for energy generation, closing one of Australia’s major export markets entirely. India is advanced in its push to renewable energy and domestic coal sources, and the majority of Australia’s export coal has no buyer. The price of coal-fired energy in Australia plummets, putting downwards pressure on renewable energy research and take-up; nonetheless, major coal miners go out of business. The Australian economy is in terminal decline with high levels of unemployment nationwide and continual government deficits. New political microparties are in the ascendancy as both Labor and the Liberals suffer from public dissatisfaction, but the microparties do not have the strength or discipline to govern for the country’s future; governance devolves into a multitude of partisan interests, populist policies and pork barrelling. Australia has a brief advantage from an influx of technology students, but with few high-tech companies to employ new graduates and a new conservative government reluctant to fund placements and subsidies, many are forced to seek work overseas.

Some parts of Australia are becoming difficult to live in: the vaunted “New North” program is stalling due to high levels of heat stress, regular flooding and low productivity due to high wet-bulb readings. Towards the end of this period, the collapse in farmland, the continued sale to China and others of food-producing territory, and lowering aquifers and water levels are major concerns. Food prices are increasing. Meat, in particular, is becoming too expensive to eat regularly, and most Australians’ diets now include less meat overall. The 2040s see the last of the baby boomers retiring. Government revenue is insufficient to pay for comfortable social security for many, and the ranks of the elderly poor are swelling. Healthcare is also overstretched and death rates among both the young and the elderly are rising.

Beyond 2050

The world after 2050 may appear, to our 2016 eyes, as a dystopia, but this is no fantasy. There are no happy endings in store. The seeds which are planted over the next thirty years – both good and bad – will direct the fate of humanity as the state of the planet Earth continues to deteriorate.

By the 2050s, the Amazon rainforest is in irreversible decline. Deforestation by humans, combined with wildfires exacerbated by climate change, have had an irreversible effect. The eventual death of the rainforest is now a certainty, and as the forest itself plays a major role in regulating the planet’s climate, its loss is one further accelerant to climate change.

The most immediate outcome is the emergence of major human diseases. As climate change pushes humans and remote insect and mammalian species into direct contact and conflict, new animal-to-human diseases emerge with alarming regularity. Fortunately, most of these diseases are suppressed before they become airborne and cut a swathe through remaining human populations, but each new disease emergency has the potential to kill millions.

International flight has been curtailed: a combination of oil shortage and punishing carbon restrictions means that jet fuel is too expensive. There’s nowhere to go, in any case: people now want to escape tropical locations with their daytime temperatures in the 40s, rather than travelling there for holidays. The Great Barrier Reef has been dead for decades, and the annual vacation overseas is now, except for the very wealthy, an indulgence of the past.

By the second half of the 21st century, death from starvation is one of the major killers of humans. Large swathes of Asia, Africa and central Europe are becoming quickly depopulated. Deserts are spreading across the United States midwest, and it is likely that at some point in the century, one or more States may secede from the union. By 2100, it seems likely that the United States will be united no longer.

Disunity in the former European Union is no less severe. Pressures over resources and land, particularly water, lead to armed conflicts. The European wars of this era are localised and in many cases informal, but they are wars nonetheless. Some smaller countries are either annexed by their neighbours, or left without sufficient water resources to feed their own peoples. Other European countries are dealing with their own civil wars or popular uprisings, ostensibly on grounds of race or nationality, but triggered by food and water shortages caused by climate change.

By the late 21st century, capitalism as we know it will have been largely replaced by a kind of socialism. The loss of the oil economy has the effect of making individual prosperity much more difficult, as a large proportion of energy generation comes from state-owned solar and wind farms that dwarf those run by private concerns. Continued and growing pressure from an ever-expanding base of unemployed citizens requires an ever-increasing investment into social security. Governmental caps and curbs on individual profit gradually metamorphise into a socialist structure, and the most prosperous in society receive an increasing proportion of their windfall gains in non-monetary forms.

By the time 2100 arrives, it is likely that our planet will be harsh and unforgiving, covered in billowing deserts and rising oceans. Sea levels will continue to rise, unstoppably, for the next three hundred years at least, and by the time this process is over they will be a minimum of six metres higher than now. This will entirely cover the vast majority of current human cities, but sheer physics constrain how quickly this can happen, and human civilisation will have either collapsed or entirely changed by then.

If humans survive in this new world, most likely they will exist in artificial environments. These self-contained cities will utilise much of the renewable energy they gather for cooling, for water purification, and for agriculture. We are building a future where we will need to be terraforming our own planet in order to continue to live there.

Near-term future

The 20th century saw immense changes in human technology, civilisation and society. The development of mankind is an accelerating trajectory, and the first decades of this century have showed that we’re not slowing down. However, the effects of climate change place severe constraints on the direction of our species for the immediate future.

The one thing that can surely be said of the next hundred years is that the world in 2100 will be mostly unrecognisable to what we know today. The predictions made in this article are strongly supported by current trends and analysis, but may easily prove to be conservative. What we do know is that we will see this future coming to pass.

Humans aren’t great at planning for the long term: anything outside of our own lifetime is so remote that we don’t generally bear it in mind when making decisions. However, we are capable of making long-term plans for our own future – we consider our retirement needs, the schooling of our children, our investments into property. So consider this: those taking out a new mortgage now will see this future shaping around them. People are buying houses now that will be underwater before the mortgage is fully paid. Or, to put it another way:

This future is nine elections away.

 

Originally published on The Australian Independent Media Network, 25/4/2016

What do our politicians do?

What, exactly, do our politicians do?

Recently the Turnbull government took the almost unprecedented step of recalling all of Parliament for a three-week “emergency sitting” to debate and pass – or, hopefully, fail to pass – two specific pieces of legislation.

Much has been written about the government’s real motivations behind this recall and debate. With the repeated defeat of the ABCC “productivity” bill, Malcolm Turnbull secured his double dissolution trigger and sent the country to the polls for a July election. The Productivity Bill was never expected to pass, and in fact Turnbull was banking on it failing. But before the vote was taken, it had to go through the motions. Accordingly, the Senate spent a large portion of the day discussing the bill.

I had the pleasure of listening to Senator Scott Ludlam’s speech on the subject. Senator Ludlam’s speeches are almost always worth listening to – go on, listen to one or two right now, I’ll wait.

If you just took the opportunity to watch some of Ludlam’s speeches, or have previously done so, beside the clear speaking, reliance on facts and withering irony that he brings to his every contribution, the other notable feature of Scott Ludlam’s speeches is that the chamber is almost invariably almost empty.

It would seem fair to assume that on a matter of such national importance that Malcolm Turnbull would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring “nearly 150 MPs and their staff… back to Parliament from around the country”, that said MPs would want to listen with avid attention to the speeches in response. Presumably the job of an MP is to attend sittings of Parliament, engage in the discussions and debate there, and form an opinion on the subject at hand prior to casting their vote.

One might make that assumption, but one would evidently be wrong. Any cursory viewing of either Parliament or the Senate will show the real situation – wide swathes of benches, primarily governmental and opposition, clear of occupants. That is, until the bells are rung for a vote.

Debates in the Parliament and the Senate, it seems, exist for the sake of posterity and inclusion in Hansard, not to inform the level of understanding of those about to decide on the future of the country. Is it any wonder Question Time so often descends into farce? The stakes are so low, with all – or at least most – MPs already set in their intended vote, that they need to pass the time somehow. The result is a system of government too easily interrupted by process – filibusters, suspensions of standing orders, points of order, and political games such as tying unpalatable bills to legislation of clear national and popular importance, forcing MPs to vote against the good to prevent the bad, or to vote for the bad to achieve the good.

So if they’re not spending their time in their seats in the Chamber, what do our politicians do?

They don’t write their own articles.

They don’t even fact-check, or apparently have very much knowledge about the subject matter of their portfolio. Scott Ryan’s recent snafu with plagiarism is only the most recent of a continual string of egregious failures. Sometimes it seems that if politics were a school class, most Australian politicians would get a failed grade on account of not bothering with even the most rudimentary editing of their copied work.

They don’t rely on expert witnesses.

Greg Hunt, apparently the closest thing the Coalition has to a climate expert, went no further in his research than to visit a wikipedia page. Relying on Wikipedia would bring a failing grade for a student’s essay; why should we accept it from our elected leaders?

They don’t appear to have much knowledge of party processes that fall into their direct remit.

Nor do they seem to take an active involvement in running the companies of which they are the directors.  Sometimes it appears that politicians spend more time disavowing any knowledge of things happening in their own department than it would have taken to simply be aware in the first place. It helps that they seem to have such fallible memories. Even if they know something now, they almost certainly won’t know it by the time it becomes the subject of an inquiry. This is a peculiarly specific talent that seems unique to our politicians.

What our politicians do appear to spend plenty of time doing is sledging. Almost every federal politician in Australia, a refined product of the political system, is well-versed in holding the party line, spouting off talking points and heckling during whatever speeches they don’t manage to avoid being present for. Some might consider these to be lower-order priorities than the activities that might actually lead to better legislation.

It’s not as if we don’t pay our politicians enough. Even the most obscure of backbenchers [not] sitting in the pews at the back of the chamber is earning six figures – twice. If you’re reading this, almost certainly every federal politician earns more than you by a number of multiples. It has been said that “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”, as if that were a defense of exorbitant parliamentary salaries, but research has shown that the benefits of lifting politicians’ pay start to even out once the level of remuneration reaches a comparative middle class wage. Middle class wage is approximately the average full-time wage, or just under $81,000. Clearly we pay above the curve. Politicians and economists are wont to point out that if you pay less, you won’t attract the people you want into politics, or keep them there. Amanda Vanstone has argued that Australian politicians earn much less than company directors and others in big business. This brings us to the corollary. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys; if you pay a corporate salary, you get businessmen. Oddly, people rarely seem to question whether businessmen make the best politicians.

So, whilst Parliament and the Senate spent three weeks in Canberra, having already – in less than a day – voted down the extremely critical piece of legislation the Government absolutely needed to have passed, just remember that they were earning a bare minimum of $11,483 for their efforts. And keep that number in mind whenever you see pictures of empty seats in Parliament. You’re paying for them to not be sitting there.

Originally published on The Australian Independent Media Network 18/4/2016

Calling “Game Over”

Human-induced climate change is real. The risks of inaction are real and mounting.” So Fairfax editorialised in this week’s papers. The gist of the article is that we still have time to mobilise and get our governments and policymakers to take real action on stymieing climate change. It is probably true, as the article claims, that we are witnessing a slowly dawning awareness of the Australian people and by the global economy. But by some measures, this is significantly too little – and way too late.

“Two degrees celsius.” How many times have you heard the “two degrees” target proposed as the benchmark? Almost every popular media outlet, when writing about climate change (when they’re not claiming it isn’t happening or isn’t worth our attention) includes a statement like “We can still keep warming below two degrees, but we have to start now.” So we talk about carbon budgets. We talk about carbon capture and storage. We argue about the merits of a cap-and-trade system, an incentives system, a carbon tax – as if we still have time to compromise, time to experiment and find the ideal balance between maintaining our treasured social systems and the rescue of the global environment.

The current climate change narrative is based on a series of mistruths and falsities. We are told that we still have time to turn the ship around. The truth is that we do not.

We are told that two degrees is a hard and fast target, beyond which everything turns to disaster and before which we will be okay, if slightly uncomfortable. The truth is that there is no safe limit, that two degrees is not a magic number, and that two degrees is likely already beyond our prevention. The truth is that we have already emitted more than enough carbon to take us to two degrees and well beyond, and we’re showing no signs of slowing.

We are told that even if we go beyond two degrees, the disruption that results will come in the form of hurricanes and bushfires and rising tides. The truth is that while increased frequency and severity of hurricanes and bushfires will be a part of the outcomes of climate change, this is the merest tip of the iceberg. These visible disasters can be constrained and understood as freak occurrences that interrupt the status quo and from which we can recover. Less so is the permanent loss of arable land, the global starvation that may result, and potentially the tipping of our environment into a hellish morass incapable of supporting human life. That we are now seeing reputable sources raising the spectre of near-term human extinction in public narratives is telling of both how far the public discourse has gone ahead of public policy, and of the potential import of the fact that we’ve been so slow to act.

Whilst we have seen that the public and the media are far more accepting of the urgency of action on climate change than any of our leaders are willing to countenance, the public narrative is nevertheless generally years behind the science. Science has been telling us for the better part of a decade that two degrees is both insufficient and unattainable. Meanwhile the news media, and through them the general public, have been absorbed by the question of the reality of climate change, a question that climate researchers put to bed decades ago.

Only in the last few months have we started to see the global narrative start to catch up to reality, which is at the same time optimistic and disheartening. The truth that the media are slowly coming to understand is that two degrees might be possible, but not in the world that we know and live in now. As the media have finally started to catch on that yes, climate change is happening; yes, climate change is deadly serious; and no, we have not acted as quickly and as desperately as required; it begs the question. What is the current state of scientific understanding and how long will it take for the world to catch up to that?

An inevitable outcome?

There are reasons for the lag in public understanding. In years to come the placing of blame might become a hobby, but while attributing responsibility to various groups and individuals is easy, it is also simplistic. The long answer is that our inaction on climate change has been driven by the systems within which we work and live. These systems are well designed to order society and to offer freedom and opportunity to some. They are not effective, however, at providing for philanthropy. Our current systems of democracy and capitalism reward selfishness and self-interest and they pander to our genetic weaknesses. And the unstoppable forces of consumerism encourage and reward immediate gratification not only as a personal pleasure but a social good. The system requires us to buy and consume in order to sustain the order of things. More fundamentally, we need to buy and consume in order to feel good, and we are rewarded by a sense of accomplishment, we are rewarded by social approval and we are rewarded by endorphins. The same psychological tendencies that cause us to become fat and unfit also put barriers in our way to accepting bad news.

Bad news is a climate scientist’s stock in trade. Scientists are conservative by nature – they have to be. Crying wolf leads to a loss of respect and credence, and inevitably to a loss of funding. For a scientist or scientific organisation to decry an oncoming disaster, a high level of proof is required, and this takes time. The rumbling on the tracks isn’t enough: they need to be able to see the oncoming train’s lights before they’re willing to commit.

Scientists are not to blame for their reticence. One of the most constant criticisms of the IPCC’s work is not that the work is flawed, but that the resulting reports are universally conservative. They err on the side of caution. IPCC reports contain a range of projections, using a selection of different assumptions and resulting in very different outcomes, but they do not advise on the relative likelihood of being able to meet these curves. The effect is to allow policymakers to treat each projection as equally possible, and when one or more of the scenarios results in a temperature rise under two degrees, the opportunity arises to claim that this is still in reach. Scientists would say that the contents of the reports are reliable as a best-case scenarios, but that’s not how the reports are received in practice. The policy makers who must take IPCC reports into account largely consider them to be worst-case scenarios, and the urgency of the problem is diminished.

Tempting as it may be to do so, politicians also cannot be blamed for their inaction. Politicians are rewarded (in electoral popularity) for populist messages of hope and optimism. Politicians are punished, severely, for being the messenger that tells their people that they will have to make sacrifices (financial, creature comforts, lifestyle changes) for the sake of the public good. Far worse awaits those who attempt to impose these sacrifices. It is entirely reasonable to expect politicians to clutch at any straws offered, be they a possible solution that doesn’t carry electoral cost (e.g. direct action) or a skerrick of doubt about the science. In an environment filled with lobbyists arguing that there will be consequences to climate action, and think tanks and vested interests obscuring the science with manufactured doubt, motivated by a kind of economics that cannot afford to take climate change into account, it takes a special kind of political courage to take a stand. As we saw in the case of the 2013 election, all too often The People will punish such presumption.

We can’t even blame The People. The truth is that our evolution has not equipped us well to handle the kind of challenge that climate change presents. Humans are an immensely adaptable species, and when we cannot adjust our environment to suit our needs, we can adjust our own lifestyle to suit. However, we almost always need to be spurred into action. We evolved from hunter-gatherers who would gorge in the good times, in preparation for the long stretch of privation that would follow. At our core, we’re not prepared to leave the carcass on the ground.

Too little, too late

However it happens, whatever the cause, we are caught by it. Humanity is having a cook-out in a tunnel and we’ve ignored the rumblings underfoot for too long. It’s not until we see the lights of the oncoming train that we even start the engine of our getaway car and there’s no way we’re dodging this express train.

We read that we have, at most ten or fifteen years to turn the ship around. Here’s the thing, though: they told us this ten or fifteen years ago, too. If the problem was that urgent then, if the need for change was so pressing then, how can we still have a decade left to act now? The explanation is that the definition of “action” is changing. Climate scientists, pressured to give an optimistic outcome – to avoid calling “Game Over” – move the goalposts. They adopt increasingly unrealistic assumptions and expectations in their models of climate action. They invent ever more fanciful future technologies – magic bullets, couched in scientific-sounding terminology.

It is finally reaching the point where normal people – journalists, activists, even politicians – are calling them out on it. The likelihood of us being able to meet a trajectory to keep temperature increases below two degrees is presently somewhere between none and laughable. But so long as it is still technically possible to succeed at halting global warming, we keep hearing the “we still have time” message. So let’s have a look at what is actually required to stave off the kind of climate change that runs an even risk of killing every human on the planet.

http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2014/12/two-degrees-will-we-avoid-dangerous-climate-change/ : “In order to get back on track, emissions need to peak and then fall by between 40 and 70 per cent by 2050, the IPCC says, with unabated fossil fuel burning almost entirely phased out by 2100… That would require a never-before seen global effort to be sustained for a generation.”

http://www.vox.com/2015/5/15/8612113/truth-climate-change : “Holding temperature down under 2°C — the widely agreed upon target — would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There’s no sign of that happening, or reason to think it’s plausible anytime soon.”

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119757/two-degrees-climate-change-no-longer-possible : “To be sure, the IPCC noted, it’s conceivable the world still could stay below that level – but only if governments immediately imposed stringent and internationally uniform carbon limits, and if a host of new low-carbon energy technologies proved able to scale up. Those are massive “ifs,” and though the IPCC wasn’t so impolite as to say so, there’s little to suggest that perfect trajectory will play out.”

In order to achieve the goal, humanity as a species must put aside national partisanship, untrammelled economic growth as a priority, and our current industrial machinery. Advanced economies must immediately and radically decarbonise their economies, at the same time as effectively building first-world economies in less advanced nations who would otherwise strive to catch up to “modern” standards of living via their own industrial revolutions. Humans in the affluent West must accept a curtailing of their profligate lifestyles and their aspirations.

Some have likened the effort required to the mobilization of the West in the early days of World War II, when entire economies were retooled to face an existential threat. But these similes were raised half a decade ago, and the problem has become even more dire since then. We must, as a species, put the good of the planet and the environment ahead of our own short-term interests. This is something that goes against our very nature.

But even our best intentions are not enough. At this point, there is enough carbon in the atmosphere to blow through two degrees and well beyond – potentially setting off the feedback loops and tipping points that bring us to a very final The End. In order to limit temperature rise to two degrees, current models include assumptions about negative carbon emissions – capturing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into the ground or into trees. This requires either huge swathes of territory to be converted to forests – and only good, arable, important-for-feeding-seven-billion-humans land will do – or the widespread adoption of technology that doesn’t even exist yet.

Is it time yet to call game over?

You can’t get there from here

There are a number of good reasons to declare “Game Over” on climate change.

Because there is a point beyond which hope becomes denial.

We see an example with Australian farmers in northern Queensland. Devastated by crippling floods in early 2013, it did not take long before large portions of Queensland were back in the Long Dry. By March 2014, the State’s largest ever drought had been declared, following the failure of the “wet season”. Drought is a largely artificial definition, designed primarily to enable governments to provide assistance to affected areas, predicated on the understanding that this is a “natural disaster” and will come to an end. The terminology of “drought”, at core, assumes that there is a normal state of being, and the lack of rain is an exception, an aberration, on par with storms or cyclones.

More than a year later, the rains have failed again and the drought has not broken – it has become worse. All this in advance of a predicted severe El Nino. The signs are not looking good for relief for our beleaguered Queensland farmers any time soon. And still we hear politicians State and Federal talking about drought assistance, of getting the farmers through the hard patch before the rains return.

According to my calculations, most of Queensland has been officially in drought for fifteen of the last twenty-five years. An El Nino can run for up to seven years, so we may be in for a significant period before the end of this cycle. If you’re living under drought conditions for more years than under wet conditions, can it really be called a drought any longer? At what point do we bow to the inevitable and admit that, rather than being a drought, this is the new normal? That climate change has made these areas untenable for ongoing agriculture? That continuing to support farmers with “drought assistance” is a never-ending battle that cannot be won?

Admitting defeat would mean the departure of farmers from these lands and force an alteration to the economy and markets of the State. It could be argued that reclassifying land as non-arable will destroy the lives of farmers trying to eke out a living on it, but it could as well be argued that those lives are destroyed anyway and farmers seeking support are modern-day King Canutes who will eventually have to move anyway.

Sometimes, it makes more sense to just admit defeat, rather than throwing good money after bad.

Because denial makes us focus on the actions that we need to take to win, rather than getting started on the actions required upon losing

As long as electors are told that two degrees is possible if only we find the right balance of punitive and reward policies the longer the policy debate remains mired in detail and technicality. It allows governments to hold out policies like Direct Action as a valid approach to climate change. It allows an ETS to include a variety of loopholes and concessions designed to protect vulnerable industries at the expense of the scheme’s effectiveness. This author has been a critic of the Greens’ approach to Labor’s ETS, scuttling a plan that might have gotten a foot in the door because it wasn’t ideal at the outset. But that was then, and this is now. It is far too late for half-measures. Unfortunately, we will never see full-strength climate policies as long as politicians can still argue that all will be well if we just cut our emissions by “five percent over 2000 levels”.

Because reality

If for no other reason, it might be valid to call an end to the charade of climate change action because it’s a colossal waste of time and money on the basis of a lie. It’s a lie, because none of those arguing loudly that we can still save the world are taking the next step and adding “only if we do what the world has never managed to do before and only if all the cards fall our way”. This is a lie of omission, and those telling it are often not even aware of it because they themselves have not been shown the sheer unlikelihood of what they’re proposing. If we reframe the argument in the appropriate terms, at least we can start talking about things with a sense of truth and reality rather than what we hope might be the case.

Reasons not to declare “Game Over”

Because it might not be

There may still be time – if atmospheric sensitivity is lower than modelled, and if we can invent and distribute carbon capture technology, and if the world radically reverses direction. Under the IPCC’s optimistic models, there is still time. Meeting these optimistic assumptions will be a heroic task, but we won’t get there if we don’t try and we won’t try if we’ve already thrown in the towel. An important first step would be the support of research into carbon capture / atmospheric cleaning technologies that will be absolutely fundamental to any kind of success from here.

Because it’s too important

Declaring “game over” sends the message to those who’d be most harmed by climate change that they aren’t worth saving.”  Our mythologies are full of humans in dire circumstances not giving up on hope. If there has ever been a cause around which the world could rally, that has the immediate threat to human survival on a global scale and the fortunes of small groups of people in specific, this is it. To give up on climate action is to give up on a large part of the world, raise the fences around the wagons and wait out the next great Human Extinction. Those most badly affected will be those who contributed to it the least and are least deserving. For the advanced nations to give up while there is still even the ghost of a chance is to add insult to lethal injury.

Because we need the urgency

We need urgency; we need the seriousness. There’s a fine line between panic-inducing immediacy and threat, and inertia-generating fatalism. World War II, in its size and ferocity and its immediacy, was enough to jolt the western world into action. We will see, over the next decade, increasingly dire climate outcomes. At some point, public attitudes and governmental policies will catch up with the exigencies of climate reality. The media and the government may always be a decade behind in understanding the threat, but action taken now on the basis of last decade’s threats will still have a beneficial effect on this decade’s crisis. We don’t know for sure that we can salvage the silverware, but we can be absolutely certain that nothing will survive if we stop fighting for it.

Because game over isn’t necessarily “game over”

We will miss two degrees – but the story doesn’t end there. “Everyone agrees on the general point — risks and damages keep piling up as the world gets hotter. So if the world can’t prevent 2°C of warming, it’s still a good idea to try and avoid 3°C of warming. If we can’t avoid 3°C of warming, it’s still a good idea to avoid 4°C. And so on.” The world doesn’t end at 2 degrees. Tipping points and reinforcing cycles may mean that the world is more fragile than it appears, but every extra degree of warming increases the inhospitability of our future world far more than the degree before it. If we can halt warming at three degrees, it’s still worth doing.

Because victory ain’t what it used to be

In the end, we may be forced to move the goalposts of what constitutes success. The two degrees scenario is aimed at preserving our current civilization. Restrain global warming to two degrees and we may be able to retain our present way of life, our creature comforts, our technology, and our populations. It may be – it probably is – too late for that: our world will change and our way of life must change to suit the new, hotter world we are creating.

But the end of our current, comfortable civilisation does not have to be the end of the human story. If the worst case scenarios are true, then the game is no longer about salvaging a world for our children: it is about salvaging a world for ANY children. If it is too late for current nation-states to survive, it’s not yet too late for modern life somewhere, somehow. If it becomes too late for capitalism as we know it, it’s not yet too late to preserve some kind of civilisation. If it is too late for us, it is not yet too late for humanity. We don’t know where we’ll end up, but however far beyond the point of no return we may have gone, we know that there is more road yet to travel. In the end, the best reason not to call Game Over – not to just stop trying and learn to love the bomb – is that there may yet be time to salvage some kind of future for some of us.

Just probably not all of us.

Co-published on The AIMN

World-leading

2015 has been a year of superheated politics and partisan disagreements. Labor, along with much of the rest of Australia, has been horrified by the Government’s approach to fiscal management. The cruel and heartless policies that are the inevitable result of considering vulnerability and need as moral failings, combined with the protection and mollycoddling provided to the rich and powerful – in the Liberal worldview, the morally superior – have disenfranchised large proportions of the Australian electorate.

In return, the Coalition continues to accuse Labor of profligacy and economic vandalism, of an inability to execute on policies and an amorphous raft of conspiracy theories about union corruption. They fudge figures and misrepresent data to support their contentions. As if Australia’s struggles with productivity and international trade competitiveness were not bad enough, the Coalition chooses to repeal taxes and forgo revenue and call it “Labor’s debt trajectory” when they don’t also remove the associated spending measures. [See, for example, the comments to this article.]

Misrepresentations and political rhetoric aside, there are indisputably economic headwinds in Australia’s future.

At the core of the political wordstorm is a simple cruel fact. Australia is not globally competitive. In a globalised world of trade – the world that Tony Abbott and the government are hell-bent on plunging us into via as many free trade agreements as possible – Australia cannot compete.

AUSTRALIA – EXPENSIVE ONE DAY, DIRT-POOR THE NEXT

Australia cannot compete on the basis of manufacturing consumer goods. There is truth to the contention that our industrial relations regime is a drag on business competitiveness. Australians have quaint ideas about fair pay, about the importance of holidays, about the necessity of workplace safety. The hard truth is that the regulations in other countries are not as rigid as they are here. Manufacturing clothes in Bangladesh, as a pertinent example, is far cheaper than making them here. Australians generally feel that sweatshop conditions of virtual slavery are inappropriate for workers and should not be supported. Most of the time, we buy the cheaper clothes anyway. Occasionally a fire in factory makes the news and prompts Australians to check the origin of their goods, but these are temporary distractions.

Australia cannot compete on the basis of services. In a world where India and China, the heavyweights amongst a multitude of other nations all struggling to match America’s prosperity, are likely to have over a billion new entrants to the middle class in the next decade or two, there will always be someone overseas happy to provide the same services an Australian could provide, and for much less remuneration. Australia’s education market is currently competitive, but this cannot be expected to last. If Australia’s status as a prosperous nation were to flag, how long would an Australian university degree remain a desirable achievement?

In a global environment, goods and services can be sold either to a domestic or an international market. The important factor to consider is the trade deficit: the imbalance between goods and services produced by Australians and sold to the international market, and the goods and services produced by international markets and sold into Australia. The trade deficit at present is historically bad – and growing worse. This is the true unsustainability in Australia’s economy.

Australia’s current economy is underpinned by the resources sector. The ‘mining boom’ might be over but resources industries and royalties still bring in a large proportion of Australia’s revenue – at the expense of skills, resources, manpower and economic support to any other part of the Australian economy. The Coalition government is well aware of the imbalance in Australia’s output, and is determined to support the mining industries just as long as anyone, anywhere, is still willing to buy the raw materials we dig up. The deleterious effects to manufacturing, to refining, to science and non-mining industry, are well known, but the Coalition’s forward thinking appears to stretch no further than one or two elections ahead.

With a chronic trade deficit, with an economy utterly reliant on mining industries where the terms of trade are deteriorating with a concomitant effect on the country’s revenue and budget position, Australia is in critical need of a differentiating benefit. Australia has little to offer the world, but Australians have plenty they want to buy from the world. That’s a recipe guaranteed, over time, to make this country the “white trash of Asia”.

Neither major party appears to have a good solution in mind for this need. Politicians mouth about Australia being the “clever country” – whilst presiding over consecutive cuts to science and technology research, removal of subsidies to innovation and cuts to schools and universities, over a long time frame. It is true that science and technology are the underpinning of a progressive and prosperous nation. Unfortunately science and technology are the easy targets for a largely ignorant populace easily turned against “ivory tower academia”.

Labor has at least espoused some piecemeal policies aimed at diversifying Australia’s economic base. Its broadband policy (the original NBN plan) was a critical national infrastructure project intended to support the internet requirements of a country in a globally-connected world. Income from the MRRT was intended for an across-the-board cut to the corporate tax rate for small to medium enterprises. Australians are ruefully aware of the fate of these policies. In their place we have ongoing subsidies to fossil fuel industries and the active efforts of senior politicians to secure international venture funding for new mining projects regardless of the environmental cost. The Coalition is fighting a rearguard effort, a vain attempt to prop up the resources industries in this country. A generous evaluation indicates that they are fully aware of Australia’s weakness in every other area of the economy; but if this is the case, a wishful-thinking approach that hopes that Australian manufacturing can recover if we only pour more resources into non-manufacturing industries seems short-sighted, at best. Without a forward-thinking plan to provide Australia a new economic base, the future appears grim.

This author would like to suggest one possible set of policy priorities that could set Australia up for a useful participation in the 21st century global economy.

ONE POSSIBLE SOLUTION

The first thing to note is that this is unashamedly a spending policy. It has to be. The old maxim is that you cannot tax your way to prosperity (a debatable proposition at best that I have only ever heard espoused from fiscal conservatives); equally, you cannot save your way into prosperity either. Labor understands this: you need to spend – otherwise known as “investing” – in order to reap greater benefits later. The Coalition also reluctantly admits this, but their approach is to acquire the required investment funds by selling things, and then to “invest” in a hands-off manner and hope that the economy will somehow grow just because there are more roads. The Coalition has taken some baby steps in this direction but it is likely that a hands-off approach will not be sufficient.

Funds are required for every useful investment. For this proposed policy, a significant amount of funding would be required. I don’t propose here to mandate a particular way to acquire these funds. Progressives might understand the value of borrowing the required funds, but if government borrowing is too poisonous a political concept at present, then there are a multitude of ways for further revenue to be secured. Let’s just posit a slight adjustment to the levels of superannuation tax breaks, earning $10bn a year. This mid-way figure might be able to appease those who argue against the abolition of the tax breaks while still reining in some of the worst rorting of the system. $10bn p.a. would be plenty of resources to fund the Future Industries Fund.

The Future Industries Fund – the FIF – would be tasked to identify and then intensively support six to ten high-value fields of scientific and technical research. These would be fields of endeavour where Australia has research capability or a natural advantage. As an example, we have almost squandered our natural advantages in the field of renewable energy: with our huge land mass, abundant sunshine and wind and low population, we have been and should be a world leader in this field. That we no longer are is a sad indictment on the policies of both sides of the spectrum. We could reclaim a world-leading position – if we wanted to.

There is the key phrase. “World-leading”. If Australia is going to compete in a global market, it needs something it can sell. That means something only Australia can or will make, or it means making something cheaper and/or better than others. We have already established that Australia cannot both make things cheaper and retain current standards of living for its people. If standard of living is a priority, we must aim to excel either by finding industries at which we can excel – such as the French making wines, or regions of Italy making shoes – or build new industries that put us ahead of the pack.

The proposed policy, the Future Industries Fund, would aim for the latter goal.

Because any spending fund is susceptible to gaming and fraud, the first priority for the FIF would be to establish an oversight group. This group would first be tasked to identify and report on the best industries for the fund to support. Renewable energy might be a logical choice – but we should not take the opinion of a blog author. Clear and firm criteria would have to be met, covering Australia’s current capability in the field, the state of each identified field in the rest of the world, and the potential for the field in creating and sustaining new saleable industries.

Having identified the areas of interest, the fund would transition to supporting scientific and technical research in these areas through a range of grants and subsidies. Obviously, this would include a re-funding of the CSIRO and of University research. Potentially, the government could take part ownership in the technologies which arose from funded research. Any revenue from this should be directed back into the FIF.

It’s not enough to be world-leading inventors and researchers. Research and development only employs a small proportion of the workforce. The FIF would also be tasked to support, again through grants and subsidies, industries that arose to capitalise on new technologies. In the hypothetical example of new solar energy technology, this would include not only the energy companies that build the solar farms, but also the artificers which build the parts for new solar energy projects; the engineering firms that build them and maintain them; the infrastructure companies that carry the energy to the people; and even the resellers that onsell the technology to the rest of the world. The FIF would also support university or TAFE courses that specialised in teaching the new technology, or provide scholarships in specific fields.

It’s not enough to establish a world-leading industry. As soon as you start selling the technology into the rest of the world, the clock starts ticking, and it will not take long before you have competitors in your market. Continued prosperity requires the FIF not to rest on its laurels. Having established an industry, an infrastructure, an educational framework, it needs to continue to support the research and technology that created it. It is necessary to keep pushing the envelope.

There would, of course, be failures. Any new scientific or technical research runs the risk of dead ends, the chance that new technologies developed would be too expensive or too difficult or too ahead of their time to be marketable. Soemtimes, financial support can address this. Renewable energy technologies used to be hugely expensive; with time and continued government support across the globe, the cost has fallen to the point that solar and wind are becoming cheaper than coal, at least in some markets. The FIF would not rely on “the market” to build a new technology up to scale; if the aim is to push the envelope then artificial support is required.

But in some cases, the technologies just might not work. It might require more funding than is worthwhile to find economies of scale. It must be accepted that sometimes a field of research initially seen as promising might turn out to be a failure. Competitors in other countries might make breakthroughs that put them years ahead of the pack and relegate FIF projects to also-rans. In such cases, the FIF must be prepared to redefine its areas of interest and write off the funding already provided.

A PROGRESSIVE VISION

Conservatives will likely look at these proposals and choke on their tea. This proposal is for a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy with a whole raft of administrators, where research if funded with no clear business case or projected return on investment, where the government takes an active role in picking and supporting winners. All of this is anathema to the Liberal worldview. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the Liberal worldview, and we’re starting to see where it leads.

This is a simple proposal from a single blog author. There is no Treasury behind this idea. The Universities have not provided expert opinion. But if one hack author can design a set of policies intended to address the fundamental problem facing Australia’s economy, how much more could a progressive political party with the resources of government behind it achieve? I put this proposal forward for discussion. Let’s start reframing the conversation and hope that the political machine is listening.

Originally published on The AIMN 7 March 2015