In Australia, the center-right Liberal/National party coalition won the Federal election this week, and the center-left Labor Party finds itself without office, without a federal leader, and without much of a clue how the polls predicting Labor victory got it so wrong, and why their urgent climate change action program failed to connect with voters.
Here’s the standard takeaway:
1. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison managed to reposition himself as a safe, conventional, trustworthy manager of the economy for a nation that’s had 27 years of consecutive growth on the back of the China trade and where voters are getting very skittish about future growth.
2. Despite a terrible bushfire season attributed to climate inaction, the voters found themselves more by fears over costs than by ghoulish scenarios about a climate run amok.
But, let’s look deeper, for Australia is a mixed lesson.
Former PM Tony Abbott lost his seat over climate change concerns to an independent, and Morrison’s victory wasn’t exactly a resounding thump of the center-left, more like status quo in the face of a presumed drubbing with very few seats changing hands. but surely the concerns over shifting to government-fiat climate combatting programs and the fears over costs resonated with voters, as they did in 2014 when the Labor government fell in Australia over the carbon tax. And we’ve seen the same theme expressed elsewhere.
Abbott gave a thoughtful analysis — noting that where the message over climate is a debate over morality, the center-right polls poorly. if the debate becomes one about cost, voters tend to shy away from government-based action.
It’s not as simple as you’ll see argued elsewhere — that climate change action spooks voters and it’s a losing policy, and that supporters of the Green New Deal ought to re-think.
Fears over climate change costs spook voters, as do fears over health care costs, food costs, mortgage costs and (Fill in the Blank with Anything You Like) costs. Cost fear is real, universal, has been with us since the dawn of time and when the sun finally swallows up the Earth in about 4 billion years, someone will be worried about doing something about it and probably citing costs.
And, the Green New Deal isn’t much of a climate action plan. First of all, it’s hardly a plan, it’s more like an Airing of Grievances and a wish list. Secondly, it has a lot more to do with social engineering than climate engineering, if you look into it, and has an affection for “all the eggs in one basket” solutions the like of which we haven’t seen since Lenin called for the transfer of “All Power to the Soviets!” in 1917.
So, let us ask ourselves, what should we do, how should we think, where can we act in an era where voters fear government fiat, are edgy about costs, and yet where we have entrenched non-economic barriers to transformative that markets are woefully inefficient at removing?
The Renewable Fuels Agenda
For some time, it seems to me that the proper argument for renewables is really about providing an opportunity for rural communities and farmers to participate in energy markets, which help diversity farm income and stabilize food prices, for one. It’s good for food security and energy security, and potentially good for export income.
The drive toward renewable fuels certainly represents doing something with respect to climate change that is sustainable, affordable, reliable and available. And, it’s good for forest management to have markets for forest waste so that’s it affordable to manage down the risk of fires near urban areas. ,
Friend, renewable fuels are only part of a basket of transport energy technologies, some of which will include fossil fuels, for a long time to come. Let’s be realistic about the scale of energy demand. Also let’s be leery of “one platform” solutions — one technology, one political party, one airline, one phone company, one beer, one potato chip. Monopoly caused the trouble with fossil fuels in the first place. Choice is the driver of our civilization.
We certainly will do better for ourselves by encouraging waste-based and forest-based advanced biofuels (cellulosic, MSW, animal, forest) with a low carbon fuel standard that is paid for by the market (LCFS credits would be worth zero if oil companies simply invested in and produced advanced biofuels at economically-viable scale). Why wouldn’t we all be positive about getting two bites of the carbon cherry. I mean, who’s for waste?
The Renewable Fuels Challenge
We really have to find a stable bipartisan coalition for any industry trying to enter new markets where there are substantive non-economic barriers. And I think that dictates avoiding pitching any technology wave based on an appeal to the left, only.
At the same time, rural development isn’t going to have broad appeal any more than Farm Bills have appeal with urban voters unless they have urban-friendly outcomes.
We might be very wary of single technologies that “solve” climate change, or “replace the need for petroleum”, or “address the rural problem”, or the income gap, the cost of health care or education, or even the problems of managing a professional baseball club with small-market revenues. Why not focus instead on baskets of technologies, baskets of sources?
E Pluribus Zillions
The problem is not fossil fuels in our society, though they are a terrible symptom of our times. The problem is the belief for single solutions, and easy fixes, and fast action — something that Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham once described as “the wish for kings”. We ask too much of our technologies, our Presidents, our markets, supply-chains, our voters, our companies — we are too in love with miracles, and dangerously attracted to demagogues who promise easy solutions to tough problems.
Though miracles appear, they are too rare to count on and nothing to be planned in reliance of. The old Chinese proverb warns and encourages us: “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives” Are we ready for what our solution will look like, really? Distributed, chaotic, non-linear, a garbage-can punch rather than a single malt?
Tying anything to “fixing the climate” is like, to me, tying a country to one energy source, investors to one stock, or chaining young people to the first person they ever dated. Diversity pays, diversification is right, better the many than the few, or the one. E pluribus zillions: out of many, the solutions we need.