Of Garnaut, geosequestration and the (non)belling of the neoliberal cat

Professor Ross Garnaut is a highly intelligent, tenacious and formidably well-informed public intellectual,  and I’m not just saying that because I want to interview him for my PhD research. Because look, in my very next sentence I say ‘I think he is wrong about the future of energy.’

He was speaking tonight in Adelaide, giving the 2015 Luxton Memorial Lecture  (Russell ‘Sam’ Luxton was a major renewable energy figure in Australia).  The topic was ‘Australia: Energy Superpower in a Low-Carbon World’. There were about 120 people present, overwhelmingly white, mostly male, mostly the wrong side of 50.

Garnaut’s cv is formidable, and for the last eight years – since the Australian Labor Party asked him to turn his attention to the policy nightmare that is climate change – he has been thinking, writing and talking non-stop about what to do about Australia’s carbon emissions, within a framework of market mechanisms. [For a critical view on all this, see Beeson, M., & Stone, D. (2013). The Changing Fortunes of a Policy Entrepreneur: The Case of Ross Garnaut. Australian Journal of Political Science, 48(1), 1-14.10.1080/10361146.2012.760526]

I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow account of his talk; the organisers of the event have, bless them, filmed it and will be uploading it onto the web very soon (this in 2015 should be totally standard practice and unremarkable.)  Here’s the transcript.  A few things that leapt out at me

Garnaut set great store by two recent documents/pronouncements-

Australia as a source (and refiner?) of rare earth minerals that will be needed for renewable energy infrastructure.  And uranium, natch.

Australia as blessed with huge amounts of wind, solar, geothermal, ‘excellent geosequestration in a few places.’ (see below)

Garnaut calling on individuals to challenge bad information on the health implications of energy policy, setting store on the ‘scientific evidence being examined by independent experts’.  Ditto, Garnaut hopes to see denial of climate science lessening in its impact and frequency.

What was interesting was that these were framed as individual responses, rather than societal ones, channeled through intermediary organisations like trades unions, community groups, NGOs etc.

At various points Professor spoke approvingly/casually/optimistically about ‘geosequestration’, aka ‘carbon capture and storage’, in its various iterations (liquefy the co2 and pump it underground, do stuff with algae etc).

The central dilemma for CCS is, imho, this – even if you could get all of the technological problems and uncertainties ironed out, all the ducks in a row, even if you could sort out all the formidable legal liability issues, the only way (other than state fiat) that it could be economically viable is with a carbon price that was astronomically high.  And if the carbon price were that high, then the investment would surely flow to lower risk ‘proven’ technologies like wind and solar, and to energy efficiency.  So as far as I can see, outside of very very niche experiments like the Canadian CCS project known as Boundary Dam (where they got grants, wanted to slide down the learning curve and had enhanced oil recovery to soften the blows), then it is a non-starter; the clue in the name Zerogen is in the ‘zero’

I asked a question (well, two), after pointing out that we’ve been talking, in Australia, about climate change since the late 1980s. Like an alcoholic, we know what we are supposed to do, and we promise again and again to do it, but….

I asked about CCS (see above) and then a bit of a peanut gallery question – what does Garnaut say to prime denialists Maurice Newman and Dick Warburton when he sees them? It got the appreciative audience chuckle that I was aiming for.  But agnotology – the intentional creation of ignorance – is no laughing matter, of course.

There were other, good, questions, and Garnaut dealt with them well (giving long answers can be a way of limiting exposure to potential embarrassment – you see politicians do it all the time. In this instance it worked, because the answers included gems and nuggets like reference to the joint Chinese and US Academies of Science report on the causes of lower life expectancy north of the Huai river (turns out giving people free coal isn’t an unalloyed blessing).

The age-old question is ‘what is to be done’, and it was fitting that the final question of the night, which cited an article in the Sydney Morning Herald today in which Nobel laureate Peter Doherty described Tony Abbott as global climate ‘wrecker’, was ‘what do we do about it?’

It’s worth remembering that a generation ago Australian policy-makers proclaimed themselves open to ‘Ecologically Sound Development’. (This was after Australia had promised to reduce its carbon emissions 20 per cent below 1988 levels by 2005 – the so-called ‘Toronto target’.)

esd energy production

As late as 1996, the Australian Conservation Foundation was trying to get the then-new Howard government to listen to it on the subject of budgeting for environmental protection –

1996 funding future

Professor Garnaut’s answer was perhaps quite revealing – he said (correctly) that the pain of staying in our current state over the long-term is higher than the making a change.  The implication, I think, is that it is logical for us to pursue a lower-pain path. But if the last 25 years of climate policy failure, stretching back before Abbott through Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Howard, Keating and to Hawke, has taught us anything, it’s that there are powerful vested interests able to make other people feel the pain while their pleasure is protected.

These vested interests can (and hopefully will) be defeated, but it will be quite a job.  The mice can’t just agree the cat should wear a bell– some constellation of forces is going to have to get out there and bell the neoliberal cat.  Fur will fly. Or pigs.

bellthecat

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