- As concerns over jobs and Beijing intensify and with Labor deeply divided on climate policy, it’s time Australians were asked: what energy source policy, for low-cost electricity are you prepared to accept?
by Patrick J. Byrne
The 2019 federal election showed the media, Labor and the Greens living in a bubble, convinced by “push polling” that Australians wanted radical policies to combat climate change.
Having labelled it the “climate change election”, they were shocked to find swings to Labor in only 22 of the nation’s 44 inner metropolitan seats and 33 of the 107 outer-metro, provincial and rural seats.
Labor was left with no seats north of the “Brisbane line,” where the need for mining jobs overshadowed climate concerns.
A year on and, with the covid19 economic crisis, voters are even more concerned about their employment and Beijing.
This has left the ALP deeply divided between those like Ged Kearney, wanting “drastic action” against climate change, and those like Joel Fitzgibbon, who warns that Labor’s “almost obsessive” focus on climate is not only isolating the party from its blue-collar roots but it risks a Labor split comparable to the 1950s Split with the DLP. (See Canberra Observed.)
Polls in Australia have narrowly focused on people’s attitudes to climate change and associated issues like drought, bushfires, sea-level change, farming and even environmental refugees coming to Australia.
These polls fail to rate climate change among wider public policies. It wasn’t surprising that 61 per cent agreed with the Lowy Institute’s 2019 statement that global warming is “a serious and pressing problem [and] we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs” when prominent issues like employment, health and education were not considered.
Polls elsewhere in the world have been broader and more nuanced.
When Pew Research asked Americans to rate it among other issues such as strength of the economy, healthcare costs, education and terrorism, “dealing with climate change” came in last of 16 policy options in 2011; second last out of 17 policies in 2015, joint second last out of 18 options in 2018, and 17th from 18 issues in 2019.
When the United Nations conducted a global internet poll with seven million respondents in 2015, “action taken on climate change” was ranked last out of 16 global issues. While it was not a scientific poll, it was significant that the respondents were mostly young people from developing countries.
In 2018, the 25th quarterly wave of BEIS’s Energy and Climate Change Public Attitudes Tracker representative poll found that “climate change” came in sixth of the 10 biggest challenges facing Britain.
A 2018 Abacus representative poll in Canada found that “shifting … to a clean energy economy” came in number 12 out of 14 public policy priorities, and “taking action on climate change” came in last.
Potentially facing the highest unemployment levels since the 1930s, given major disruption to its global supply chains and the huge loss of industries over the past 50 years, Australia needs to “re-shore” many businesses and build new strategic industries.
A necessary condition will be low-cost, reliable electricity. But how?
UNDERSTANDING OF THE SCIENCE IS LOW
First, all energy sources should be considered – gas, nuclear, high-efficiency low-emissions coal power, “clean coal” technologies, hydro, solar and wind.
Second, they should compete on a level playing field, which means slashing subsidies to renewables, particularly to new renewable generating capacity. BAEeconomics research for the Minerals Council of Australia shows that subsidies to renewable energy will be $2.8 billion a year for the next decade. Solar subsidies are $214 per megawatt hour, wind $74, and other renewables $33.
In comparison, coal receives about $0.40 per megawatt hour. A level playing field would help inform Australians as to the true costs of different energy source policies.
Third, voters should be surveyed to evaluate their climate and energy priorities relative to broader policies such as building news industries, infrastructure and jobs.
Fourth, they should be asked how confidently they understand the science presented about climate change and alternative forms of energy. A 2017 IPSOS poll found 78 per cent of French citizens though their nation’s nuclear power plants contributed “a lot” or “a little” of greenhouse gases, when operating nuclear plants don’t contribute any.
Another 2017 IPSOS poll found that half of Australians were not confident in their understanding climate science. To that end, politicians can remind people that big storms, floods, fires and droughts are “weather events” not “climate events”. Super-hot days happened many times in the 1800s, Australia’s worst fires were in 1851, the worst heat wave was in 1896. There are one in hundred year, and one in five hundred year, rain events. The nation’s main food bowl has cyclical wet and dry periods that can last from 12 to 30 years.
Reminding Australians that this is the land of drought and flooding rains is all the more important since the nation now has over 600 environmental groups with tax deductibility status, one for every 40,000 Australians.
This program would set the stage for informed, sensible energy policies necessary for building industries and jobs.