I’ve written a new blog post over at my other site, Epektasis. Excerpt below:
“The ‘No’ campaign against marriage equality in Australia’s upcoming plebiscite is a poisoned chalice for conservative Christians. The ‘No’ campaigners have misunderstood what this poll is about and they have misjudged the mood of the very people on whom their future depends. This is not a plebiscite about our personal views on marriage – it is a plebiscite about the kind of society we want to live in. Do we want a society where the human rights of minorities are protected under law? Or do we want a society where the majority gets to pick and choose which human rights minorities should have?”
By now you may have read some of the analysis of the federal Coalition government’s recent budget (e.g. here, here and here), or its Commission of Audit (e.g. here, here, here or here), which was released prior to the budget in an attempt to frame our economic challenges as a ‘budget emergency’. Australia has had tough budgets before, but five factors make the 2014-15 budget a low-point in Australia’s modern history and should continue to spur Christian leaders into outspoken and courageous resistance.
First, for a government which pursued former Prime Minister Julia Gillard relentlessly on the issue of integrity for supposedly lying on the issue of a price on carbon (ignoring the fact that she came to preside over a minority government), Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s and Treasurer Joe Hockey’s wholesale trashing of so many pre-election promises is breathtakingly cynical, surprising even a jaded electorate (see here, here, here and here). Like many Australians, I have grave concerns about the ongoing corrosion of our society’s ability to develop, debate and implement sensible policy in a context where public trust is treated with contempt.
Second, as an economist I despair at the near impossibility of having a sensible public debate on economic policy in this country. Both sides of politics are to blame, but the Coalition has used its pro-business reputation as being ‘better economic managers’ to drag the ALP so far to the right as to be almost unrecognisable. The previous Labor government managed to paint itself into a corner totally unnecessarily by buying the line that an early return to surplus was the key indicator of sound economic management. Economic reality forced it into an entirely predictable and humiliating back down.
The ‘trickle down’ theory of neoliberal economics, to which both sides seem to be wedded, is intellectually bankrupt. It is based on a naive atomistic, individualistic, view of the ‘self-made man’ who does not derive his fortune in any way from public goods such as a skilled workforce funded by public education, transport infrastructure funded by public investment, an energy grid built by public utilities, a healthy population due to public health measures, or a tax-payer funded legal framework that enables markets to function. Some might praise the Coalition for at least being consistent. They don’t seem to even be pretending to have a vision for an equitable and ecologically sustainable society. The ALP meanwhile, imagines that it can aspire to such a vision mimicking the economic ideology of their opponents.
The failure to understand the legitimate role that public investment and government debt plays in running an economy illustrates the influence that neoliberal political ideology has had on policy at the expense of sound economics. Neoliberalism is obsessed with small government as a matter of principle without understanding the important role that public investment and good governance plays in sustainable prosperity. Governments can borrow at lower interest rates than private companies because they are understood by financial markets to be lower risk. Australia’s infrastructure was largely financed by public borrowing and public expenditure even before Federation: between 1860 and 1900, the share of government expenditure in domestic capital formation was around 40 per cent. Government debt was around 40 per cent of GDP for most of the period between 1910 and 1939 before spiking to 120 per cent during World War II and declining to today’s relatively low levels by the 1970s (see di Marco et al. here). Until the relatively recent fad for privatisations and public-private partnerships, most of our modern infrastructure was also built through public investment. A certain level of public debt also enables bond markets to function, providing a low-risk means for citizens to invest in the public good.
Governments should be borrowing to invest in areas where the economic return will be positive – particularly in cases such as networked infrastructure where there is a natural monopoly (meaning for example, we don’t need more than one high-speed rail route between Melbourne and Sydney, or more than one national broadband network). The Chaser team confronted Tony Abbott in 2010 with the absurdity of him saying that governments should act like households and companies in managing their debt when in fact households and companies tend to be far more indebted than the government. Australia has one of the lowest levels of public debt of any country in the OECD (see here, here and here). I was surprised to find myself agreeing with Clive Palmer recently when he said, “To say we’ve got a debt crisis means that the world’s got a debt crisis much worse than ours.”
Most economists also agree that we do not have a debt crisis (see here). We do have budgetary challenges, but these are mostly on the revenue side. It is widely believed that Australia is a highly taxed country. In fact we are the fourth lowest taxed country out of the 34 countries in the OECD (yes, really). Our revenue challenges have been exacerbated by years of tax cuts in the previous decade while we rode the mining boom and rivers of gold flowed into government coffers. That was always going to slow down once the boom ended. Now we have a significant revenue problem that the federal government is seeking to palm off to the states, slashing health and education expenditure and cynically leaving the states to square the circle by raising taxes or slashing spending themselves.
Third, the government is seeking a return to surplus on the backs of the poor, the sick and the marginalised. This fact alone should galvanise Christians everywhere. Cuts of $7.5 billion to foreign aid over the four years of the forward estimates account for 20 per cent of the savings despite aid being only 1.3 per cent of the total budget (see here and here). Closer to home, the Australian Council of Social Service warned that the billions of dollars in cuts risked destroying Australia’s social safety net. Denying people under 30 income support for six months at a time and cutting benefits to poor families, is surely a recipe for increased depression and other mental health problems, family violence, alcohol abuse, suicide and crime. The $7 fee for visiting a doctor will also hit the poor – particularly those with children who suffer repeated illness and the elderly on pensions. This is likely to lead to delays in detecting serious illnesses and far more expensive treatments as a result. Raising the age of eligibility for the pension to 70 may be tolerable for sedentary office workers – but what about those doing backbreaking manual labour? Further cuts even after the budget was handed down, such as cuts to the Refugee Council of Australia have been described as “petty and vindictive”. The very real social and economic costs of all these cuts to the most vulnerable are ignored.
Fourth, the abolition of the mining tax and particularly the price on carbon pollution is a triumph of ideology and climate change denial over both economics and science. For a government that would rather cut benefits to the poor than to raise revenue from mining companies, and with no science minister, these moves were not a surprise – indeed they were election promises. If the Abbott government truly understood the threat that climate change poses to Australia but thought that the price on carbon was too high and should be lowered to serve weaker targets, that may have reflected a view that could command some respect, if not agreement. Instead the government wants not only to abolish the price on carbon, but the entire institutional infrastructure that the previous government had painstakingly established (see here and here). The Climate Commission was swiftly dispatched (and ironically, privatised, through citizen support and rebirthed as the Climate Council), and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation are under threat. A well-constructed, self-financing market-based mechanism that had begun to lower Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions significantly, is to be replaced by a ‘Direct Action’ scheme which no experts believe will work effectively and which will cost tax-payers $2.55 billion to pay big polluters to reduce their emissions if they want to (see here). This dramatic reversal has horrified foreign ambassadors, with Switzerland’s Sven-Olof Petersson saying, “I’m amazed that a Liberal government does not choose a market mechanism to regulate emissions …I think that is really shocking.” Even China is concerned, with the ABC reporting that “The Vice President of China’s most advanced carbon emissions exchange says Australia could scuttle the creation of a global carbon trading system.”
Why the intransigence? Back in 2007 in his book High and Dry, Guy Pearse, the former advisor to the Liberal Environment Minister Robert Hill, turned whistle-blower and documented how a powerful group of fossil fuel companies had essentially dictated Australia’s climate change policies. Little seems to have changed, with the Prime Minister recently declaring in his speech to the Minerals Industry Parliamentary dinner:
“Our prosperity rides on the ore and gas and coal carriers steaming the seas to our north, just as surely today as once it rode on the sheep’s back. …It’s particularly important that we do not demonise the coal industry and if there was one fundamental problem, above all else, with the carbon tax was that it said to our people, it said to the wider world, that a commodity which in many years is our biggest single export, somehow should be left in the ground and not sold. Well really and truly, I can think of few things more damaging to our future.”
Australia has enormous coal reserves and the government is working hand in glove with those who want to dig it up and export as much as possible. But once you start to take the economics of this seriously, and start to consider the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren, the case for expanding our coal exports falls to pieces (see here). Using very conservative climate models linked to even more conservative economic models, the US Government came out last year with some eye-popping figures for the so-called ‘social costs of carbon’. These models do not of course, take into account recent developments such as the fact that the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice sheet now seems unstoppable no matter what we do (see here).
What do the estimates of the social costs of carbon tell us? According to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (here, pp. 48 &70) Australia’s black coal exports in FY2013-14 will be around 372 million tonnes (Mt). Combustion will release around 889 Mt CO2-equivalent. For comparison, Germany’s CO2 emissions in 2011 were just 807 Mt. Based on those conservative US Government estimates, our current coal exports are causing between A$12 billion and A$110 billion of damage globally each year (in 2014 dollars). By 2018-19 the Bureau expects our coal exports to rise to 438 Mt, producing around 1045 Mt CO2-equivalent, which will cause between A$15 and A$153 billion in damage (in 2014 dollars) for expected revenues of only $49 billion. The actual profits of course would be much less. None of this damage is included in the coal export price. This is a textbook example of what economists call an externality – a social and environmental cost imposed on others by the actions of private companies. It is bad economic policy pandering to the short-term interests of powerful lobby groups.
Lastly, making higher education far less affordable by deregulating student fees is a catastrophically stupid policy. It will increase poverty levels for students, increase class-based social stratification, decrease overall skill levels in the workforce, and make public debates of complex policy issues even more difficult over time as fewer people can afford a broad education that is not narrowly tailored to a particular job. Graduates will emerge with large debts which will harm their well-being and pressure them to seek high paying jobs at the expense of more community-minded jobs such as teaching, nursing, child care, social work and public service (see here).
What are we to make of all this as Christians? I am probably not alone in feeling bewildered at what is happening to our country. So many people have been working so hard to uphold the values Jesus taught – the care for the sick and the marginalised, justice for the poor, respect and welcome for the foreigner, humility and generosity for the rich. And yet – here we are. It is inspiring to see a few church leaders and other Christians standing up, even to the point of being arrested in protest. Bravofriends! But some of the most strongly ‘Christian’ electorates voted for these cruel and regressive policies. Many of those in federal politics and their supporters who are designing and implementing these policies also call themselves Christians. Many churches continue to preach a narcissistic prosperity theology that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus. This surely points to a colossal failure of leadership among the Christian churches over many years – a desire to ‘play nice’, seduced by the promise of influence, and an unwillingness to consistently stand up for those Jesus placed at the centre of his concern: the poor, the marginalised, the sick, the outcast and children. Did Jesus hate rich people? Of course not. But he saw clearly that excessive wealth, selfishness and insularity were spiritual traps from which only humility, hospitality and service could free us.
If one good can come of our current malaise, perhaps it will be the re-ignition of a Christian sacred activism grounded in Jesus’ teachings, fuelled by deep prayer and with the courage to speak truth to power no matter what the cost.
I discovered recently that the crew at One Just World put up an excerpt from the panel I was on in February in which I was trying to explain the scale and urgency of the climate threat – in 3 minutes. Here’s the clip:
For many, that damage is offset by what they see as social and economic benefits, here and abroad. But in almost all cases, those benefits are exaggerated or non-existent.
How much carbon dioxide are we exporting?
The Australian Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics expects (p. 106) that Australia’s black coal exports in the financial year 2013-14 will be 350 million tonnes (Mt).
With an energy content factor of about 27 GJ/tCoal, and an emissions factor (including oxidation factor) for CO2 of about 88.2 kgCO2-e/GJ, this gives 2.38 tonnes of CO2-e (CO2-equivalent) from every tonne of coal burnt.
The effects of methane and nitrous oxide released from coal combustion bump it up to 2.39 tCO2-e. That implies that the combustion of our coal exports will release around 836 Mt CO2-e. To put that figure in perspective, Germany’s CO2emissions in 2011 were just 807 Mt.
Greenpeace estimates the mega-mines planned for Queensland’s Galilee Basin alone would produce some 705 million tonnes of CO2 each year. That’s enough to chew through around 6% of the CO2 the entire world can release to keep warming to 2C above pre-industrial temperatures.
Burning coal causes billions of dollars in damage
Our coal exports are causing massive environmental, social and economic damage. These costs are not factored into coal’s export price.
By these conservative US Government estimates, our current coal exports are causing between A$11 billion and A$103 billion of damage globally each year (in 2013 dollars). None of this is included in the coal export price.
When we consider that total revenues from exports in FY2013-14 (p. 94) are expected to be around A$41.5 billion, and actual profits are a much smaller fraction of revenues, we can be confident that the unpriced damage caused by our coal exports is likely to be significantly greater than the profits made from those exports.
If our coal exports were to reach 1000 Mt by 2020, they would be producing around 2390 Mt of CO2 and up to A$370 billion in global damage each year.
Pricing this damage could fund the repair
It will be argued of course, that this reasoning doesn’t take into account the economic benefits from the energy produced from the coal. True. But the export price should be higher to internalise the costs of damage – otherwise markets will continue to give misleading signals.
Correcting the market failure of externalised costs could be done either in Australia with an export tax, or in the importing countries with an import tariff or domestic price on carbon.
This caused significant damage to tourism, tertiary education, manufacturing, agriculture and other clean export industries – a classic example of the so-called Dutch-disease. These industries employ vastly more people (Table 06) in far more widely dispersed locations than coal mining.
Leisure tourism has also been hard hit, not only by the higher exchange rate, but by higher labour costs and difficulties attracting skilled staff.
A massive expansion of coal mining would make capital and labour even more expensive for other industries – exacerbating the crowding out effects already seen in the first phase of the mining boom.
Australia Institute researcher Mark Ogge has said: “Consultants for Clive Palmer’s China First coal mine in the Galilee basin estimated, in the company’s EIS, that this effect of driving up labor costs would mean 3,000 jobs will be lost in other parts of the economy, with manufacturing being the hardest hit.”
Powerful coal interests distort our political system
Guy Pearse and Clive Hamilton blew the whistle on the influence the fossil fuel industry has on Australia’s climate change and energy policies. Powerful coal mining companies and their lobbyists distort our political economy, and the expansion of the industry will only make the problem worse.
But there is no equivalent to the giant mining companies in those sectors to make large political donations, or to fund well-orchestrated lobbying and media campaigns promoting their interests.
Our coal undercuts clean energy in developing countries
The argument is often made that if we really cared about the poor we’d export a lot more coal – but this is purest nonsense. It ignores the devastating costs of climate change and respiratory illnesses to the poor, and makes it harder for developing countries to transition to a clean energy future.
Australia should halt its plans to expand its coal production and exports – it enriches a few at the expense of millions and will inflict immense damage both on our own country and on the rest of the world.
If you are of a certain age you may remember the 1990 federal election, with Andrew Peacock up against Bob Hawke. What you may not remember is that the Liberal Party took to that election, a policy of 20 per cent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2001. That’s right – in 1990, the year of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s very first assessment report. The basic physics of how greenhouse gases warm the planet is more than 100 years old, and even back in 1990 the scientific evidence that greenhouse gases emitted by human activity were contributing to climate change was robust enough for the Liberal party to take a strong emissions reduction policy to the federal election.
What happened next? As is now well documented by numerous authors such as Naomi Oreskes, Clive Hamilton, Guy Pearse, and James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore the next two decades witnessed a massive disinformation campaign, denying the link between climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. It was funded largely by fossil fuel industries and libertarian market fundamentalists who could not stomach the idea of any problem that might require government intervention. The objective wasn’t to defeat the climate scientists, but simply to create the impression that scientists were divided. It was a staggeringly effective strategy, devised not only by some of the same PR firms involved in helping tobacco companies deny the link between smoking and cancer, but even some of the same individuals. Climate and energy policies in Australia, Canada and the United States have lurched and stumbled like wounded wookies ever since.
And so we come to 2013 and our refurbished Prime Minister’s surprise early switch to an emissions trading scheme blowing a $3.8 billion hole through the budget over the next four years. The CEO of coal-fired power generator InterGen complained that “only the scrapping of the carbon tax will finally remove this debilitating policy chaos”. The owners of Victoria’s filthy Hazelwood power station GDF Suez said “it creates further uncertainty for investors in our business.” And of course the ubiquitous Minerals Council asserted that it didn’t go nearly far enough and that the scheme should be abandoned.
There is a very good reason though for the policy uncertainty: vested interests have done everything in their power to prevent any policy clarity that would deliver strong emissions reductions. But while fossil fuel companies, coal-fired generators and their investors may have believed their own propaganda for 20 years, you can’t fool Mother Nature. The laws of physics don’t do dodgy back-room deals and they don’t care if you’ve managed to confuse the public debate and spook most of the politicians into pathetically weak emissions reductions targets. The game is up. The decade 2000-2009 was the hottest since records began (p. 19). Extreme weather records are tumbling all over the world – and this is just the beginning. The world’s major economic institutions and every major national academy of science are unanimous in saying that greenhouse gases from human activity are driving climate change (see here and here). As a result we are facing a catastrophe unparalleled in human history without deep and rapid emissions reductions.
Opponents of strong emissions reductions are reaping what they have sown. They ignored the warnings from climate scientists for 23 years, funded crank denial groups to prevent action and now bleat about policy uncertainty. If they had taken the science seriously and engaged constructively on how best to achieve the deep and rapid emissions reductions our children need for a safe future, we would be in a vastly better, more certain, bipartisan policy environment. Our present policy chaos is a direct consequence of too many corporate leaders’ lack of serious engagement with the implications of real climate science, the lobbying against strong emissions targets that will protect our children and the ludicrous plans to massively increase our coal exports.
If the polls are correct, Australia will have a Coalition government next week – and Australian business will enter a protracted period of climate policy chaos. Even if Mr Abbott has the numbers to repeal the carbon price and abolish its associated institutions – business leaders who have taken the issue seriously all know deep down that it will all have to be reinvented again at some point. The delays and uncertainty will gut the clean energy sector, entrench emissions-intensive interests, and make Australia’s economy more fragile and vulnerable in an inevitably emissions-constrained world. The next IPCC scientific reports will roll out over the next year, starting later this month, and will make a mockery of the Coalition’s climate policies.
To those business leaders who complain about the uncertainty and policy chaos, and who did not step up to defend the science of climate change, the need for a price on carbon and their own children’s futures – you have only yourselves to blame.
Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and shadow Minister for Finance, Andrew Robb, have announced A$7.5 billion in planned budget savings from scrapping key elements of the Government’s Clean Energy Future package. By abolishing the price on carbon, a Coalition government would need to plug a hole in the budget estimated in the Pre-Election Fiscal and Economic Outlook at A$9.7 billion over the three years from July 2014.
Discontinuing the business compensation measures introduced to provide partial relief to selected sectors and industries for the hit from the carbon tax ($5.1 billion).
These measures include the instant asset write-off threshold, the Jobs and Competitiveness program, the Steel Transformation Plan, the Clean Technology Program, the Coal Sector Jobs Package and other measures.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Removal of the increase in the instant asset write-off threshold to $6,500 ($0.2 billion)
The instant asset write-off threshold (pp. 58-59) was already increased from A$1,000 to A$5,000 from 2012-13 with the passage of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax legislation. The further increase from A$5,000 to A$6,500 was intended to make it easier for small businesses to invest in new assets, including energy efficient equipment. It was originally costed at “foregone revenue of A$200 million over the period to 2014-15” (p. 122).
Verdict: The A$0.2 billion quoted seems about right.
Discontinuing the Jobs and Competitiveness Program ($4.0 billion)
Assistance under the Jobs and Competitiveness Program (pp. 55 & 114) is in the form of free Australian carbon permits, not cash handouts. That means this measure represents revenue foregone rather than actual savings from the budget bottom line.
Verdict: Technically, judgement here hinges on whether it is appropriate to use an accruals or cash accounting basis for this “saving”. Foregoing revenue from permits that would no longer exist cannot be said to be a budget saving in the sense of making cash available in order to reduce the underlying cash deficit. Cash accounting gives a more accurate picture here and so real savings are overstated by A$4 billion.
Discontinuing the Steel Transformation Plan ($0.1 billion)
Verdict: Allowing for funds already committed, this announced saving of A$0.1 billion appears to be in the right ball park.
Discontinuing the Clean Technology Program ($0.4 billion)
The Clean Technology Program (pp. 56-57) is made up of the Clean Technology Investment Program, the Clean Technology – Food and Foundries Investment Program, and the Clean Technology Innovation Program.
In its May budget, despite “reprofiling” some funding, the Government maintained that the Clean Technology Program “will still provide A$1.2 billion over seven years from 2011‑12” (p. 213). In its August Economic Statement however, the Government announced “rephasing $200 million of funding from the Clean Technology Program and returning $162 million of unallocated funding to the budget” (pp. 39 & 60).
We know that the majority of funds in the Clean Technology Programs is already committed in the forward estimates period. An update was published in 16 July and more has been committed since then.
Verdict: The various changes to the three programs make it difficult to assess the accuracy of the Coalition’s announced A$0.4 billion saving. What can be said though is that the figure appears to include “savings” from funds that have already been committed and contracted. The proposed changes would also make it more expensive for small businesses and trade-exposed firms to invest in technologies that will enable them to save on their power bills. Unless one believes that our industries will never have to face a price on carbon, these changes simply increase their future vulnerability.
Discontinuing the Coal Sector Jobs Package ($0.3 billion)
The Coal Sector Jobs package (pp. 133-135) originally allocated A$1.3 in cash assistance over six years from FY2011-12 to the most emissions-intensive coal mines.
Cuts had already been announced by the Government in its May budget (pp. 68 & 250): “The Government will reduce funding by $274.2 million over two years from 2015-16 for the Coal Sector Jobs package to reflect the projected carbon price. The program will now provide funding of $763.5 million over four years from 2013‑14.”
Further changes were announced in the Government’s August Economic Statement (p. 39): “updating the Coal Sector Jobs package allocation in 2014-15, consistent with lower expected carbon prices, saving $186 million” (Actually A$186.4 million, Table B2, p. 62).
Total budget for FY2013-14 and the following three years implied: A$763.5 – A$186.4 = A$577.1 million total.
Verdict: The multiple changes to this package make figures hard to estimate, but with funds already committed for this financial year, an estimated saving of A$0.3 billion over the next three years is about right.
Discontinuing other small Clean Energy Future business compensation measures including the Energy Efficiency Information Grants, the Clean Energy Skills package, and the Clean Technology Focus for Supply Chain programs
Implied savings as the balance remaining from the A$5.1 billion subtotal: A$100 million.
Energy Efficiency Information Grants (pp. 58 & 87) are to “help small businesses understand the implications of the Government’s clean energy plan and how they can reduce energy costs.” Cost: A$40 million program over four years.
The Clean Technology Focus for Supply Chain (p. 59) initiative is an additional A$5 million over four years for the delivery of programs to small and medium businesses in clean technology industries to “enhance the clean technology focus of industry supply chains, which will help local businesses secure contracts for major projects”.
The budget (p. 131, fn 6) for Energy Efficiency Information Grants & Clean Technology Focus for Supply Chain programs is:
We also know that the great majority of funds under the grant schemes have already been committed, and so it is hard to see how some of the proposed savings could be made without breaking contracts.
The Clean Energy Skills package (p. 131, fn 6) “has been allocated $32 million over four years, which is to be fully offset from existing resourcing.” This implies zero additional funds from the budget.
Verdict: Savings here seem to be overstated by A$60 million.
Energy market compensation
Discontinuing energy market compensation measures which will no longer be needed once the carbon tax has been scrapped ($0.5 billion).
Verdict: Compensation measures are generally in the form of free carbon permits so again, this would not be a saving from the budget bottom line. Real savings are overestimated by around A$0.5 billion.
Land sector initiatives & cuts to departments
Discontinuing various land sector initiatives which Labor has already slashed, as well as bureaucracies like the Climate Change Authority ($0.4 billion).
Verdict: The only verifiable figure here is less than 10% of the supposed A$0.4 billion in savings, allowing a great deal of wiggle room and a black box of major cuts to other important energy and environment initiatives, some of which are already committed and contracted.
Abolishing other measures linked to the carbon tax that are wasteful or will no longer be required once the carbon tax is abolished ($1.5 billion).
Verdict: A$1.5 billion is an enormous figure to state with no detail on what is being targeted. The implications for Australia’s renewable energy future would appear grave.
The claim to save the budget bottom line A$7.5 billion with these measures significantly overstates the practical reality, primarily because of the misclassification of A$4.5 billion under the Jobs and Competitiveness Program and energy market compensation measures. A more accurate figure for the total cash saved by this set of measures is more like $3 billion – nowhere close to the loss of A$9.7 billion in revenue from abolishing the price on carbon.
These cuts also have serious adverse implications for Australia’s preparedness to tackle climate change in the future, since they discourage investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency and imply drastic cuts to vital climate adaptation funds.
I am grateful for the assistance of Claire Maries, Climate Change Campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation in the preparation of this article. Any errors are my own.
One young woman stood up and asked about the role of creativity and innovation in dealing with the multiple crises we are facing. I was glad she asked because we’re going to need an awful lot of creativity and innovation! I mentioned that a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable is a critical aspect of creativity, because we’re putting ourselves on the line whenever we try to do something new and authentic. For me this illustrates the whole issue of the role of psycho-spiritual development in responding to the challenges of poverty reduction, climate change and the transition to a sustainable pathway for humanity. Judging by comments afterwards, including on twitter, the idea of psycho-spiritual development seemed to resonate with a lot of people. It’s not something you can make an international development goal out of, obviously, but our individual development as human beings certainly plays a critical role in whether we can achieve the goals to eliminate poverty and achieve ecologically sustainable development.
When I talk about ‘psycho-spiritual development’, I am not simply talking about the roles of religion, ethics and psychology in development, though of course these are all relevant. My friend Matthew Clarke for example has recently published two books on religion and development here and here, and the newish field of behavioural economics is booming. I am talking primarily though about our individual psychological and spiritual development and how that contributes to those larger goals: how we treat people, how we express ourselves, whether we develop or stifle our creativity, how we conduct ourselves in resolving conflicts, whether we can forgive and move on or whether we cling to bitterness, and whether, in the end, we flourish as human beings. Much has been written about all of this of course, and I would like to explore different facets in future posts. For this first post on this topic, I want to highlight the work of Brené Brown on vulnerability, shame and ‘wholehearted living’ and how they are connected to creativity and behaviour change.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work who has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Her talk at TED in 2010 went viral. If you watch it, you will see why:
Brené Brown – The Power of Vulnerabilty TEDxHouston 2010
Brené makes the point that there can be no creativity or innovation without a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable – to put ourselves out there. In fact, she says, “The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.” (The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 96). And the more supportive the culture we’re in, the more free we’ll feel to be creative, whether we’re talking about the culture of our school or university, our work place, our family or household, and of course, our country. In a fabulous series of talks on The Power of Vulnerability, Brené tells a story of how, after her 2010 TED talk on vulnerability went viral, she received a number of calls from Fortune 500 companies who wanted her to speak. Most of them also wanted her to ‘nix the stuff on vulnerability’, because, “We don’t do vulnerability here.” What did they want her to talk about instead? “Our biggest problem – the lack of innovation and creativity.”
In a corrosive, hyper-competitive culture, where ‘failure’ is punished, where people are torn down, where anonymous trolls lurk in the sewers of the internet spewing bile over anyone they disagree with, and where our political and corporate leaders attack each other and those who work for them with monotonous savagery (especially in Australia it seems!), is it any wonder that so many people stifle their creativity? Is it any wonder that it is so difficult to have sensible, nuanced, and creative public policy discussions about how to extract ourselves from the mess we’ve created?
One of the biggest challenges that Brené highlights is that while shaming our opponents may be tempting, it is invariably counter-productive. In a recent take-down of a New York Times article advocating shaming as a means of behaviour change, she wrote:
Here’s the rub:
Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy.
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
You can’t depend on empathetic connection to make a campaign effective, then crush the needed empathy with shame. …
A man is convicted of domestic abuse and the judge sentences him to stand downtown during rush hour holding a sign that says, “I am a wife beater.” Would you like to be the woman he comes home to that night? Are you safer when he’s in shame or repairing shame? …
I define shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Along with many other shame researchers, I’ve come to the conclusion that shame is much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution. …
Making the distinction between good and bad shame, and promoting so-called good shame is like saying there’s “good starvation” and “bad starvation” and that we need to address the obesity epidemic with “good starvation.” Just like there’s no such thing as “good starvation,” there’s no such thing as “good shame.”
The “good shame” that Reeves describes is actually a combination of guilt and empathy. And, interestingly, there is actually significant research on the important roles both guilt and empathy play in pro-social, positive behavior.
Is this just a case of semantics? No. We don’t refer to balanced, healthy eating as “good starvation” because it’s confusing, inaccurate, and misleading. It also obscures and confuses what we really need to do to move toward positive social outcomes.
The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors. …
Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place in order to understand what they are feeling. When we are empathetic, we can listen and respond authentically to others, and we have the skills to consider how our actions will impact others.
Again, why don’t we just refer to guilt and empathy as “good shame”? Because it’s inaccurate. It clouds the fact that being empathetic and communicating with others (colleagues, children, partners, friends) without using shame requires most of us to develop new skills. Labeling these skills “good shame” moves us away from the hard work of understanding, identifying, and acquiring the knowledge we need to change.
… shame never works as a catalyst for healthy, lasting change.
Shame is at the core of violence, addiction, disengagement, and fear. Shame is about anger and blame, not accountability and change.
Why all this focus on shame and empathy? Because I think there is a strong temptation for those of us working on social issues, poverty and the environment to climb onto our moral high horses and to ‘name and shame’ our opponents. We need to be very careful about that. Sometimes it can work – such as when particular corporations are challenged on their behaviours. But I think we need to focus on playing the ball, not the individual person and where possible, to appeal to people’s higher selves. Martin Luther King didn’t lead the civil rights movement by demonising and attacking his opponents, but by painting a picture of a brighter future together – a shared vision – and by appealing to the best instincts of the American people, calling that country to live up to its promise.
I am reminded of a scene from the 2001 film The Last Castle, set in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. Robert Redford’s character, a highly decorated Lieutenant General, who has been court martialled and sentenced for insubordination, at one stage grabs the raised arm of a guard who was about to beat a prisoner and says to him, “You are better than that.”. He makes a critical distinction between the guard’s inherent worth and potential as a human being, and the destructive behaviour he was about to engage in. He called on the guard to live up to his potential – to embrace his higher self.
For what it is worth, I think that is where we need to begin. We are all broken. We are all imperfect. We all struggle. We are facing an unprecedented, potentially nightmarish future. We need our best selves. We need to be out there, showing up, being authentic, being creative, treating each other with respect and kindness and encouraging friends and opponents alike to do the same. I am not talking about platitudes and warm fuzzies – I am talking about some of the most challenging and difficult work we will ever do: taking the risks to be creative, learning better interpersonal skills around negotiation and conflict resolution, letting go of perfectionism, taking off our armor, showing up, letting ourselves be seen, working on our hangups, phobias and assorted personal demons with a counsellor, therapist or spiritual director, and learning to live ‘wholeheartedly’. We will still cop brickbats and sniping from armchair critics and trolls, but so what? The title of Brené’s book Daring Greatly, comes from a 1910 speech by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, which is worth quoting:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly …” (Daring Greatly, p. 1)
This imperfect post is the tip of an iceberg, and I’ve hardly even touched on the spiritual side of psycho-spiritual development. More in another post. I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Last week I gave a presentation to the Master Builder’s Association on climate change and its projected impacts. One of the most difficult things to convey in such talks is context – what does 2, 3 or 4°C degrees of warming above pre-industrial temperatures actually mean? Richard Jones Executive Director of the International Energy Agency said in April, for example, that we are on track for something like 6°C:
Hmmm. We’ll adapt? OK so what does 6°C warming in historical context look like? Well, as a former geologist, I’ve always been fascinated by paleoclimatology (not that I knew that word when I was six and was learning the names of all the dinosaurs). The chart below, which is a composite from various studies published in the scientific literature, gives some perspective, running from 542 million years ago, to today:
If you’re wondering where the dinosaurs were, they existed from roughly the Triassic (Tr), through the Jurassic (J) and into the Cretaceous (K) periods, 250 to 65 million years ago. Then we come to the Paleocene (Pal) and Eocene (Eo) epochs. Around 50 million years ago the earth experienced something called the ‘Eocene Optimum‘ in which temperatures were around 6°C warmer and there was little or no ice on the planet. As you can see from the chart – the Earth took several million years to reach this temperature and tens of millions to cool back to current levels. And of course we had the oscillations of the ice ages along the way, with temperatures a few degrees cooler than now at various times. 50 million years is a long time of course, so it may help to take a look at how horses evolved over that period:
So 50 million years ago, the last time we had temperatures 6°C warmer than now, horses as we know them didn’t exist – just little guys we’ve called Hyracotheriums (sometimes called Eohippus) that stood only 20 cm tall. So what would 6°C warming look like in historical context? Well, like this:
We’re not talking then, about going back to the days of plucking grapes off vines in merry olde England during the medieval warm period. No, 6°C in less than 100 years is essentially a vertical line straight up, to temperatures that haven’t existed on Earth since the ancestors of horses were the size of small dogs and humans were a distant dream. As far as we know, the Earth has never experienced such a massive near-instantaneous temperature rise. That’s what Mr Tillerson smilingly assures us that we and the planet’s ecosystems can adapt to. As a result of the views of powerful interests like Tillerson’s and the hordes of other deniers, most governments are treating climate change, if at all, like a moderately significant economic reform – like tariff reform or floating the dollar, rather than as a national and global emergency. As Robert Manne wrote recently in his superb but chilling article A Dark Victory: How vested interests defeated climate science: “This is a victory that subsequent generations cursing ours may look upon as perhaps the darkest in the history of humankind.”
Well I for one am not giving up yet. I think our children, the poor and our planet are worth fighting for. Please give your support to one of the many organisations striving for urgent action on climate change. And maybe next time you hear someone saying that we’ll just adapt or that taking urgent action on climate change is ‘extremism’ – show them this chart.
In a café recently I saw a tall, strong, intellectually disabled teenage boy walk up to an elderly gentleman who was quietly sipping his coffee. The boy suddenly shouted at him and knocked his glasses off his face onto the floor. His poor, worn-out mother, who was on crutches, was mortified. She made her son apologise to the shaken man and led the boy back to her car. As she drove away I wondered about her life. This never ends for her. She was just trying to have a coffee – a much needed break that the rest of us take for granted.
Our society needs much better support and respite for the hundreds of thousands of parents and carers who have been dealt a tough hand. We keep being told there’s not enough cash in the kitty – but as the figure below shows, Australia is the 6thlowest taxed country out of 34 in the OECD (as measured by total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP). It’s a mystery to me why so many Christians will man the barricades to try to prevent something like same sex marriage in the name of defending the faith, and will then happily vote for parties committed to cutting taxes and ensuring that there’s never enough money to adequately care for the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the oppressed, the elderly, the homeless and the exhausted. Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
The OECD recently released its Environmental Outlook to 2050 report, subtitled ‘The Consequences of Inaction’. The English summary can be found here and key facts and figures here. As you might guess, it makes for grim reading. Here are some of the key points:
World population is expected to increase from 7 billion today to over 9 billion in 2050.
World GDP is projected to almost quadruple by 2050, despite the recent recession.
Cities are likely to absorb the total world population growth between 2010 and 2050. By 2050, nearly 70% of the world population is projected to be living in urban areas.
By 2050, without new policies a world economy four times larger than today is projected to need 80% more energy in 2050 without new policy action.
By 2050, without new policies greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by 50%, primarily due to a 70% growth in energy-related CO2 emissions.
The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases could reach 685 parts per million (ppm) CO2-equivalents by 2050. As a result, global average temperature is projected to be 3°C to 6°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
The greenhouse gas mitigation actions pledged by countries in the Cancún Agreements at the United Nations Climate Change Conference will not be enough to prevent the global average temperature from exceeding the 2°C threshold, unless very rapid and costly emission reductions are realised after 2020. They are more in line with a 3°C increase.
The Outlook suggests that global carbon pricing sufficient to lower greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 70% in 2050 compared to the Baseline scenario and limit greenhouse gas concentrations to 450 ppm would slow economic growth by only 0.2 percentage points per year on average. This would cost roughly 5.5% of global GDP in 2050. This pales alongside the potential cost of inaction on climate change.
Delaying action is costly. Delayed or only moderate action up to 2020 (such as implementing the Copenhagen/Cancún pledges only, or waiting for better technologies to come on stream) would increase the pace and scale of efforts needed after 2020. It would lead to 50% higher costs in 2050 compared to timely action, and potentially entail higher environmental risk.
Support to fossil fuel production and use amounted to between US$45-75 billion per annum in recent years in OECD countries. Developing and emerging economies provided over US$400 billion in fossil fuel consumer subsidies in 2010 according to International Energy Agency estimates.
By 2050, without new policies freshwater availability will be further strained, with 2.3 billion more people than today (in total over 40% of the global population) projected to be living in river basins under severe water stress especially in North and South Africa, and South and Central Asia.
Global water demand is projected to increase by some 55%, due to growing demand from manufacturing (+400%), thermal electricity generation (+140%) and domestic use (+130%). In the face of these competing demands, there will be little scope for expanding irrigation water use under this scenario. The main increases in water demand will be in the emerging economies and developing countries.
The MDG for sanitation will not be met by 2015; by 2050 1.4 billion people are projected to be still without access to basic sanitation.
It is good to see the OECD focussing more on the costs of inaction – particularly on climate change. Our policy debates among politicians in Australia focus overwhelmingly on the costs of action, without taking seriously enough the potentially catastrophic and irreversible costs of inaction. It’s like letting your house burn down because you’re only thinking about the cost of the water that’s needed to put out the fire.
The OECD report is described as an ‘environmental outlook’, but anyone interested in the social and economic implications should take a good look at this report. The social consequences, particularly for the poor, of failing to arrest climate change and other forms of environmental degradation will be … well, ‘severe’ hardly begins to describe it.