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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

something different required « Previous | |Next »
September 30, 2003

I see that Bjorn Lomborg, the sceptical environmentalist, is in the country for a lecture tour of Australia as a guest of the Institute of Public Affairs. He delivers the H.V. McKay lecture in Melbourne tonight. He comes with a background of controversy.

Good luck to him on the tour. I hope the environmental debate in this country is stirred up and is lifted to a level above the polemics. It sure needs it. The conservatives offer us Allan Wood, who wears the mantel of science to dismiss green propaganda; whilst the Quadrant crowd wear the mask of scientific reason to dismiss environmentalism as a religion. Both run explicit anti-environmental agendas. They are engaged in politics not science, have an explicit disregard for ecology and a onesided understanding of the relationship between economics and ecology.

Now Tim Blair says that the Wood piece is a good read and recommends it. So what is Wood saying? Well, he usefully sets up the debate in Australia in neo-liberal terms. He says that:

"A central proposition of Lomborg's that environmental scientists have great difficulty with is that economic growth and rising incomes, once they reach a certain level, are associated with less, not more, environmental degradation -- at least in democratic market economies."

Wood then goes to quote Ian Castles to characterise the other side of the debate:

'"To deny that problems of the environment can be solved by greater wealth and private property rights is dogma, not science," Castles says. An important reason for the association between growth and an improved environment is that growth facilitates new technology which allows higher average incomes and improvements in the environment.'

The description of the issue is okay but judgement is whacky. It is dogma to think otherwise to neo-liberalism. Green dogma vs neo-liberal science. It's cartoon thinking.

Is it dogma to argue that increased economic growth and rising incomes are associated with more environmental degradation in Australia? Not at all. To see this we shift from abstract level to a specific and presssing issue. Only then can we begin to sort through the issues rather than engage in the usual polemics.

So let us take the recent debates about the national electricity market in the Australian Financial Review last week (subscription required, 24th & 25th September, p.63) On the one hand, we have Henry Ergas arguing that the regulated utilities need to be allowed a higher rate of return to finance the new investment that is needed to prevent the lights going out. Regulators, such as the ACCC, should not compromise the incentives for efficient investment.

On the other hand, we have Graeme Samuel from the ACCC that the rate of return is okay, electricity prices are now competitive with other OECD countries, market signals are working effectively to boost investment, and there is greater consumer participation in the energy market through the choice of retailer. The market wilh ensure that the lights will stay on.

I will put to one aside the faith in markets and the spin that the NEM is working competitively. Note the complete absence of any policy concern with the issues of sustainability. It is all all about the market. Yet sustainability sits there under 'new investment needed' It appears in the foreground when we ask: 'new investment in what to ensure the lights stay on?' Up pops investment in coal-fired power stations to generate the extra electricity needed to keep the lights on. Coal fired power stations means increased greenhouse gases. And Australia has a public commitment to reduce its production of greenhouse gases not increase them.

Should we not then make the shift to investment in renewable energy? Should not that be a concern of the national regulator?

So what do the neo-liberals then say? That renewable energy is not cost effective and that it is limiting carbon emissions is not cost-effective. The policy end of sustainbility is effectively excluded by market criteria. So what stands as the policy end is economic growth. That is pushing a political agenda.

As I said above, the debate needs to go up a notch. Maybe Bjorn Lomborg will help the neo-liberal market boys find the courage to throw away their tattered catechism? The line that is learned by rote from the catechism is that those concerned about environmental health have got it wrong because things are pretty okay and they are getting better all the time.

The philosophical assumption of the catechism is the ecology of the continent is only to be considered when it provides benefit or opportunities for economic utility. Somehow I doubt whether Bjorn Lomborg will question that assumption.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:21 PM | | Comments (0)