Archive for the ‘Greenwash’ Category

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Australia’s Minister for Greenwash

13 February 2013

Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke – or as the Greens call him, Minister Against the Environment – on Monday signed conditional approvals for three new coal and coal seam gas (CSG) mines in New South Wales.

The three projects are Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine (despite Burke having said last week he would defer that decision for months), Idemitsu’s Boggabri coal mine expansion, and AGL’s 110 CSG wells in Gloucester (the first stage of a potential 330-well project). Together, they would result in 47 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. (To make matters worse, on the same day the NSW state government gave conditional approval to BHP Billiton’s Dendrobium coal mine expansion, and on Tuesday the Queensland government lifted a moratorium on shale oil.)

Burke says his decision is intended to cut the NSW government out of the process, after NSW Resources Minister Chris Hartcher leaked a confidential letter from Burke expressing an intention to approve the three projects. Burke claims his new approvals come with unusually stringent conditions:

For the areas that are not yet resolved, instead of giving a normal approval and say these are the conditions, I’ve said these further issues need to be worked through to my satisfaction before we know whether the project can actually go ahead. So it’s quite – even though it’s just being reported as approvals, it’s actually quite a different set of conditions to what would normally occur. Read the rest of this entry ?

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The illusion of the reasonable centre

4 February 2013

Republican strategist Karl Rove in 2002 notoriously disparaged “the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. He continued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That quote has become a symbol for the Republican Party’s detachment from empirical reality, like Mitt Romney’s recent declaration “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. I’m a proud member of the “reality-based community”, in that I try to base my views as much as possible on observed facts rather than instinct or ideology. Yet Rove understood something his political opponents don’t: “political reality” is an illusion.

Campaigners who pride themselves on being “political realists”, and voters who pride themselves on being “centrists”, make the fundamental mistake of assuming the political centre is a real thing fixed in one position. Although political scholars talk about an objective centre halfway between the most extreme possible ideological orientations, it has no influence on political debate. In practice, the political centre is a perception that can be manipulated by various political forces. Thus it is possible to shift the political centre, or “political reality”, without deluding as the Republicans do – you only need to change the perception of where the centre is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The “Overton window” is the range of political positions considered to be the scope of reasonable debate. The perceived political centre is in the middle of the Overton window. Positions toward the edges of the Overton window are considered radical, and positions beyond the edges are considered unthinkable.

A third way of conceptualizing this is “Hallin’s spheres”, three nested ideological spheres illustrating the implicit bias of ostensibly objective media coverage. In the centre is the “sphere of consensus”, consisting of propositions considered by the journalist (or other observer) to be self-evident to all reasonable people. The intermediate shell is the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, matters considered suitable to be debated among reasonable people; journalists generally strive for balanced coverage of the views in this shell. The outer shell is the “sphere of deviance”, positions considered to be outside the range of mainstream debate. In this metaphor it is journalists who (consciously or otherwise) decide which ideas belong in which sphere, and they tend to make those decisions based on the thinking of the political establishment. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Liberals Part 2: Their “Direct Action” is neither

13 January 2013

This is the second part of a series examining the Liberal Party of Australia. Part 1 covers the party’s climate change denial and intention to abolish various existing climate policies. This part examines the climate policies they promise to introduce.

The first question to ask about the Liberal Party’s climate policy is “what is it?” This question is a lot more difficult to answer than you might think. One of the reasons why I have not focused on the Liberals is because although they are aggressive on process, their policies are vague if not contradictory. If they weren’t favored by nearly half of Australian voters, I would say the Liberals are the parliamentary clowns. Nevertheless, I will examine the few details they have provided.

The Liberals propose a set of measures they spin as a “Direct Action Plan”, a frame that has been uncritically adopted by many journalists. While the phrase “direct action” brings to mind images of protestors chained to bulldozers, the content of the Direct Action Plan is rather less exciting, neither particularly direct nor very active.

The plan is mainly articulated in a policy document released before the last election (all quotes below are taken from this document unless otherwise attributed). It is unclear how current this document is: it is nearly three years old so the timeline will obviously need to be condensed to meet the 2020 deadline, and the Liberals have since mentioned various revisions and reinterpretations, some of which I may have missed. Presumably a full updated policy will be released before the next election; in the meantime I have assumed the old document is accurate except where I am aware of later changes.

The plan is supposed to directly cut CO2 emissions 5% below 1990 by 2020, very similar to Labor’s meaningless target (with the positive difference that the Liberals would not use international offsets, a point I will come back to in Part 3). The Liberals also ostensibly support Labor’s conditional target range of 5-25%, though they have not mentioned it for a long time. Indeed, they rubbish their own 5% target. Liberal leader Tony Abbott has described it as “crazy” in the context of China’s increasing emissions. On other occasions Abbott has gone even further (which a leaked list of talking points shows was scripted), claiming the target will not reduce global temperature for 1000 years (missing that the point of climate action is to limit the rise of global temperature). The Liberals can’t have it both ways: is a 5% target insignificant or Liberal policy? Read the rest of this entry ?

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Australia embraces Paris Hilton’s energy policy

24 December 2012

The Australian government last month released the final version of its long-awaited Energy White Paper. Energy Minister Martin Ferguson’s speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) launching the White Paper was interrupted by Quit Coal protesters, one playing a fictional mining magnate thanking Ferguson for supporting the coal industry. After the protesters were removed from the stage, the audience (evidently a bunch of dinosaurs) applauded Ferguson’s retort that the demonstration said something about the education of young people and he would resume discussing “how we create wealth to create economic opportunities for those young people”. Let’s look at how the government intends to do this.

The Energy White Paper is a dry document, in more than one sense of the word. Once again I am struck by the contrast between the way the Labor government is portrayed by the likes of News Corporation, and the government’s true policies and priorities.

On the surface, the final White Paper somewhat improves on the draft version (and on the dogmatic anti-renewables stance Labor took in Multi-Party Climate Change Committee negotiations) by acknowledging the falling prices and growing role of renewables and proposing demand-management measures. This is possibly thanks to the increasing clout of the renewable energy lobby. It’s certainly an improvement on the Howard government’s 2004 Energy White Paper, which placed all of its climate eggs in the CCS basket (mainly through a $500 million Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Program which has been perpetually delayed). But instead of advocating further action as is urgently needed, the White Paper merely reaffirms inadequate existing climate policies, claiming “the Australian Government has already put in place the key mechanisms to drive a transformation to cleaner energy”.

The big picture is that the government’s fossil fuel addiction remains as strong as ever. The Energy White Paper’s key priorities include “developing Australia’s critical energy resources, particularly gas resources” (p xviii). It plans to facilitate the expansion of fossil fuel mining and export industries at a time when they should be phased out as fast as possible. It boldly says (p. 66): “Coal is, and will remain an integral part of Australia’s economy.” Gas and coal rate far more mentions in the White Paper than any renewable energy technology. In a nutshell, the shift from Howard’s Energy White Paper to Gillard’s one is from a fossil-fuel-only approach to an all-of-the-above policy analogous to Obama’s, which seems to have originated from a spoof campaign video by Paris Hilton, of all people. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Doha climate talks: Gateway to hell?

15 December 2012

The Doha climate talks (COP18) reached an agreement on Saturday night. They’re calling it the “Doha Climate Gateway”. To me it looks like a gateway to probable inaction and climate catastrophe.

Delegates blatantly ignored the urgent warnings being screamed at them from all directions, and put off consideration of ramping up ambition until next year, or the one after that. They agreed an extension of Kyoto with meaninglessly weak 2020 targets and enough carried-over surplus permits to lock in business-as-usual for many countries until at least 2020. They failed to agree a pathway for global emissions or significant finance for poor countries. Meanwhile, our governments still expect us to wait until 2020 for a possible global binding regime. In the showdown between developed countries and small island states in Doha, rich countries won hands down. Ultimately, we all lose.

One of the most depressing parts of humanity’s annual cycle of procrastination on the climate crisis is that after the conference fails to achieve much of significance, 195 government spin machines kick into action to sell the outcome as a step forward. This time the main justification is that Doha “crossed the bridge” to a new regime. Ministers say things like “where would we be if we had failed to agree and the process had collapsed?” While of course I don’t want the climate talks to collapse, I don’t think it has ever been likely and it occurs to me that it would have a bright side: there would no longer be a false sense of security that the climate crisis is being addressed.

The message that progress is being made is seductive to those of us desperate for climate action, but one we must see through. After the high-profile failure of Copenhagen, governments have gone into Cancun, Durban, and Doha conveying low expectations, which in many cases I suspect was a deliberate public relations strategy so that at any hint of incremental progress they could reemerge proclaiming they met or exceeded those expectations. It’s a psychological manipulation technique called “under-promise and over-deliver”. Judging outcomes relative to the expectations governments set for themselves is playing into the hands of the delayers. Instead outcomes must be judged on real-world merit, and in this context the Doha Climate Gateway is worse than nothing.

The climate talks have gone on my entire life, yet despite the negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, the situation has deteriorated at an accelerating rate. Global fossil fuel CO2 emissions have risen by 58% since 1990 and 2.6% this year (with most of the recent growth in China), and the Earth is headed for a catastrophic 4-6°C global warming by 2100, plus potentially large feedbacks and post-2100 warming. If we allow anywhere near that level of warming, humanity faces a very uncertain future. To be sure of preserving a habitable climate and avoiding feedbacks that could send climate change spiraling out of our control, we must aim to reduce CO2 to ~350 ppm (limiting warming to ~1°C). That means we must phase out fossil fuels globally as fast as possible. Politically, this has never looked more impossible. Read the rest of this entry ?

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A terrible week for the climate

14 October 2012

This week’s events illustrate (not that further illustration was needed) that both of Australia’s major political parties are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, though Labor hides it behind a veneer of greenwash while the Liberals are overt about it.

On Monday in New South Wales, the Planning Assessment Commission approved the Ashton South East Open Cut coal mine in the Hunter Valley. The Commission had rejected the same mine last year, but the company, Ashton Coal, appealed the decision and it has now been approved with changes. The mine is still opposed by residents.

Meanwhile, the NSW government made very clear where its loyalties lie on coal seam gas (CSG). On Tuesday, NSW Resources Minister Chris Hartcher told an Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association conference that the “industry needs to get out there and sell the message”. On Wednesday, NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazzard reportedly told the mayor of the anti-CSG Lismore Council that CSG development would go ahead regardless of community opposition.

Also on Wednesday, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke approved the T3 coal terminal at Abbot Point, Queensland, which is joint-owned by GVK and Hancock. The decision is in spite of UNESCO having called for no new port developments to be approved before the completion of a plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef, and follows Burke’s approval of the associated Alpha mine and rail line. T3 will have the capacity to export 60 million tonnes of coal per year. Assuming each tonne of coal burned emits 2.7 tonnes of CO2, when the exported coal is burned overseas it will result in CO2 emissions of 160 million tonnes per year, equal to the emissions which Australia’s domestic carbon price is intended to save. I urge readers to sign this petition to Tony Burke to reverse his approval of T3. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Climate change, foxes, and hens

25 September 2012

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced yesterday the Labor Government will introduce a tax on the consumption of hens by foxes.

“By making hen consumption more expensive, this policy will make alternative food sources relatively cheaper,” said Gillard.

From 2015, Australia will have a hen consumption trading scheme, in which foxes will be able to buy and sell rights to eat hens.

The scheme aims to cut hen consumption by 5% by 2020.

“A market mechanism is the most cost-effective way to reduce hen consumption,” said Gillard.

All her economic advisers agreed, rejecting demands by animal rights groups that the market mechanism must be complemented by other measures including fox-proof fences around poultry farms.

“We look forward to working very closely with foxes and other stakeholders over the coming months to ensure we reduce hen consumption at the lowest possible cost and while maintaining the competitiveness of our fox industry,” said Hen Minister Greg Combet.

Reaction from foxes

The pro-hen industry coalition, the Global Organization of Businesses for Bantam Liberation and Emancipation (GOBBLE), cautiously welcomed the announcement.

“We will work with the government to achieve a price on hen consumption, as it is the most cost-effective way of reducing the consumption of hens.” said a spokesperson for GOBBLE, who was previously a senior government adviser. “It’s much cheaper than, say, just banning hen consumption.” Read the rest of this entry ?