Spooner’s war on climate policy
John Spooner, cartoonist for The Age has fired his latest salvo in his war on climate policy in yesterday’s (7-7-2012) paper. It mentions me so I feel obliged to provide a response. J’accuse Spooner of being a propagandist.
Yep, that’s me down by the *. Quoted as measuring Australia’s policy impact as being 0.0038°C in 2100. Which would happen if Australia was to reduce its emissions by 5% from 2000 by 2020 and maintain that until 2100. But is this cartoon an accurate and amusing reflection of the conversation Gillard would have with her imaginary friend? Well yes, until the fourth panel. Then it falls away — and that’s worth a bit of scrutiny. And he gets IPCC wrong. What is the IPPC?
Spooner used to be a very good cartoonist but the signs are he has lost his mojo on a number of issues. Looking through his last 90 or so cartoons on The Age website, there is an old-fashioned conservative agenda that mourns the loss of Australian manufacturing, lambasts the unions, bank corruption, wealthy Europe, castigates the government on debt (falsely) but special venom is maintained for La Gillard. There is a special bottle of cartoonist venom that he sups from regularly and often. What about Abbott? A bit player in three cartoons. Yet Spooner remains a terrific portraitist. Misogyny? Did a red-headed woman bite him when he was young?
Back to climate policy. On the facing page of the dead tree version there is an excellent article by Ian Robinson of the Rationalists Society of Australia who tackles the role of propaganda in the ‘climate tax’ debate. He describes propaganda as “an element of truth; gross exaggeration; and constant repetition.” That it’s facing Spooner’s cartoon is probably no accident.
So what are the propaganda devices that Spooner uses in the last panel?
- A little bit of truth – cite an authority with serious cred. Moi, with my estimate of 0.0038°C in 2100. (Ok, anyone who knows me can rofl at the cred bit) . An IPPC author, no less (what does IPPC stand for?).
- Gross exaggeration – anyone with the most basic knowledge of psychology can spot this one. It contrasts a big number as a cost and a small number as a benefit with hyperbolic discounting to whit. And across different variables. Suggesting $10 billion (inflated to ten thousand million – a triple value instead of a single) as a cost now for a benefit that’s supposedly worth a tiny number of degrees in a century is designed to maximise the cost in proportion to the benefit. Experimental psychology shows that people will focus most on the difference between the numbers and not on the categories. The difference between these numbers is 2.3 trillion (2.3×1012) and 90 years. It all depends on perspective. For example, how alarming is 10 billion ants on 0.0038 of a continent? For Australia that would come out at 380,000 ants per km2 whereas 22 million ants per km2 is possible. So is 0.0038°C in 90 years adequate for that effort? I think Julia’s invisible friend would be quite pleased with outcome.
- Constant repetition – Spooner is constantly showing Gillard’s policies as failing by repeating the technique used in this cartoon. In 90 instances, instead of an invisible friend he uses as the protagonist Combet (twice), Swan (thrice), Flannery, solo, Ken Henry and Kim Carr – that’s 1 in 10 cartoons showing up Gillard as a failure. Another constant repetitions is that the $10 billion raised by the fixed price is at a net cost to the economy. It is not – it is a levy on CO2 production that is redistributed to taxpayers and individuals, certain classes of emitters themselves and through a range of schemes promoting clean energy, biodiversity and carbon farming initiatives. It shifts the nature of activity in the economy but not at net cost. There are also substantial benefits to be gained over the coming 90 years and beyond that very likely outweigh the fixed price of $23 and almost certainly outweigh the net cost of adjustment, which is hard to estimate but will be a small amount of that $23 and which will diminish quite quickly.
I calculated the avoided warming for a series of questions asked by readers of the Sunday Age, organised by journalist Michael Bachelard. The 5% reduction by 2020 was the minimum Labor Party policy target, set if there was no substantial action by the rest of the world. For such a pissweak reduction it’s no bad result (the Treasury calculates -23% from business as usual).
The Clean Energy Act actually does not contain a target for 2020. Instead it leaves it to the Climate Change Authority to review the caps and targets to be set moving forward. An -80% target from 2000 by 2050 is in the legislation. It would be necessary if the world was to get anywhere near close the the 2°C warming target now written into the UNFCCC negotiations following the Council of Parties meeting in Cancun last year. That would reduce global temperatures by a potential 0.02°C, roughly 1% of the total warming from pre-industrial levels. Now, for a country the size of Australia with its high emissions profile, that would be worth crowing about.
However, if Australia exports roughly 75 gigatonnes of CO2 in fossil fuel exports between now and 2050 as estimated by Guy Pearse, much of that potentially good work would be undone.
I will follow up with more on the benefits of avoided damages that can be estimated from potential Australian emission reductions but tonight’s leg of Le Tour has finished (dozed off during the middle stages but saw Froom win the stage), so it’s time to hit publish and retire.