Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Spooner’s war on climate policy

with 12 comments

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.

Illustration: John Spooner

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 kmwhereas 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.


12 Responses

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  1. Well said Roger
    I think you should seek the right of reply from The Age. If you get it your piece is already written. If not it would be interesting to hear why the Age didn’t find this necessary or appropriate. I guess you know that Tim Lambert at Deltoid has also entered this discussion. http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2011/07/12/where-does-cartoonist-john-spo/ My attempt is here. http://duggyvans.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/canadian-angry-person-and-climate.html

    Douglas Evans

    July 8, 2012 at 10:17 am

  2. “…how alarming is 10 billion ants on 0.0038 of a continent?”
    That depends. Does each ant cost us $1/year?

    Putting strained analogies aside, though, I agree with your actual argument. A cartoonist making use of exaggerated presentation?!? Really?? What is the world coming to?


    July 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    • The $10 billion is not a net cost to the economy. It is distributed elsewhere in the economy. The major costs are the adjustments made to manage the levy and the redistribution of costs between emitting and non-emitting activities.

      Roger Jones

      July 10, 2012 at 7:07 pm

      • Roger, the major cost is the redistribution of wealth between producers (the big polludas) and consumers (the compensation package plus subsidies to inefficient industries that cannot and never will survive without taxpayers money). At the end of the day, if the cost is $10bn, then that is in fact a net cost to the economy, because most of $10bn worth of capital will be destroyed.
        Also, your analogies really are appalling, and if there’s any exaggeration, it’s downward exaggeration (sorry, is there a word for that?) of the cost of the tax, which will have to increase astronomically in the future, and upward exaggeration of the importance of an unmeasurable change in the earth’s average temperature, and an overestimate of that unmeasurable change.
        By the way, I usually ignore anyone who dismisses criticism of Gillard as “misogyny”, because that person is likely to be of low intelligence and unworthy of notice. Her own party is looking for a reason to dispense with her, not because she’s a woman but because she’s not a competent PM.


        July 10, 2012 at 7:37 pm

      • I sat on a panel with two economists at the Australian Society of Economic conference today, the panel was on climate change – they spoke about the current policy environment (Frank Jotzo and Warwick McKibbin ANU). I didn’t get that view from them at all on the capital destruction vs distribution issue. They were more exercised about whether the policy was robust and could manage future uncertainties adequately.
        Your final comment says nothing, I’m afraid.

        Roger Jones

        July 10, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      • True, though if getting down to details, it must also be considered that the carbon tax is just one of several plans which – combined – are intended to achieve the 5% emissions reduction target. Things like the 10bn Green Energy Fund, for example.

        A significant portion of revenue raised is also intended to be spent outside the Australian economy, and money spent on international carbon credits is likely to be money that will not be seen again.


        July 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm

  3. What is your very strained point about the ants?You can easily have over a quarter of a BILLION ants in a square kilometer. The (putative) temperature reduction is indeed miniscule, and projecting that to a relatively trivial number of ants just proves that it is a small amount.

    if this is the way you crush the logic of a humble cartoonist, winning over the public will be a Sisyphean task.


    July 10, 2012 at 9:24 pm

  4. and Andrew Bolt has made you look ridiculous again by pointing out all the incorrect assumptions in your post. You really should give up, no credibility and even less intellect.


    July 10, 2012 at 11:29 pm

  5. How about a per person rather than a per ant approach? You could offer each Australian the option of subscribing $500 per year (totalling up to $10 billion pa). In return for their personal contribution the temperature could be 2x10e-10 degrees lower (no less practically meaningful a figure than 0.0038 degrees) than it would otherwise have been by 2100. Or to use Professor Garnaut’s analysis based on global action they will have helped avoid the risk that the Australians of 2100 will only be three times, rather than four times, as rich as we are now.

    Maybe some will judge that those richer and better informed people (after all, human knowledge is doubling every couple of years) will be able to make smart adaptation decisions for themselves. It always amuses me to imagine a smoke filled room full of Edwardian gentlemen in 1912 pontificating on how to use their unprecedented knowledge and technology to anticipate and solve the problems of 2012.

    I wonder how many people would opt in to a voluntary scheme? I am not sure who is empowered to negotiate on behalf of the ants.


    July 11, 2012 at 4:28 pm

  6. “…special venom is maintained for La Gillard” “Misogyny? Did a red-headed woman bite him when he was young?”

    Let me get this right: You see no other possible reason to lampoon, lambast or criticise Gillard, except because she’s a red-haired woman?



    July 11, 2012 at 5:36 pm

  7. Mike @ 11.29

    Bolt only “wins” arguments through censorship/selective publication. If you do not understand that then you are a toadie and not worth talking to.

    The real facts that Bolt a). does not understand, I would venture, and b) will never talk about is the true cost of the .0038 C.

    Australia’s global temperature .0038 policy impact share must be assessed as its part of the GLOBAL ECONOMY.

    It is a global temperature which is relative to the global economy. Do you understand the distinction?

    The Global Economy which will be reduced to near zero by a 5 degree C rise in temperatures is what is at stake here.

    In todays terms this is $69 trillion. Australia’s current .0038 policy impact share on that economic activity is $236 billion. In fact it is the inverse of that. ie if all Austalia achieves is a .0038 degC improvement then its share of saving the the global economy amounts to just $236 billion in today’s terms.

    However, if Australia achieves a .02 degree C reduction in temperature rise then its improvement share to the global economy will amount to $1.35 trillion. In other words we will have saved the Australian economy at a short term marginal cost.

    Do you understand this?

    Andrew Bolt is a technologic Dunce. If you swallow his swill then you will become a Double Dunce. More significantly, your children will have no future and almost certainly die young.

    I have just been outside after being inside all morning. It is summer here in Emu Plains NSW in the middle of winter. That is both weather and changed climate.


    July 15, 2012 at 12:25 pm

  8. […] It turns out – unsurprisingly – that John Spooner has a long history of woefully unfunny cartoons that misrepresent climate science, policy and/or the public opinion he thinks is […]

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