20 July 2011

When Politicians Put Experts Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I have been following closely, but not writing much on, the debate in Australia over Julia Gillard's proposed carbon tax.  How it plays out will be fascinating to watch and will provide as much a lesson in Australian politics as anything to do with climate policy.

This report from The Australian provides a great example of how politicians can make life extremely difficult for those experts who share their goals:
The Prime Minister took her carbon tax pitch to the heart of Australia's $40 billion coal sector today, telling NSW miners her plan wouldn't place their jobs at risk.
 Ms Gillard told workers at Mandalong's Centennial Coal, in the Hunter Valley, that the mine would stay open for as long as there was coal in the ground.

"This mine will continue to work for those 20, 25 years," she said. "It will continue to be here until the end of its productive life."
She goes further even,
The federal government has committed $1.3 billion to protect coal jobs, while Treasury modelling says the industry's output will more than double between 2010 and 2050 under the carbon tax.

But it also says the proportion of Australia's energy supply derived from coal will fall from 80 per cent now to 20 per cent within 40 years. . .

Earlier, Ms Gillard was tackled on ABC radio over the impact of her carbon tax on Australia's biggest coal port.

“How can (the tax) not have a negative impact on economic growth in this region?” an ABC Newcastle presenter asked.

The Prime Minister said Australia would continue to export coal under her carbon tax, dismissing suggestions Chinese demand would tail off as a result.

“There's a strong future for coal mining in this country, it will continue to grow. Employment will continue to grow,” she said.
Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, is plenty happy to hear this line of argument from Gillard:
But the Opposition Leader, speaking in Victoria, said the government plan clearly stated that coal would produce just 20 per cent of the nation's power by 2050.

"The Prime Minister should stop trying to pull the wool over the eyes of people in coal mining regions," Mr Abbott said.

"The whole point of a carbon tax is to get us using less coal. That means less production, less investment and less employment in the coal industry." . . .

Mr Abbott said: "How can it be that it is wrong to burn Australian coal in Australia but it is somehow right to burn Australian coal in China?"
Gillard may or may not believe what she is saying about the future of coal production in Australia -- politicians say all sorts of things in the heat of political battle.  What would be interesting would be to see how policy experts who know better who support the proposed tax respond to a question such as the following:

Is Julia Gillard's commitment to increasing coal production in Australia in the coming decades consistent with efforts to accelerate the decarbonization of the global economy?

From a policy or mathematical perspective there is an obviously correct answer to this question -- No.  It may be the case in the context of Australia's current debate that from a political perspective (as a matter of crass expediency) there is a different answer.  How experts deal with this conflict between policy and politics makes for an interesting case study in the politics of expertise.

One the one hand, if an expert answers the question posed above accurately, then s/he will be seen as giving support to the criticisms levied by Tony Abbott against the proposed tax.  On the other hand, if the expert supports the claims made by Julia Gillard, then s/he will be saying something that is incorrect, giving further ammunition to the opposition.  What would you do? 

I'll be looking for how experts address this issue, and I'd welcome your pointers as well.


  1. Any answer to such a question will immediately become public, and I think that the climate debate has shown quite clearly that the public don't just blindly believe whatever 'experts' tell them. Experts who give political answers instead of expert answers quickly become known as politicians, not experts.

    If an expert says 'Yes' when the opposite is 'obviously correct' then they won't influence public opinion, at least not the way they want to. It will just damage the credibility of the expert.

  2. OT but there's a new report by Sir David King and others "International Climate Change Negotiations: Key Lessons and Next Steps" which praises China for its ambitious targets. No mention of your analysis or Nature letter.


    I am intrigued by Figure 1 "A map of countries of the world rated in terms of national actions and commitments on climate change. Annex I countries
    are rated based on submissions pertinent to the Cancun Agreements. ‘Very good’: meet IPCC recommendations, Annex I: 25 - 40% reduction by 2020, Non-Annex I: submitted NAMA, 15-30% below BAU by 2020, or vocal in pressing for action." I wonder how exactly these were assessed.

  3. The person between the rock and a hard place is the prime minister herself. She owes her election as PM to a few independent and green party representatives whose support was conditional on imposing carbon regulations. However she made a different deal (promise) with the electorate just prior to the vote. The Australian PM is not committed to anything other than staying in office and the electorate has figured this out. This may be less a referendum on carbon taxes than it is referendum on the PM's honesty.

  4. Sooner or later she is going to be crunched by the "iron law" of climate policy that someone or other has been spruiking.

    The other nonsense she has come up with is her Government's commitment to an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 vis a vis 2000. We are already at +22% (2008 cf 2000).

    Far, far better a policy of say $5/tonne tax with proceeds 100% into low carbon alternatives research (nothing is carbon free) and a commitment to renew Australia's nuclear industry which got substantially dismantled back in the 1980's.

  5. The AGW movement created the rock and the hard place, and the scientists involved profited greatly from being in the position they find themselves in.
    It is hard to have much sympathy.

  6. On this issue, one side is logical, and the other completely devoid of logic.
    Julia Gillard is supposed to be a hotshot lawyer in her former life.
    It’s inconceivable that she could actually believe that she could broadcast to the world , including investors and lenders, the imminent slide to demise of Australia’s coal industry---and have that industry prosper as she has claimed.
    So she can’t possibly believe it, and must therefore be once again deceiving the Australian people.
    Tony Abbott has logic completely on his side and is telling the truth.
    So , if the expert believes the issue is important [ remembering that it’s characterised as the most vitally important issue of our time], and he cares about Australia’s economy, he’ll tell the truth---that the coal industry and thereby Australia itself, will be crippled by this policy.
    At the same time, if he believes , as we’ve been told---that the science is settled---that it was over, with the implication that everything that needed to be known about the earth’s climate system was known at some point during the last decade or before, as some warmists say----that no alternative research is either welcome or to be tolerated----he’ll still tell the truth, but ask for the policy to be varied to save Australia’s economy from severe damage.
    If he believes the challenges to the science and that the discrepancies and dysfunction revealed in the CRU emails show that the science is not settled, he’ll tell the truth---that Tony Abbott is correct---and like Tony Abbott and most of us, he would support judicious mitigation that will maintain Australia’s economic health, to fund further research.
    To do otherwise is to undermine trust in science, economics and all aspects of governance , including expert opinion on any issue.

  7. A comment received by email:

    "Frankly as pleased as I am to see someone, anyone, start to move on emissions reduction, it's not clear to me that this plan will do that. And the inherent contradictions in promising to reduce emissions, and committing to coal production, put the government in a very tough bind. But the reality is they are a minority government who depend on their independent and Green partners (essentially a coalition) to stay in power.

    My answer to "Is Julia Gillard's commitment to increasing coal production in Australia in the coming decades consistent with efforts to accelerate the decarbonization of the global economy?" is as follows:

    Depends on what kind of expert.

    The science expert would have to say carbon dioxide emissions and buildup in the atmosphere (and absorption by the ocean), to the extent they pose a risk, pose a *global* risk. This is because CO2 is long-lived in the atmosphere and well-mixed globally. The climate risks the Australian government seeks to mitigate through its carbon plan arise from *global* emissions, not just Australian ones. And the risks and impacts themselves have a global reach. The sea-level rise on Australian coasts, to the extent it is driven by global warming, is driven by a global (though not globally uniform) radiative imbalance. Similarly the shift in ocean carbonate chemistry felt at the Great Barrier Reef is driven by global CO2 emissions.

    Viewed from this perspective climate risk mitigation for a country like Australia is largely a matter of getting everyone else to reduce their emissions, because as is often, *technically* correctly pointed out, Australian total emissions are small relative to the global rate.

    So the (admittedly oblique) answer to the question by the science expert must be conditional: that increasing Australian coal production would only be consistent with accelerating global decarbonization *if* it is compensated by reduced fossil-fuel production in Australia and/or elsewhere, and/or increased carbon sequestration strategies (e.g. carbon capture and storage). The climate system doesn't care whether the CO2 comes from Australian coal or Canadian gas.

    The economic expert might, I would imagine, have a richer range of nuanced answers, around the relative costs and benefits of abatement
    in Australia versus export customers for Australian coal (and the plan seems to envision buying offsets internationally: http://treasury.gov.au/carbonpricemodelling/content/report/09chapter5.asp).

    Overall I think the straight science, yes-or-no, just-the-facts-ma'am answer to the question, must be "no." And let the political chips fall where they may.

    No matter what any "expert" says or publishes, in such a politically charged atmosphere, it's likely to be seized upon by some political faction or other in support of their ideological agenda."

  8. Julia Gillard is in power only because she promised the Greens she would break her promise to the Australian people not to introduce a carbon tax.
    Mad though they are, the Greens real policy as opposed to this compromise for expedience, is more coherent and credible than Labor’s.
    The Greens in reality don’t give a fig for Australia’s standard of living and ongoing prosperity---and they give even less than that for Australia’s sovereignty.
    Consequently they don’t ascribe to the view that our coal industry must be maintained---and they don’t give a fig that Australia will lose a massive chunk of its export income if they get their way and kill off the coal industry altogether---they want it stone dead.
    In addition, they’re hostile to our whole mining industry---would happily cripple our tourist industry---our manufacturing industry---agriculture ---and whatever’s left that produces export income.
    They want carbon priced at $130 per tonne , in a country with almost no hydro, no nuclear power, that derives almost all of its electricity and most of its export income from coal.
    So, although they and Labor are in bed together for the sake of power, their aspirations purport to be different.
    Of course, because Labor’s policy doesn’t add up in any way, and is only designed to hose down the suspicious Australian people long enough for the Labor Green coalition to get the framework up for their tax, followed by the ETS---- no one can know for sure what their real intentions are after that.
    They’re banking on it being too difficult to repeal---and they believe we Australians are stupid enough to swallow anything.
    So those assurances Gillard gives , that coal and coal jobs will go from strength to strength, even though they’ve put the industry on economic death row, are just a ploy so their policy won’t ‘frighten the horses’.
    It’s inconceivable that she believes it, but it’s useful for her to pretend ---there’s no heat of the battle effect here.
    So the hypothetical expert knows that Julia Gillard’s ‘commitment’ to coal is no more credible than her promise not to introduce a carbon tax proved to be---and his only rational and moral course then, would be to tell Australians the truth about that.
    If he doesn’t refute her claim, he loses all credibility----he’s deceiving the Australian people for the sake of keeping Labor /Greens in power, and he’s with the Greens, on the side of economic ruin for Australia’s economy, absent some massive breakthrough in renewable technology that will power our industry and replace the lost export income.

  9. .

    "It will continue to be here until the end of its productive life."

    What a snake. Of course that statement is true. What is misleadingly left unsaid is that the carbon tax will make the end of productive life come sooner than otherwise.