Malcolm Turnbull’s new climate change plan is another in a long line of diversionary policies aimed at taking the heat off the coal industry.
His emphasis on biochar — turning agricultural waste into charcoal and spreading it onto paddocks — is reminiscent of attempts by the Bush Administration to sabotage the Kyoto Protocol by allowing fossil pollution to be ‘offset’ by changes in agricultural practices.
The move was rejected by the rest of the world in 2000 because it would have removed entirely any obligation on rich countries like the United States and Australia to cut their fossil emissions. No wonder the coal industry backed the US move enthusiastically.
The new Coalition focus on soil carbon has been supported by Turnbull’s confidant and de facto greenhouse advisor Tim Flannery, for whom biochar is the latest fad.
One of the last prominent scientists in Australia to acknowledge global warming, Flannery has been flip-flopping on solutions to climate change since The Weather Makers appeared in December 2005.
He initially argued that we should forget about governments and rely on the good sense of individuals to cut Australia’s emissions, urging others to follow his lead and install their own solar panels.
When he was criticised for shifting responsibility onto individuals and away from polluters and the Government Flannery changed tack, abandoning his “firm belief” that consumers should not wait for government to act, and advocating a carbon tax. He later changed his mind and endorsed emissions trading instead.
Flannery has moved seamlessly from one technological enthusiasm to the next. In 2006 he lent his support to the development of nuclear power in Australia. “Only nuclear power can save us”, he declared, playing straight into the hands of Prime Minister Howard who was happy to quote Flannery in support of his nuclear push that formed part of his climate denial strategy.
But after criticism in 2007 Flannery changed his mind, giving a “resounding ‘no'” to nuclear power in Australia. No explanation seems to have been offered for the reversal.
Flannery’s next burst of enthusiasm was for geothermal energy which he spruiked heavily in 2007, arguing that hot rocks “potentially have enough embedded energy in them to run the Australian economy for the best part of a century”. (He properly disclosed that he held shares in hot rock developer Geodynamics.)
He has had little to say about hot rocks since taking up the biochar idea in 2008. He now believes biochar “may represent the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future”. Turnbull referred to Flannery’s endorsement when announcing his latest plan.
But it is the future of the coal industry that has been the platform for Flannery’s most spectacular back-flips.
As a skilled media player, throughout 2006 and 2007 Flannery made headlines by calling for the closure of “filthy” coal-fired power plants. He argued for the withdrawal of the industry’s “social licence to operate” and said the time has come to end coal exports. He likened coal to asbestos and attacked proposals for carbon capture and storage as “stupid”.
Then last year he executed a complete about-face, accepting Australia’s financial interest in burning and exporting coal and supporting “clean coal” technologies like carbon capture and storage.
The effect of Flannery’s frequent contradictory public interventions on climate change has been to confuse those who look to him for guidance. Which of his expressed opinions should they believe? What is his solution to greenhouse pollution — solar energy, nuclear power, geothermal, “clean coal” or biochar?
The mish-mash of policy proposals also plays into the hands of the polluters because a Flannery statement can be found to support almost any position.
The same can be said for his direct political interventions.
As Australian of the Year Flannery expressed the view of many when he condemned a “decade of delay” in which Australia under the Howard Government had become “the worst of the worst in terms of addressing climate change”.
Yet a week before the last federal election Flannery declared that if he were voting in Turnbull’s Wentworth electorate he would vote Liberal, thereby helping to return John Howard as Prime Minister.
Flannery’s ability to write engagingly about climate science has led some to believe he must have something sensible to say about the solutions to global warming, a misconception Flannery amplifies by venturing instant opinions on any topic.
But a talented science populariser can be a policy flake. When in May 2007 Tony Jones quizzed him on Lateline about emissions trading his answers became increasingly incoherent until he had to admit “I have no idea”.
Despite his statements being available for checking, when challenged about his back-flips Flannery claims that he has been “misrepresented”, even referring to a “conspiracy” of powerful people trying to tear him down.
There’s no conspiracy, Tim, just a deep skepticism about opportunism when it comes to something as important as global warming.
Clive Hamilton is the author of Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change (Black Inc.)