In condemning action on climate change as killing ‘goats to appease the volcano gods’, Tony Abbott was paraphrasing an earlier speech by his confessor, Cardinal George Pell. By Karen Middleton.

Abbott looks to Pell on energy policy

On May 4, 2006, Cardinal George Pell gave a speech to the Legatus Summit in the southern American city of Naples, Florida.

He was ostensibly there to talk about Islam and he made headlines for suggesting the Koran was effectively an incitement to violence.

But towards the end of his address Pell made a short, lesser-noted side trip to the issue of climate change, suggesting the abandonment of Christian faith was fuelling concern about it and making people lose trust in the future.

Pell said some of the “hysteric and extreme claims about global warming” were “a symptom of pagan emptiness, of Western fear” of the “immense and basically uncontrollable forces of nature”.

“In the past, pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods,” Pell said. “Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.”

This week, Tony Abbott made a curiously similar speech.

Addressing the climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation in London, Abbott returned to his own scepticism about whether climate change is occurring to worrying degrees. He adopted his private confessor’s argument and his style.

“Environmentalism has managed to combine a post-socialist instinct for big government with a post-Christian nostalgia for making sacrifices in a good cause,” Abbott said.

“Primitive people once killed goats to appease the volcano gods. We’re more sophisticated now but are still sacrificing our industries and our living standards to the climate gods to little more effect.”

Abbott said higher concentrations of carbon dioxide were greening the planet and that “far more people die in cold snaps than in heatwaves, so a gradual lift in global temperatures, especially if it’s accompanied by more prosperity and more capacity to adapt to change, might even be beneficial”.

He said those who insisted the science was settled were invoking “the spirit of the Inquisition, the thought police down the ages” and that it was climate change policy doing harm, whereas climate change itself was “probably doing good”.

Pell’s original observations may have gone largely unremarked but Abbott’s version has attracted plenty of attention.

Since Abbott’s speech, Labor and the Greens have suggested the former prime minister’s ideas are driving government policy.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said: “I think Tony Abbott has gone from just destructive to quite loopy.”

Fellow frontbencher Anthony Albanese called the speech “off the reservation” and “frankly bizarre”.

Greens climate change spokesman Adam Bandt called Abbott a “dangerous fool who could simply be ignored were it not for his ability to write Malcolm Turnbull’s climate policy”.

Two of Abbott’s fellow conservatives leapt to the former prime minister’s defence. Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz said that “in general terms, when the world’s climate has been a little bit warmer, humanity has done better”.

New South Wales MP Craig Kelly told Sky News that “the point that Tony makes is 100 per cent correct, and the chief scientist has actually confirmed this”. Kelly argued that the chief scientist said nothing Australia could do alone would affect the climate.

But South Australian frontbencher Christopher Pyne sought to distance the government from Abbott’s remarks. “Tony Abbott’s got his own views,” he said. “They are not necessarily always the views of the government.”

Both Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull zeroed in on the inconsistency between what Abbott is saying now and what he said as prime minister.

They noted it was Abbott’s government that set Australia’s current emissions reduction target at the United Nations’ climate change conference in Paris, a target the former prime minister has since dismissed as an “ambition”.

Asked about the speech, Turnbull told journalists: “I’ll leave all the personalities to you to write about.”

He noted that the Abbott government had pledged to reduce emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030 and said Australia was on track to achieve that.

“As Mr Abbott said at the time, Australia is a nation that when it makes international commitments of this kind, it keeps them,” he said.

“I tell you what I’m focused on. I’m focused on affordable and reliable power and meeting our emissions reductions obligations. That is our commitment. It is a technology-agnostic approach. It is all of the above.”

But what Turnbull will not commit to – and appears increasingly likely to avoid – is the introduction of a clean energy target to help achieve those reductions.

In his recent review of energy and climate change, chief scientist Alan Finkel recommended a clean energy target (CET), which some argue is like a de facto carbon price because it would advantage low-emitting forms of energy and penalise polluters.

In his speech, Abbott suggested the government was unlikely to introduce the CET and that it shouldn’t.

Frydenberg made the point this week that, as renewable energy gets cheaper, there is less need to subsidise it. Neither he nor Turnbull will say whether they will formally adopt a CET but they appear to be looking for an alternative path to the same destination.

The government has adopted 49 of the 50 recommendations Finkel made but it’s number 50 – what Finkel calls “the red pill” – that deals with the clean energy target.

Finkel proposes an “orderly transition” to lower emissions through federal, state and territory governments agreeing to a trajectory to get there.

Finkel’s report says what is required is a focus on the goal – lowering the level of emissions – not on which form of energy should be favoured to achieve it. But he says a mechanism is needed to ensure governments stick to the trajectory and that a clean energy target should be part of that.

Turnbull and Frydenberg have said the government will respond by the end of the year, buying time on the thorniest aspect of the issue. In the meantime, they are introducing other measures aimed at bringing down household and business energy costs.

One of those was unveiled this week in the form of a government-subsidised plan to reduce demand during peak periods. Under the pilot to be rolled out in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia this summer, individuals and businesses can sign up to receive alerts when the system is approaching capacity.

If they volunteer to immediately reduce their energy use when asked – switch off appliances or forgo a few degrees’ cooling by turning down the airconditioner – they will qualify for bill concessions or other kinds of cash or in-kind rewards.

The chief executive of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), Audrey Zibelman, said people weren’t being asked to sacrifice comfort, only to be more efficient power users.

“What we’re really talking about is that there’s a lot of wasted energy,” Zibelman said, “where you’re actually using too much and you really don’t need it.” She said it could be the alternative to building a new power station.

Frydenberg said: “We want the lowest-cost solution, and building new power stations may not always be that solution.”

For a $36 million investment, the government hopes the program will claw back 200 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 100,000 homes.

Turnbull blames the troubles with energy supply squarely on federal and state Labor governments, accusing South Australia in particular of having set up a system that relies too heavily on inconsistent forms of renewable energy without providing either storage capacity or enough back-up from more consistent baseload sources.

And he accuses the Gillard government of letting east coast gas suppliers send too much Australian gas offshore – to which Labor responds that it was John Howard’s government that signed export deals with China.

Turnbull says Labor’s approach was guided by “ideology and idiocy” and his energy policy will instead be based on “engineering and economics”.

His government has begun running taxpayer-funded television advertisements to spruik its efforts to improve both price and supply by demanding exporters keep more gas for Australian use.

But business is concerned about the ongoing influence of the third pillar Turnbull doesn’t mention after engineering and economics: politics.

Business groups argue it’s the toxic politics – including over emissions trading and now the proposed CET – that has created policy inconsistency and uncertainty and made the private sector reluctant to make long-term investments.

“We need a signal – a stable signal – about how emissions will be treated in the economy,” Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott told ABC Radio National this week.

“No modelling I have ever seen has suggested that we can meet the target set by the government without some kind of mechanism.”

Westacott said business had long accepted that there needed to be action to address climate change and the only issue was what kind of action. If the government was not going to pursue a CET, then it needed to produce an alternative, and business had to be consulted, she said. “Business wants to be helpful here.”

The search for that alternative has been under way for some time.

The Saturday Paper understands that among the levers being considered is a legislated requirement that renewable energy generators be able to give a day-ahead guarantee of supply.

That would force providers of wind and solar power to invest in battery storage and make renewable sources of energy more reliable on the days when, as Turnbull is fond of saying, “the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow”.

It would then, the argument goes, increase stability in the system, which would theoretically bring down cost.

Following last year’s South Australian blackouts, the government asked the energy regulator, the AEMO, to review the levels of dispatchable – or baseload – power nationwide and see what could be done to improve them.

In a speech the day before announcing the demand-side incentives, Frydenberg noted the operator had recommended establishing strategic reserves in the short term but further ahead, a whole redesign of the market.

“This could also include, according to AEMO, ‘demand-side markets, day-ahead commitments, the articulation of a generator reliability obligation and further approaches to gaining investment in flexible capacity’,” Frydenberg said.

Asked about Abbott’s contribution and doubts about the direction of government policy, Frydenberg offered a slap-down.

“Climate change is real,” he said. “We take our advice from the scientific experts and we believe we need to reduce our emissions. That is why Tony Abbott signed up to the Paris agreement, and I point out that, at the time, Tony Abbott said that the agreement Australia struck at Paris was a definite commitment and that it was economically responsible and environmentally responsible – they were Tony Abbott’s words.”

Abbott’s speech serves as a warning to the government that as much as Turnbull sees energy policy as a vehicle to boost his electoral stocks, Abbott sees it as a way to tear him down.

The speech may also go some way to explaining his increasing inclination to say what he apparently really thinks.

“There’s no certain way to regain cultural self-confidence,” Abbott said. “The heart of any recovery, though, has to be an honest facing of facts and an insistence upon intellectual rigour. More than ever, the challenge of leadership is to say what you mean and do what you say. The lesson I’ve taken from being in government, and then out of it, is simply to speak my mind. The risk, when people know where you stand, is losing their support. The certainty, when people don’t know where you stand, is losing their respect.”

That Abbott chose to paraphrase George Pell without attribution is a curiosity in a speech designed to grab headlines. Coincidentally, he did so just as the next Newspoll was due in the field.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2017 as "Abbott looks to Pell on energy policy".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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