Our cost to bear

There is a nuanced debate playing out over Brian Fisher’s analysis of the cost of Labor’s climate policy.

In the corner of Twitter where economists and climate pundits squabble, opinions fly back and forth – on cost curves, on the assumptions of Fisher’s model and even on his professional standing in the field.

What is likely to stick with voters, though, are the numbers pulled from Fisher’s report, published on the front pages of papers around the country.

On The West Australian, which claimed 32,000 jobs would be lost in Western Australia alongside a nervous-looking Bill Shorten in high-vis and a hard hat.

On The Australian, which feted a $264 billion loss to GDP and some 166,500 jobs gone. Figures that, to the paper’s credit, were pulled from Fisher’s best-case scenario model – his most dire estimate offered a $542 billion hit to GDP and more than 300,000 lost jobs.

But there’s a deliberate opacity in all of this. Much like the minutiae of flow rates and water quality that glaze over public debate of the government’s handling of the Murray–Darling.

Which is not to agree with Tony Abbott’s sentiment from the Warringah candidates’ debate on Thursday – that we “contract out too much to the experts already”.

Complex data and the experts who can understand it are vital to policy, but both are acutely vulnerable to politics, and to politicians who wish to weaponise intricacies for their own ends. Who know that most people will tune out when you start to talk about the price elasticity of thermal coal.

The papers that spruiked Fisher’s findings didn’t note his inclusion by former Liberal Party staffer Guy Pearse on a 2007 list of “Australians whose work to deny the science or delay action has been critical to the capture of John Howard by our biggest polluters”.

As Pearse wrote in his book High and Dry: “Time and again, results that Fisher presented in his reports to government, and the scenarios and assumptions behind them, lent themselves to misrepresentation by the Howard government.”

Labor’s climate policy will clearly come with an economic cost, though one likely less harrowing than Fisher has predicted.

But this cost is because our climate debt is so large.

For decades, we have moved towards ruination, not blind to the risks of digging up and burning coal, but in full knowledge that it would wreak havoc on our livelihood.

A market failure by anyone’s definition.

We still do not have an answer to the question of what it will cost to avert climate disaster.

Had we acted sooner, though, the figure would have been far lower.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Our cost to bear".

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