Sunday, May 02, 2010

Belshaw's World - New England a climate change front line?

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 21 April 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

When I first enrolled at University, students had far less choice than they do today. Forced to pick a fourth first year course from a limited range, I chose Philosophy I.

This proved to be the best course choice I could have made, although I became an annoying person in argument because I kept wanting to break arguments up into bits.

“Answer the question”, people would say, but which question and what does it mean anyway? You can see why people might get annoyed!

The logic component was a key influence. There we broke arguments into parts and examined the relationships between them.

I mention this because it bears upon a question I was asked: why haven’t I discussed climate change in this column?

As I said in reply, I have actually written a fair bit on climate change, just not here.

I am not a climate change sceptic. I accept that, on the balance of probabilities, climate change is occurring and that it is likely that human action plays a part in this. Consequently, we need to do something about it.

This means that I see little point at a personal level in getting involved in the debate about the validity of climate change. Rather, I have tried to focus on understanding just what might be done. Here, two things have greatly annoyed me.

The first is the way that climate change has come to be linked to so many things that really have nothing to do with it. In logic terms, arguments run this way: if A (climate change), then B (add in whatever you like).

To illustrate with a small but personally important example.

When water restrictions were introduced in Sydney, part of the justification went this way. Water is a scarce resource, climate change means that water is going to get scarcer, so action must be taken now. One result was that watering was limited to hand held hoses two days a week before or after certain hours.

The general argument is logically flawed. We have one generalisation (water is a scarce resource), a second generalisation (climate change means that water is going to get scarcer), followed by a conclusion (action now).

Just because water is a scarce resource in a general sense does not mean that it is actually scarce at a particular point in time and space. Further, even if climate change means that water is going to get scarcer in the longer term, that has very little to do with the question of water restrictions now.

Leaving this aside, I was directly and personally affected because I was a gardener.

I gardened in a very water efficient way using a mulching cycle. The water restrictions meant that I could no longer garden in the way I used to because I had to try to fit my activities to limited and fairly arbitrary watering times.

In the end, I stopped. In now buying vegetables from the supermarket, I was not only importing water to Sydney, but adding to green house gases through transport.

I think that the thing that annoyed me most is that even at the worst of the restrictions, people could still top up swimming pools. Even now when you can fill swimming pools pretty much to your heart’s content, watering gardens is still restricted.

This may sound petty, but it is an example of the way in which generalised arguments can lead to perverse results.

This brings me to the second thing that annoyed me greatly, the difficulty I found in breaking through generalised arguments to understand what the specifics might mean.

As an economist, I understand the broad arguments associated with carbon pricing, whether through an ETS or a carbon tax. However, I wanted to go beyond this, to understand how all this might work in practice, to look at alternatives.

As I did, I became increasingly concerned that our focus on the what (climate change) and the why (human activity), in combination with the natural human desire for simple solutions, was blinding us not just to other elements of the solution, but also to the practical effects of some of the things proposed.

I will deal with my struggle to understand here in another post. This time, I want to finish with a simple point.

To most Sydney dwellers, climate change is still remote. Outside fights over building restrictions in certain areas considered to be at risk because of rising sea levels, the effects of climate change and of policies to combat climate change lie in the future.

This is not true in New England.

From the Hunter to the Tweed, from the Clarence to the Far Western Plains, the battles that will be fought are already raging.

Like it or not, New England is a climate change front line.


Greg said...

Yesterday, the Commonwealth Government released it's response to the Henry tax review. The centrepiece of this was the super profits tax on mining companies. This is of particular interest to regional Australia which is where most mining takes place.

In the case of New England there are significant mining activities in both the Hunter Valley as well as in the tablelands around Gunnedah and south to Mudgee, so this is a vitally important issue to the New England area.

The people most directly affected by mining activities are those living in the areas where mining occurs and through which the resources are transported to the ports. They have live with the dust, poor health and ruined landscapes that mining causes. Some in the Hunter have even been forced to quit their land as mining encroaches on their properties and towns.

It is only right and proper therefore that the majority of any super profits tax should be spent in the areas directly affected by the mining industry to provide funding for infrastructure and services in those communities. Instead, the proceeds will be spent on reducing the general company tax rate. In short it will benefit metropolitan Australia where most companies operate and where the vast majority of infrastructure spending will inevitably take place.

Unfortunately Canberra and Sydney have no agenda for regional development and view all revenue, regardless of where it comes from, as a pool of money for spending primarily in the capital cities.

The Commonwealth government continues to increase it's power and revenue base at the expense of the states which remain responsible for the delivery of most services and infrastructure. Power is increasingly centered in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

This makes the creation of a separate New England state with the ability to present it's interests at the the national level even more necessary than ever.

Jim Belshaw said...

I have just written something on this Greg for the Armidale Express column. I thought that you captured the issues well.

Le Loup said...

"I think that the thing that annoyed me most is that even at the worst of the restrictions, people could still top up swimming pools. Even now when you can fill swimming pools pretty much to your heart’s content, watering gardens is still restricted.

This may sound petty, but it is an example of the way in which generalised arguments can lead to perverse results".

Not petty at all, far from it. In the light of new health research information naming gardens, parks and country areas as a health benefit of some magnitude, I would think that watering gardens is far more important, or at least as important as filling swimming pools!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the sympathy, LL!

Greg said...

Thanks Jim. I see the issue of regional development (or rather the lack of regional development and the endemic underfunding of the regions) as one of the greatest issues facing our nation.

Australia is one of the most centrally governed democracies on earth and it is becoming increasingly so. The over centralization of government, power and wealth in the Sydney/Canberra/Melbourne axis is only serving to exacerbate this problem.

Everyone agrees that decentralization is desirable for the sake of democracy and for the greater good of the nation - both metropolitan and regional areas alike. Yet decentralization cannot happen without devolution of power (and revenue) back to the regions.

Unfortunately, most state capitals treat their regions as economic serfs and there is little commitment or even desire to return a reasonable proportion for regional development. WA has at least attempted to redress the imbalance by committing 25% of mining royalties to regional development. There is no such commitment in NSW.

That is why I am a passionate supporter of the concept of new states, and a New England new state in particular.

Jim Belshaw said...

I have to agree with you Greg about regional development and centralisation, as well as on new states.

The previous Federal Government's regional partnership program largely failed because it funded a series of ad-hoc activities without any overarching vision. It also occured in isolation of other things affecting regional development.