Mungo MacCallum: Finkel, Turnbull and compromising at the planet's expense

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with Chie Scientist Alan Finkel (screen shot via au.news.yahoo.com).

The Finkel Report has little if anything to do with the real issues around climate change, it is all about satisfying the Coalition party room, writes Mungo MacCallum.

MALCOLM TURNBULL likes to describe himself as a "technology agnostic".

As with many of his other utterances, this is not to be taken literally — our prime minister is not wrestling with the problem of whether technology actually exists or not. After all, Turnbull is the master of innovation; Tony Abbott once said that he invented the internet, although perhaps we had better not go into that right now.

What Turnbull is presumably saying is that he is unconcerned about what kind of technology he employs, particularly when it comes to energy generation. Coal, gas, oil, nuclear, solar, wind, hydro — even parliamentary bluster if nothing else suffices.

It is all the same to him as long as it works — by which he means as long as it is acceptable to the party room. It has little if anything to do with the real issues around climate change: it is all about satisfying Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce, George Christensen and Eric Abetz.

For this reason, Turnbull also refers to his insistence that the debate must be "technologically neutral", which is seriously misleading. Energy generation is not about taking the engine out of gear and letting it coast along as far as it will go, it is about choice — about looking for the most efficient solution.

But, of course, this involves making very sure that the question can be defined in a way that entails its own answer, which is what Turnbull did. He asked the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, to look for ways to make energy cheap and reliable — and, as almost an afterthought, to control emissions within clear limitations.

Finkel, acutely aware of the politics of his brief, could not even consider what his fellow scientists and economists all but unanimously agree would be the best result: a price on carbon, preferably morphing into an emissions trading scheme, giving security to investors and mandating a swift and orderly transition away from fossils to renewables.

He was forced to opt for second, or even third, best: a so-called "Clean Energy Target" that continues to offer carrots rather than sticks to polluters, a pious hope that electricity prices can be reduced and a hospital pass to Turnbull and his colleagues, leaving it to them to decide just what the target should be and how — or perhaps if – it can be realised.

Finkel, like Turnbull, says he wants to get rid of the ideology of around the decade-long quarrel; perhaps he is being ironic. Climate change is about science, not ideology; the best minds on the subject agree that man-made emissions, especially of carbon dioxide, are having a measurable effect, overall global warming is increasing and as a result, extreme weather events will become increasingly more common and more severe. The ideologues are those who either choose to deny the science or, even less forgivably, regard their own self-interest as more important than that of the planet.

Step forward Tony Abbott, who sometimes regards the science as crap and at other times not but, in any case, sees it as irrelevant. To settle the issue would prevent him from getting into another good stoush, the fading memory of his triumphant mud wrestle against Labor’s carbon tax. Thus any olive branch from Bill Shorten must be rejected and if that involves tossing Finkel under a bus in the process, well, tough.

And so Abbott has hoisted his battle flag, with its heraldic arms emblazoned by a shining lump of coal. In spite of Scott Morrison’s bizarre appearance in Parliament a couple of months ago, not all Liberals are active coal fetishists. Most, indeed, can probably take it or leave it and the heavy users can, presumably, be weaned away from it — perhaps they can be persuaded to embrace other forms of carbon, like graphite, or better still diamonds.

But coal has become a symbol — an ideology, if you like. It can be used as a casus belli against Labor and that is all that really matters. Finkel, understanding their obsession, has offered them an out — longer life for coal powered power stations and even the prospect of building new or refurbished ones, if anyone silly enough to invest in such anachronisms, can be found.

To Labor, the Greens and probably the majority of the electorate, this is not acceptable; it is fair enough to allow a reasonable time for coal to be phased out, but the idea of encouraging, even subsidising, new coal as part of the energy mix of the future is perverse. Which leads us, inevitably, to Adani.

Adani is not yet a coal mine; indeed many good judges believe it will never be a coal mine, despite all the ballyhoo about its founding chairman Gautam Adani signing off on the project. It has been clear for some time that the economics of Adani are, at best, rubbery and that claims of jobs are absurdly exaggerated, and the actual returns – financial, environmental and social – for Australia are more likely to be a net negative than the bonanza being trumpeted.

Only the gullible and desperate have fallen for the hype: Queensland’s Labor Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk clearly believes that there will be, sometime, somewhere, a pot of coal at the end of the Adani rainbow. But even she admits that it will not happen soon; in the meantime, she is handing out the prospect of a royalty holiday for Adani (the proceeds of which will presumably end up in the family vaults in the Cayman Islands) and ramping up the pressure for Turnbull to give a billion dollar loan to the company to build a railway to transport its products to the Great Barrier Reef.

It is not certain that this cosy little arrangement is part of the deal Adani signed last week, but what the hell — Federal Labor is largely against it, so it makes a great wedge issue, a definite strike in the ideological war Abbott and his colleagues are determined to pursue.

And they will take any allies they can get: Clive James is an accomplished poet and a brilliantly successful entertainer but, as he boasts, he knows bugger all about science, let alone the complexities of climate change. Nonetheless, last week he let fly in The Australian with a barely coherent diatribe, like a more literate version of the deranged One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts — and the right wing ideologues lapped it up.

James’ last major work was a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy — a medieval fantasy about good and evil, entirely appropriate as a manifesto for the Mad Monk Tony Abbott and his band of crusaders.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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