The Australian has entered into the debate with a magnificent cartoon from Bill Leak and a longer piece by Paul Kelly.
When Abbott issues a rallying cry it is unmistakable. And he issued such a cry this week. His aggressive strategy rests on two propositions: that coal is economical and that it is ethical. This position will reverberate across Australia’s society and economy, with consequences for coal, gas, industry, jobs, living standards and environmental politics.
Abbott’s message is that if you want jobs, cheap energy and economic prosperity then you must oppose the ideological campaign to close down fossil fuels as soon as possible in the cause of renewables.
Yet the anti-fossil fuel ideological campaign is on a roll. In its comment this week on the Australian National University’s decision to divest of shares in seven resources companies for ethical reasons, Greenpeace nailed the real issue: the sums involved were “pocket money” but “the divestment movement’s real power lies in its ability to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry”.
It is a method of delegitimisation. The ANU’s decision is an open invitation to stigmatise Australian coal and gas companies.
Pearson agrees with Greenpeace, saying the problem “is the reputational damage and this is why it must not go unanswered”.
Much of the commentary this week has been naive. Given the conflict, it is idle to think Abbott would not attack the decision.
Intellectual elites form a very privileged set in our society and when those elites – described by Paul Kelly as being:
… a loose yet growing coalition typically seen as including the Greens; a collection of non-governmental organisations, veterans such as Greenpeace, the Graeme Wood Foundation (with Wood having made the largest campaign donation in our political history to the Greens) and the Australia Institute; climate change activists in unions, universities and social media; foundations, wealthy individuals, philanthropists with deep pockets; and the margins of the Christian churches.
decide to start trashing the productive capacity of the economy it is very naive to believe that the government will not get involved. Indeed government exists precisely to restrain this sort of social disorder. As Schumpeter explained intellectuals have an incentive to attack their host society and capitalism in particular and it is difficult for a liberal democracy to rein them in. Paul Kelly makes a similar argument.
The AFR editorial ties in very nicely with the Bill Leak cartoon.
The money involved in the ANU’s divestment is small. But there are three big principles involved.
First, there is the sheer self-indulgence in trashing industries on which society materially depends, so that some can feel better. …
Second, we need a more rational and less knee-jerk approach to insuring ourselves against man-made climate change.
Right now we have almost no climate policy worth the name. This is precisely because we took as a nation, the grandstanding approach exemplified in miniature by the ANU, charging out in front with the world’s biggest carbon tax. This essentially worked through the electricity system and imposed high costs on Australian consumers and industry. But when we looked around, no one was following. Support for a carbon tax then politically collapsed.
Thirdly, academics should not be advocates or activists.
University leaderships should be at the centre of rationality in society, that is, calmly working out the extent of problems like climate change and not letting activists take the wheel.
That last point is important – the ANU episode reveals a deep and profound corporate governance problem within the university sector. That such a deeply flawed decision could be made suggests the presence of profound group-think at the upper reaches of an institution that is in receipt of substantial sums of taxpayer dollars. Education Minister Pyne has not done much – not that I can see – about university governance, but he is proposing to give those some institutions much greater powers to do their own thing. Deregulating the university sector is a good thing – ensuring the sector has adequate internal control mechanisms to restrain this sort of behaviour would be an even better thing.