Thursday, 18 August 2011


Goldilocks, Peter Pan and Humpty Dumpty were all there, along with a distinguished British Lord, former Liberal and Labor leaders and ministers and the odd scientist or two. When it comes to climate change emissions, Australia is clearly leading the world - in the quality of debate. Asking the pertinent question, "Do we really need this carbon tax?" the answer was given to us on a balmy winter's night in Sydney at Wednesday's inaugural debate hosted by The Spectator magazine and the Institute of Public Affairs: in an oratorical contest about climate change that unleashed a tidal wave of analogy, emotion, economic hypothesizing and even a few temperature rises amongst the crowd. But, strangely, not much science.

To be broadcast on the ABC, the debate was riveting, and managed to transcend much of the "here-we-go-again" hyperbole and statistics of the climate change talk-back discussion. Held at the prestigious Tattersalls club in Elizabeth street, which is well over a hundred years old (as indeed were many of the audience,) it would be fair to say the event attracted a largely greyer, more conservative demographic, although a few hot heads had obviously caught the bus down from Broadway to support the "yes" case. Star performer was former Thatcher minister and father of the world's curviest TV chef Lord Nigel Lawson, who was accompanied by former Labor minister Gary Johns and geologist and author Ian Plimer persuading us that the carbon tax is a no-no.

Opposing them, and bravely arguing against an occasionally hostile crowd - there was a distinctly audible hiss when the ABC's Q and A programme was mentioned - were former Liberal leader John Hewson and UNSW climatologist Benjamin McNeil.

Stuck somewhere in the middle was former Labor leader Mark Latham, who despite believing both in climate change and the need for an emissions pricing mechanism, argued convincingly against the carbon tax, maintaining that in it's present form (exempting fuel and so on) it will prove futile and ineffectual. Given the political pain she is suffering, Mark shrugged his broad shoulders and wearily asked his former deputy "Julia, why are you bothering? What's the point?" He then drew an analogy with tobacco, imagining a tax on cigarettes that didn't include half of the brands, compensated Big Tobacco, and gave extra money to smokers,

To climate change advocate and businessman John Hewson, who presumably no longer drives to work in a Ferrari, it was all about economics. Oddly claiming that he was taking advice these days from Humpty Dumpty, John asserted that the move away from carbon-based energy forms is "inevitable" so we may as well get on with it. John, who is chairman of Global DC, a firm involved in the design and building of energy-efficient data centres, claims the tax will drive investment into renewables (just like it says in the ads) and create "new income streams" that will be good for business. And for John, too, presumably. His best line, and one of the best laughs of the night, came when he said he hoped he wasn't being asked the carbon footprint of a birthday cake. (You had to be there.)

In a decision he probably now regrets, Brendan McNeil, the one accredited climate change scientist on the panel, airily proclaimed that he wasn't there to talk about "the science." Oops! If there's one thing guaranteed to fire up the climate change skeptics and deniers it's scientists being evasive about the science. Brendan nonetheless presented a compelling argument in favor of innovation and technology to solve climate change. But by citing Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other inventors (who all managed to get by without government intervention) he risked undermining his own case.

The one person who did want to talk about "the science" was geologist and climate change denial pin-up boy Ian Plimer. Attracting a fair degree of hostility from the science graduates in the audience, he went to great pains to detail what he maintains is the geological evidence that dismantles the theory of carbon-based and human-induced global warming. He and Brendan then got into a tiff about whose science degree was more impressive.

Retreating to the theme of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, former Labor minister Gary Johns briefly brought Goldilocks into the debate, (when is the planet too hot, too cold, just right?) before delivering an eloquent, well-reasoned and compelling argument about risk assessment. Concluding that it is pointless to embark on a grand scheme that you know can't possibly achieve it's goals, his best line was "It's not cost-effective if it's not effective."

But the night belonged to Nigel Lawson, former chancellor and energy minister in the Thatcher years. He doesn't quibble with the science. He despairs of the policy response to it. Addressing the "moral" question head on, he decried the fact that "hundreds of millions of people" throughout China, India and Africa were being condemned to lives of "the direst poverty, disease and malnutrition" thanks to the climate change agenda. There are "real problems in the world that exist" that are being ignored thanks to the West's obsession with climate change.   

His was a tour-de-force of reason, compassion and economic intelligence. And he even managed to get Peter Pan into the debate. Along with most of the audience, he got my vote.       

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