Economic Fundamentalism: Staying the Course in Defiance of Common Sense

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In a recent meeting which went largely unnoticed by most of the world’s  media, Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, landed in Ottawa and held talks with Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister. These two leaders are both ideologically driven conservatives, in the mold of George W Bush, and both are going all out in developing their nations’ fossil fuel resources. In the case of Australia, this means a vast increase in coal production for export to the Chinese market, whereas in Canada’s case the development of Alberta’s oil sands is being fast tracked.

After the talks, the two leaders held a joint press conference, in which they attempted to justify their inaction on climate change. Stephen Harper reiterated his often-stated position that jobs and economic growth are more important than tackling climate change. He further commented that no country in the world would be willing to sacrifice its economic competitiveness to deal with this problem. This position was echoed by Abbott, even as he acknowledged that climate change was a problem. To put these comments into perspective they were made just before US President Barack Obama’s announcement of major action aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% over 1990 levels; an action which served to underscore how hopelessly out of touch both Harper and Abbott are with the rest of the world.

From the tone of their comments it is clear that both leaders dismiss climate change as a minor inconvenience; something that they could potentially throw a few dollars at when the economy is strong. Many educated people must be asking what it will take to get ideologically-driven governments to sit up and take notice of one of the most serious threats we currently face to our way of life, and even potentially to our continued survival as a species. The multi-year drought and massive bush fires that have ravished much of Australia in recent years clearly are not enough to convince Tony Abbott. It also appears that the unprecedented once in a thousand year flooding which hit Stephen Harper’s home city of Calgary last year failed to persuade the Canadian PM that climate change is something worth taking seriously. Indeed in the past Harper famously described the Kyoto Protocol as being “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”

Both Mr Abbott and Mr Harper are focused on the economy over anything else. Yet their version of economy is a very narrow and blinkered interpretation. It is fundamentalism at its most basic. Attempting to argue against such an attitude is like an evolutionary biologist discussing evolution with an evangelical Christian. The evangelical will use quotes from the Bible to argue their point, despite being repeatedly told that it fails to meet the requirements for legitimate scientific evidence. Similarly leaders such as Harper and Abbott treat free market orthodoxy as their Bible, and are unable to see beyond it, or even to hold a constructive conversation with those who believe that there is more to life than economic growth. To them the process itself is more important than the ultimate purpose of the economy. Yet even the architects of free market economics such as Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes recognised that growth could not continue on indefinitely. Sooner or later, they theorised, the growth economy would have served its purpose and would be put to rest in favour of an economy focused on meeting real human needs.

What both Harper and Abbott appear to have missed is the fact that energy landscape is shifting. As long as economies such as the US and China were continuing to burn ever more fossil fuels they could claim, with some justification, that unilateral action would jeopardise their respective countries economies. However China is now faced with a domestic pollution crisis of epic proportions and is trying to reduce its dependence on coal as rapidly as possible, potentially putting it on track to become the world’s first renewable energy superpower. Similarly in the US, the emissions controls recently announced by Obama may have effectively sounded the death knell for US domestic coal use. Even prior to Obama’s announcement, US public opinion in recent years has been firmly against the development of new coal fired power stations.

The Canadian government has pinned its hopes on Alberta’s oil sands. However the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to transfer bitumen to the refineries of Texas looks increasingly unlikely to ever be approved. Harper’s plan B, the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is designed to allow Alberta bitumen to be shipped to China was recently approved  by the Canadian government. However opposition to this project is considerable in the province of British Columbia which would bear the brunt of any spill and this project is unlikely ever to be built, with opposition parties pledging to overturn the government’s decision if they are elected in 2015. This means that Harper’s dream of Canada being an oil superpower is most likely already dead in the water, since few companies would be willing to invest in such an uncertain proposition. Similarly Australia’s new prime minister is betting the family silver on establishing new coal exporting terminals in northern Queensland, posing a serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef. This in spite of the fact that China’s demand for coal is likely to drop significantly in the coming years, as its investment in renewable sources begins to bear fruit.

It appears that the energy landscape is finally starting to change, and Obama’s proposed emissions cuts will almost certainly speed this transition. However it is inevitable that fossil fuels will eventually be consigned to history, with or without any government incentives driving this change. This will place leaders who see fossil fuels as their salvation in an awkward position. Will the leaders of traditional resource producing countries like Australia and Canada eventually jump on the bandwagon, or will they remain locked in their 20th century time warp, even as the rest of the world moves in the opposite direction? There is a world of new opportunities available for leaders who are bold enough to defy conventional thinking. Countries that are willing to embrace these trends will be in a better position to cope with the turbulence that will inevitably accompany the end of the fossil fuel age.

photo credit: Alan Cleaver via photopin cc

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