Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Review: High and Dry

Reading Time: 5 minutes

High and Dry is one of two recent Australian books on climate change that have had an important impact in the real world. The other is The Weather Makers by 2007 Australian of the Year, Prof Tim Flannery.

Author Guy Pearse was a senior Liberal Party insider until he became horrified by the inaction on climate change by his party and its collusion with industry polluters. He became, in his words, a ‘Green Liberal’.

However Pearse is no wet, small ‘l’ liberal. High and Dry explains the big business interests behind continued inaction on climate change. His structural analysis could be adapted to a Marxist analysis of the issue. He criticises Tim Flannery for his emphasis on individual action to stop global warming.

Pearse writes: “The reality is that even if every Australian totally eliminated their residential emissions it would not result in significant absolute cuts in Australia’s emissions; by 2050 emissions might rise by 60% instead of by 70%…the changes we make at the personal level would account for at best 20% of the change required.”

High and Dry is the type of book you will return to time and again as it is dense in facts and arguments useful for article you write or a debate one is involved in on this issue. Obviously, as Pearse still supports the capitalist market, his solutions are market-based. However some of his suggestions would be transferable to a socialist environmental policy.The book begins with devastating proof for any remaining honest sceptic that climate change is real and results largely from human action. These points have been made in other publications but rarely as clear and as well supported.

He then explores the global response to climate change. While this response is inadequate everywhere, it is especially poor in the USA and Australia “the highest emitting and highest per capita emitter respectively.”

Pearse explains the growing market in carbon, “likely to become the worldâ’s most traded commodity, the global emissions market is expected to treble to A$55 billion by 2012.” However buying the right to pollute is not nearly as effective in cutting emissions as the obvious alternative of stopping the problem at source.

A socialist planned economy would make new buildings incorporate environmentally-friendly products; massively boost public transport; and shift from fossil fuel production to safer and carbon-free alternatives with guaranteed jobs elsewhere for displaced workers. It will take too long and be too expensive to bribe the market into these measures. The planet will be devoid of life before capitalism ended its addiction to fossil fuels.

Pearse shows a relatively unknown fact. “In the course of my PhD research, I discovered that Bob Hawke’s fourth cabinet (April 1990-December 1991) had taken a crucial decision: Australia would not ratify any international agreement to reduce emissions that had harmed the Australian economy. ‘Harm’ would be interpreted not as an absolute fall in GDP or jobs relative to the present, but as any fall relative to business as usual. That is, 250% growth in our GDP by 2050, rather than 275% could be characterised as “serious harm to Australia’s economy”. This caveat has been used to devastating effect to delay emission cuts ever since.

He shows also how Howard has used nuclear power and ‘clean coal technology’ as an excuse to do nothing about cutting emissions. Both technologies would take at least a decade to come on line. In any event the former has massive safety issues and the latter, he proves, is greatly exaggerated as any real alternative at all.

Unlike many non-socialist climate change writers, Pearse does not put his faith in Kyoto: “the claim that Australia is one of the few countries meeting its Kyoto target rarely acknowledges that our target is an increase of 8% in our emissions over the 1990 baseline. Most other developed countries have emission reduction targets. Even if we hit our target, our emissions are not falling.”

High and Dry exposes the truth behind Howard’s claim to be spending $2 billion on climate change. This amount is spread over 25 years- therefore it equals $80 million a year or roughly half what the Federal government spends annually on advertising its own policies and programs. “But one comparison is perhaps more pertinent The $80 million a year average is just 1% of the amount the government provides annually for activities that boost greenhouse pollution (including $5 billion on fossil fuel subsidies and concessions for road users; $1.3 billion in Fringe Benefits Tax concessions for company cars; $790 million in aviation concessions: $570 million subsidising car manufacturing; $230 million for cheaper electricity to the aluminium industry; and $200 million for oil exploration tax breaks)”.

Later he explains that “by early 2007 John Howard was spending 140 times as much on Iraq as he was on helping Australia adapt to climate change – 3 cents per person per year.” This amount has since increased as political pressure intensifies on the government, yet it is still too low.

As an ex-party insider, Pearse is brilliant on the decay in the modern Liberal Party, a decay that allows it to be easier prey for the polluting big business interests it represents on the political arena. His criticisms echo those Mark Latham made of the ALP. Commenting on the falling membership and reduced internal democracy inside the Liberals, Pearse writes: “almost every aspect of the Latham critique also applied to the Liberal Party.”

High and Dry details the power of conservative think tanks, key business interest groups, lobby groups and right-wing media outlets and personalities in getting the Liberals to continue to protect the interests of the industry polluters. Pearse calls it a “Greenhouse Mafia”.

He quotes a senior federal government bureaucrat, explaining why the government has no choice: “Yes, basically (we must) make Australia the homeland for footloose capital that required cheap energy, aluminium and so forth. And therefore we expected to see increased consumption of energy because that was our comparative advantage.”

Part Three of High and Dry starts with a brilliant summary of special crisis faced by Australia from climate change. “In the 225 years since European arrival, we have cleared most the land of its natural vegetation, including 75% of rainforests, 60% of coastal wetlands in the south and east, and 90% of temperate woodlands. In the southern half of the country, we have dammed most of the large waterways (more than 4300 weirs and dams in NSW alone).”

The result? “230 wetlands new threatened – we have exhausted the soils in many parts of the country to the point of desertification. Our agricultural techniques – particularly clearing vegetation and intensive irrigation – have had the combined effect of raising the water table and bringing salt to the surface (leading to) 20,000 farms damaged by salinity. We have introduced 2,500 exotic weeds to the landscape. In the last 200 years we have lost 20 species of mammal, 20 species of bird, and almost 70 species of plant. We have fished our rivers and seas to the brink of collapse.”

The result, amongst others, is that warming is higher in Australia than the global average. The CSIRO projects temperature increases could by more than 7 degrees above 1990 levels by as soon as 2070, if no serious action is taken on climate change.

Pearse explains that the industries that do most of the polluting get heavy subsidies from government and make up only a tiny fraction of GDP (coal is around 2% and entire mining industry is 4% and coal exports create more emissions than the rest of the economy). The worst polluter is aluminium with contributes on 1% to GDP and around 16,000 jobs yet, in the words on one aluminium industry executive “We pull down 18% of eastern Australia’s electricity consumption”! The question has to be asked: if this industry was closed down, guaranteed alternative jobs provided for these workers were offered and Australia imported its aluminium from the much cleaner producers overseas – would this not provide huge relief for the environment and for taxpayers?

Pearse highlights the irony that: “the Liberal Party subsidising its chosen winners (especially ‘clean coal’ and nuclear) while the Labor Party backs market solutions such as emission trading to reduce pollution.”

High and Dry is the best book yet written on the climate change debate in Australia – especially because of its emphasis on the dominant role of industry in doing the polluting. Strongly recommended

Reviewed by Stephen Jolly

High and Dry: John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future
By Guy Pearse
Viking, 2007
RRP $35


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