When I was growing up, one of my favourite shows was Beyond 2000, a science show that explored what technological advancements would greet us after the year 2000. While I still don’t have a hover car, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the internet, or that I would be able to carry it around in my pocket on my smartphone. Even now, when I Skype my friends and family from my smartphone, I never lose the feeling that I am living in the future.
But we spend much less time thinking about the social conditions which enable technological advancements. Gadgets that just 30 years ago seemed like something out of an episode of The Jetsons are not just made by people in a laboratory. It takes a whole society to support scientists and inventors, which is much easier in a society with economic equality. Gadgets aren’t much good if not many people can afford to buy them.
Wealth of Nations
Nobel laureate and economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz - here in Australia to accept the 2018 Sydney Peace Prize for his groundbreaking work showing that “inequality is not inevitable, it is created” - this week gave a clear and succinct explanation when he addressed the National Press Club.
Professor Stiglitz said the growth of the wealth of nations is based on two things: firstly, advances in science and technology, like the polio vaccine and wi-fi; secondly, better systems of social organisation, like democracy, the rule of law and a free press.
“All of this requires systems of truth-telling, of ascertaining, discovering and verifying what the truth is” Professor Stiglitz said.
While Professor Stiglitz is famous for his work on inequality, it is his comments on climate change and truth-telling institutions that struck a chord with me.
No New Coal Mines
Australia has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030. But, despite its best efforts to bury the truth, the government cannot hide the fact that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are rising because we continue to mine and burn the fossil fuels that cause global warming.
The Coalition government under Scott Morrison insists Australia will meet its miserly Paris commitment. Environment Minister Melissa Price is stuck repeating “We have a strong track record of meeting emissions reduction targets”, but she finds it impossible to articulate how we will meet it or when emissions will stop rising, other than a vague plan to "build one billion trees". It won’t be any time soon.
Now that reducing emissions is no longer a goal of energy policy, Energy Minister Angus Taylor appears determined that the government will not only underwrite new coal-fired power stations, but that the government will take on the liability for future carbon risk – transferring all the economic risk of investing in dud coal plants from private companies to Australian taxpayers.
To make matters worse, Australia has plans to double its thermal coal exports, making Australia the Saudi Arabia of coal.
Professor Stiglitz outlined the problem: “Coal is going to become obsolete. The world will not tolerate coal. But from the point of view of Australia’s exports, given that there is this diminishing market for coal, opening up another mine is going to actually depress the global price of coal exports. You are going to be hurting yourself.
"What’s particularly of concern to many people is the fact that your employment will go down because the new mines are going to be very automated."
The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan, author of several books and distinguished fellow of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, described this analysis as “inane nonsense... you have to be an intellectual to believe that kind of stuff”. Certainly, one could not accuse Sheridan of using his intellect with such comments.
But Sheridan need not listen to intellectual. He could just take Adani Mining CEO Jeyakumar Janakaraj at his word when he said Adani’s Carmichael mine “will be utilizing at least 45 driverless trucks. All the vehicles will be capable of automation. When we ramp up the mine, everything will be autonomous from mine to port.” So, not many coal jobs there.
Or Sheridan could take the word of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which last year declared the coal boom is over and this month found that thermal coal exports will fall by nearly 60 per cent by 2040 as the world moves to limit global warming to below 2 degrees.
In a depressed market, any new coal mines will displace workers in existing mines in the Hunter Valley and elsewhere across Australia.
Global warming is a scientific reality the Morrison government can ignore, but not without negative consequences for Australia’s economy and future prosperity. But I’m sure when the other two thirds of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef are bleached, Australians will be comforted by the profits we generated for coal companies.
While the Liberal governments under Morrison, Turnbull and Abbott have lied with the blatant enthusiasm of the Trump administration - remember hapless press secretary Sean Spicer insisting the inauguration day crowds were the biggest ever! - a succession of Liberal governments have shown contempt for institutions that underpin civil society like the Australian Human Rights Commission, the judiciary and the ABC. These are the kinds of
institutions that Stiglitz describes as those dedicated to "truth-telling".
The Abbott government became hysterical when Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs released the commission’s inquiry into children in detention. Government ministers personally attacked Professor Triggs and basically declared war against the commission. Three years later, kids are still rotting away on Nauru.
Last year, three senior Coalition government ministers narrowly avoided contempt of court charges after making comments attacking Victoria's judiciary. The court admonished the ministers for failing to respect the doctrine of the separation of powers, one of the key pillars of any democracy.
And finally, the Coalition governments under Tony Abbott, then Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison have done their level best to undermine our beloved public broadcaster. Tony Abbott gutted the ABC’s funding in the 2014 horror budget. Malcolm Turnbull presided over further budget cuts, as well as several wasteful inquiries at the behest of rival commercial media organisations seeking to quash competition. And now the Morrison government intends to compound the folly of the Abbott decision to cut funding for the ABC’s Australia Network.
It is sensible to restore the functions of the Australia Network, our voice in the region and a tool of soft diplomacy, but it is idiotic to give taxpayers money to the commercial broadcasters to do it instead. Commercial media’s main goal is to make a buck, while the ABC charter sets out its clear obligations to citizens and makes it accountable to the public in a way no commercial broadcaster can be. This is privatisation of public broadcasting by stealth, and it must be stopped.
We’re now well beyond 2000, but unless we take Professor Stiglitz’ advice to protect the role of science and the truth-telling institutions like the ABC which underpin civil society, we risk retarding the growth of the wealth of our nation and our ability to give all Australians the "fair go" Scott Morrison is so fond of talking about.
Ebony Bennett is Deputy Director of The Australia Institute. @ebony_bennett. The Australia Institute is an Impact Partner of the 2018 Sydney Peace Prize and Professor Joseph Stiglitz visited Canberra as a guest of The Australia Institute and the Sydney Peace Foundation.
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