For those who are watching the climate wars with a feeling that the whole debate is becoming a little bit mad, I recommend reading, ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds’ by Charles Mackay, written in 1841, which brilliantly explores the occurrences of mass hysteria or excitement of various communities around the world over new fads and ideas.
The current Western world enthusiasm for action on climate change reminds me of another of these mad crowd moments in which community elites have convinced themselves that the world is doomed unless urgent action is taken, while those standing back asking questions are howled down as non-believers. Let me make it clear I’m not entering the debate on the merits of the science or the global policy response to climate change, I will leave this to others far more qualified or energised than I to convince you one way or the other.
Rather my purpose is to explore the politics of the carbon mitigation debate and raise a couple of ideas on how Australian farmers should respond. My thesis is that while climate change remains the centre of attention of global influencers, Western Australian agriculture should position itself to influence and capitalise on government policy responses and not become collateral damage to it.
The trick when one of these mad crowd moments occurs in your communty is to ensure that the politicians, when they pile in, react in a way that benefits you rather than burdens you with the inevitable new taxes and regulations. For instance in this case of the carbon craze, when the government responds by turning on the money tap, you want the cash to flow in your direction, rather than the other way round.
Just as the global 1950s communist panic saw rivers of cash flow into the military industrial complex, peak oil concerns of the 1970s proved a subsidy boon to global oil explorers (and US farmers growing oilseeds via mandated biofuel production), and Y 2000 was manna from heaven for the computer industry.
In the case of the global warming scare the political class has been busy showing it cares by cranking up subsidies for renewables and making life difficult for coal mines and coal power stations. Or at least it has in Australia and Europe, as by all indications, the rest of the world has seen fit to ignore most of the clamour and continues to march towards a western standard of living no matter what it means for CO2 emissions. Or maybe they have simply done the maths and worked out that even if the whole world mitigated every last carbon molecule that the Paris Agreement demanded it would add up to reducing global warming by just 1% of the threatened 2 degree rise by 2100.
How the carbon politics plays out for Western Australian agriculture bears thinking about. Rule one of politics, is don’t be caught on the wrong side of history. If the voting public are concerned enough about climate change to demand action, then we as an industry need to be seen to take action. Just as we have had to factor in changing attitudes on a whole range of issues from animal welfare, work safety and landcare, farmers like it or not need to track and follow community attitudes and expectations.
When the polls tell us the people have moved their views, we also need to show we have listened and while making our case for considered change we need to be seen to be moving along with them. Anything else is asking for government intervention, which invariably if it comes will be an over-reaction – que the live export issue and all the new stocking regulations and the summer ban.
So if the crowd want action on climate change we naturally are supportive. But we note that the crowd seems reluctant to pay much for climate change, they would much prefer to share in the renewals bonanza of government funded subsidies for their own roof top power system and load up the elusive ‘other’ to pay the real price of any carbon mitigation schemes.
Unfortunately agriculture which is just 4% of the economy and employs 4% of the workforce today is very much seen as part of the ‘other’. We are no longer the small battling farmer, but seen as the big farmer, with big headers and big tractors which means we have become a big target for future governments, the greens and a critical media. Just like the irrigators on the Murrray Darling found with that recent ABC 4 Corners episode on water buy backs, it’s only a matter of time before the media led by Aunty gets interested in what we do. And rest assured the story they run won’t be sympathetic, as inner city journalists don’t understand or care how good we are and ho much we have improved our environmental management.
So agriculture needs a set of policies that protect farm businesses from the worst excesses of government while building future opportunities around carbon farming to show we are part of the solution. Hence I propose two policies the industry should consider.
The first requires that we resist any attempt by governments to impose a carbon tax on our major inputs of diesel, fertiliser, chemicals and transport. Even a small increase on costs could with the growing production coming out of the Black Sea wipe out production margins on our grain.
Governments can tax consumers all they like on the carbon impact of their cars, air travel, and everyday consumption and then attempt to win their vote at the next election. Good luck with that. But for farmers we don’t have the luxury of the power of numbers at the ballot box to unwind the costs of a carbon tax on CBH or CSBP. So we need to hold the line on input carbon taxes.
The second part of industry self defence, is to jump on board the climate craze and show great enthusiasm for doing our bit. The obvious way to do this is to build a carbon accreditation scheme so that farmers can own and set their own carbon standards. Just as the global fishing industry worked out, albeit, far too late, it is far better to set your own standards, and own your own international certification scheme rather than have one imposed on you by the likes of Greenpeace.
An Australian designed agricultural carbon sustainability scheme owned and run by Australian farmers might just be the way to hold off the political virtue seekers and their grand plans of global emissions reductions led by Australia. Such a scheme would show the world and the Australian community that we are doing our bit. The scheme would track each farms carbon footprint and offset it against carbon capture from remnant bushland and the carbon retained in the soil through good modern sustainable farming practises.
But again this all requires money from industry (there’s another good reason for a voluntary Opt Out APC fund) to put together the no carbon tax policy and develop and control our own carbon certification scheme. There is no point putting our collective heads in the soil and saying others should do it and pay for it, as they will!
The only problem is it will be the Conservation Council with the help of cashed up global environmental groups like Friends of the Earth that will happily develop carbon standards that they demand farmers comply with. Just as the fishing families found out when the World Wildlife Fund went about designing the Marine Stewardship Council which today dictates sustainable fishing standards to global fisheries, exporters and retailers. As they will tell you its very expensive having the Greens as partners in your business.
The one thing we know is the push by the in crowd for more regulations around carbon and climate change is not going away anytime soon. Farmers cant hide from the mob and hope that the crowd will get bored of this craze and move on to the next global emergency and we can just skip being involved in this one. Time to join the mob but lead the breakaway rather than end up in the abbitiour.