Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ferguson the real face of Rudd on climate

Yesterday Crikey published an article I wrote about my recent meeting with Martin Ferguson, local federal member for Batman and the energy and resources minister in the Australian Government. The following is an extended version of that article.


You could say we’d hit the jackpot – four local climate campaigners scoring a meeting with their federal MP, who also happens to be the energy and resources minister in the Rudd Labor Government.

Martin Ferguson holds the eminently safe but greening Victorian seat of Batman. A couple of weekends earlier, his Preston electoral office – brightly lit in an otherwise dark industrial strip of High Street – had seen an Earth Hour demonstration complete with the surprisingly affable presence of the Australian Federal Police.

The call then was for a switch to renewables, and for public recognition of the link between Ferguson as local MP, and Ferguson as a federal minister championing emissions-intensive fossil fuel exports and domestic power generation. Australia is heavily dependent on coal for its domestic energy supply, and is the world’s largest coal exporter.

Now Ferguson was sitting across the table from us, a minder scribbling quietly beside him. The Government would go again with the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in May, but, he said, would fail again in the Senate and Labor would face the next election with no price on carbon. As for the future, Ferguson seemed to see a roadblock on every path to effective climate laws.

Why not strengthen the ETS, I offered, include science-based targets, and if necessary go to a double-dissolution on that basis? “Jobs,” Ferguson replied. I had never stood at the gates of a factory telling hundreds of workers they didn’t have one.

This notwithstanding the employment opportunities in a range of green industries, from energy efficiency, renewable retail and domestic power generation, even electric vehicle manufacture. To give just one example, the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 report on stationary energy projects 15,000 jobs in the transition to zero emissions, with 50,000 additional jobs in operations and maintenance.

Certainly few would dispute the need for a transition plan for workers displaced in the move to a green economy, but if restructuring is routinely justified by business on self-interested economic grounds, there is surely a case for it when seeking to achieve vital environmental goals in which everyone has a stake.

Ferguson’s jobs argument is, in fact, a sooty veil for the rejection of any climate strategy that would leave Australia without domestic and international markets for its huge coal reserves.

Yet the minister would not countenance any challenge on this front. “I’m not here to be cross-examined by you,” he replied when I attempted to put to him a pre-condition for a safe climate recently advanced by Dr James Hansen in his 2009 book, Storms of My Grandchildren. Hansen, arguably the world’s leading climate scientist, argues that the climate crisis is not solvable unless we capture coal emissions now, or leave remaining coal reserves in the ground.

What, then, of the Greens proposal for an interim carbon tax while agreement on climate legislation is hammered out? Ferguson offered two main objections. The first was a claimed lack of certainty for business; the second, the blunt statement that there would never be a “settlement” with the Greens on this issue.

On the first objection, it was put to Ferguson without response that the cost of rejecting any uncertainty for business was accepting the certainty of climate impacts for everyone else. I could have added that there has long been little doubt that business and industry would face a rising carbon price, and the Greens proposal would at least provide a baseline for that price on which planning could occur in the context of clear statements of intention by Government.

Nor is it unreasonable that, with the climate at stake, business and industry be required to operate within a market that typically calls for a variety of judgments about changing commercial conditions. When the world will share the damaging climate impacts but not the profits, why is certainty the prize of business but not a worthwhile goal for the environment?

On the second objection, Ferguson’s blanket exclusion of a climate settlement with the Greens seems at odds with claimed negotiations between climate change minister Senator Penny Wong and Greens Senator, Christine Milne. In the week following our meeting, in fact, The Age quoted Greens Senator Bob Brown as being “in a mood to do a deal” on the ETS.

Nothing, however, would be good enough for the Greens, Ferguson claimed – climate change was for them a political question, while for Labor it was an economic and environmental one. There was no reply to the argument that the Greens would be hard-pressed to reject for political motives any plan that actually reflected the climate science, in stark contrast with the measures currently proposed by Labor.

Unfortunately, such a plan would demand a Labor Government willing to be informed by that science, not intent on the half-measures it thinks will “bring the community along”. The suggestion that the public could in fact be persuaded to stronger climate action by more effective Government communication was met with the claim that “we’ve made it very hard for ourselves with political advertising”.

However, it was unclear how Ferguson would distinguish between a campaign addressing a public health threat based on medical science and a campaign addressing the threat of global warming based on the established science of climate. Why would one be legitimate Government communication, and the other “political advertising”? There could not be a campaign around a Bill in the Senate, was all he offered.

Closet sceptic?

So is Ferguson the Rudd Government’s “closet” sceptic? While, according to Ferguson, there is supposedly no debate within Government about the science, the question is almost irrelevant when their energy and climate policies paint Labor clearly as effective climate denialists, despite the progressive but ultimately empty rhetoric of Penny Wong.

It is true that Ferguson was expansive on renewable energy, apparently open to the possibility that the answer to our energy and climate challenges could well be a combination of some or even all energy sources currently on the table.

He spoke of the $1.5 billion Solar Flagships program, part of the Government’s $4.5 billion Clean Energy Initiative. He spoke of geothermal, and of an integrated solar, wind and biomass plant for King Island. Improvements to feed-in tariffs were put to him and discussed. It was not clear, though, how Labor’s 20% by 2020 Renewable Energy Target stacked up to what he suggested was equivalent to a $20 billion renewable feed-in tariff.

Yet the green turns to brown when the commitment to renewables is compared to that for fossil fuels. It was clear from the meeting, for example, that Ferguson is big on gas, which, despite its potential role as a transition fuel, is still a highly carbon-intensive energy source that is no substitute for the fast-tracking of solar, wind and geothermal with complementary efficiency and demand-reduction measures.

One suspects, however, that Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the massive North West Shelf Gorgon development is driven less by the role of gas in any climate solution than by its projected contribution of $40 billion in taxes to the Australian Government over the next 30 years. The same report in The Australian has Ferguson anticipating $100 billion of investment over the next 12–18 months following a $50 billion deal with China.

Again the theme emerges that, for Ferguson – and in reality, for Labor – there can be no solution that leaves Australia’s natural resources unexploited. Of course, that doesn’t mean that coal is going anywhere.

Despite Kevin Rudd’s $100 million “clean” coal research institute, for example, Ferguson asserted that carbon capture and storage (CCS), was a “proven technology”, challenged only by the “cost of deployment”. This contrasted with large-scale solar technologies already operational in Spain and the United States. Solar, according to Ferguson, needed to be “proved up”.

Yet for James Hansen, the world’s leading climate scientist, clean coal is an “illusion”. In September 2009, ABC TV Four Corners also questioned the beleaguered technology in its program, “The Coal Nightmare”. A few days after our meeting, it also aired “A Dirty Business”, a program exposing the health and environmental impacts of coal mining in the NSW Hunter valley.

As Al Gore points out in his recent book, Our Choice, without the elusive prospect of CCS coal is more than twice as carbon-intensive as gas, which itself is more than thirty times more carbon-intensive than concentrated solar thermal.

In spite of the profound challenges of such a massively carbon-intensive energy source, Ferguson said coal would be with us for “both our lifetimes”, echoing comments he made at a CCS conference in Bergen, Norway, in 2009.

This commitment to coal is, of course, played out front-and-centre in the current ETS proposal, which includes $1.5 billion compensation for the coal industry and $7.3 billion for fossil-fuel electricity generators.

To these billions of public funds can be added the slated $47 billion, five-year investment in an obsolete power grid that, according to Fairfax green business writer, Paddy Manning, “entrenches electricity generation from fossil fuels and will only accelerate climate change”.

Asked about network implications of the necessary shift to renewables, Ferguson said the Ministerial Council for Energy (which he chairs) is looking at “rules and regulations for connecting renewables to the grid”. Yet, in December, the Total Environment Centre published a statement that a communiqué issued by the Council “approved a business-as-usual approach to building more inefficient, carbon intensive infrastructure and accepts inefficient growth in energy demand as inevitable”.

There was, in Ferguson’s fondness for a grid that has “served us well”, a seeming nostalgia for dubious past glories, when accelerating warming calls instead for a questioning of the grid’s readiness for the renewables that will form the core of any solution to dangerous climate change.

That warming is already costing lives through the spread of disease, water scarcity, and extreme climate events such as the 2003 European heatwave that left 35,000 people dead. Warming is also increasingly implicated in a global trend towards more frequent and severe bushfire.

On this last point, Ferguson seemed to draw support for his multi-billion-dollar fossil-fuel grid from questions at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission about the role of faulty power lines in the Black Saturday fires. A safe grid is, of course, a necessity, but one geared to fossil fuels will only promote global warming and a consequent worsening of bushfire risk in Australia.

By this stage of the meeting, however, Ferguson had relaxed. He sat back in his chair, smiling. Here, after all, was the minister for the prevention of black-outs, the voice of “sanity” standing against the extreme environmentalists he claimed would flick the switch on the super-polluting Hazelwood coal-fired power station tomorrow, without any plan for the workers, or to keep the lights on.

He wasn’t, it seemed, the minister for catastrophic climate impacts, for the Montara oil spill, or for the grounding of the coal-laden Sheng Neng 1 on the Great Barrier Reef. Get those fossil fuels out of the ground, spill them into our oceans and air – job done.

I met with Martin Ferguson on Friday 9 April 2010 together with representatives from Darebin Climate Action Now, organisers of the meeting, and of the Earth Hour event at Ferguson’s electorate office on 27 March 2010. These are my personal views. Comments welcome.


  1. Ferguson and Rudd both know that going it alone on carbon reduction in a serious way would be disasterous for the local economy. Remember, China mines and burns 3 billion tonnes of coal per year, we mine 300 million tonnes of coal per year and most of that is exported to China.

  2. Sorry, most of that is exported, but not all of it goes to China.

  3. Thanks, Rationalist. I don't think it's a question of going it alone, or of it being disastrous for the local economy. What about some international climate leadership from Australia, and an acknowledgment of Nicholas Stern et al that the costs of early action are far below those of acting later, when it will likely be too late to avoid the worst impacts? We're looking at economic change, to be sure, but let's balance that with recognition that inaction equates to climate disaster. Ferguson says there's no doubt about the science within the ALP. Well, that means he ough to adhere to it and take the necessary steps, not commit to digging everything out of the ground for the profit of a few and impacts for many.

  4. There is zero reason to disadvantage Australia ahead of the rest of the world. The entire world must act together to ensure no nation is at a competitive disadvantage. It will be immoral to cause devastation to rural and regional Australia in addition to the government coffers which are filled from the mining industry. This allows the government to pay for initiatives which many judge to be worthwhile.

  5. Hi again, Rationalist. I'm afraid that reasoning would consign Australia and the rest of the world to the worst climate impacts. If no-one will jump unless everybody else does so simultaneously, then we have no hope. However, looking at the problem as a transition process, such as the Transition Decade and Zero Carbon Australia initiatives are doing, progressive and realistic changes are each small acts of leadership that argue for broader change. Have a look at the Zero Carbon Australia plan linked to in the post. The argument around going it alone is just too convenient for the fossil-fuel industry and big polluters. They'll keep the profits, and we'll share the impacts. The Australian Government's climate rhetoric seems akin to admitting that fast food is bad for us (admitting the reality of climate change), but then facilitating home-delivery (supporting the status quo re electricity generation etc.).

  6. Fair enough but ultimately, there is no money to pay for new infrastructure without a tax base.

  7. Well, as Paddy Manning points out, $47 billion is ear-marked over five years - maybe we need to look at what part of that needs to go towards a smart grid instead. Remember that Ferguson even mentioned $100 billion. There's also extra money available from removing payouts to the coal industry and fossil-fuel generators. It is the job of the Government to spend appropriately, and part of that is spending towards a safe climate rather than towards worsening global warming.

  8. Ferguson is a brick wall, typical of the backward-facing pollies in both the old major parties.

    We had a similar encounter with our local State MP Barry Collier, who acknowledges that man is accelerating climate change, but cited evidence that temperate Australia once supported rainforests as somehow indicating that it was not a problem.

    Again, the jobs mantra, that although renewables would create more jobs than coal, a 50-year-old miner still has little chance of re-employment.

    They simply don't care, they think it's all politically driven, so they reject it outright. It's not their politics, so they don't accept the science or even the solutions on offer. We have to summon the people power to change them or push them aside.

  9. Thanks, Jonathan (and sorry for the delay in publishing your comment). In Ferguson's electorate, community climate campaigners - not just the Greens, but including them also - are taking action to highlight Ferguson's broader role in Australia's climate inaction. With Australia's addiction to fossil fuels, and its status as the world's largest exporter of coal, Ferguson is our Local Member for Global Damage. That link might be uncomfortable for a politician who will strive to keep his campaign local, but it's a necessary one for the community to make if we are to get effective action on climate.


Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.