Friday, 29 June 2012

Peak Oil and the Lost Message of the Carbon Tax

Whether or not one believes in human-induced climate change, with the Carbon Tax's introduction on Sunday, it is worth remembering the fundamental reasons for its conception. The Carbon Tax debate, which has been memorable for its hyperbole, but not its content, has obscured why we contemplated it in the first place.

The concept of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has two core aims: firstly, the reduction of carbon emissions with the intention of retarding global warming. and secondly, to shift our economy away from reliance on fossil fuels. This second aim, arguably far more compelling, has been neglected in the national discussion.

Global Warming and Opposition Dominance
Despite some conservatives and quarters of the media having cast doubt over the validity of the science of climate change, the scientific community is far less divided in its conclusions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have risen by 36% since 1750 with ice-core data indicating levels are higher now than in the last 800,000 years and geological evidence suggesting as long as 20 million years.  This has been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, which in the last few decades accounts for three-quarters of human emissions (the remainder from deforestation). 

While the majority of Australians continue to believe in human-induced climate change, their faith that an ETS in Australia will help rectify this has fallen dramatically. When it was the "greatest moral challenge of our time", over half of people felt that "if we didn't act now [on climate change], it would be too late"; but most recent polling suggests only a third now support aggressive climate change action.

Some concern is well founded. It is true that Australia, while having very high per-capita carbon emissions contributes only a small fraction of global industrial output of the gas and our ETS alone would not make a substantial impact. With the giddy days of Copenhagen behind us, national governments are faced with more pressing financial concerns and the uptake of complementary schemes internationally will be significantly delayed, possibly leading to capital leakage. Moreover, comparisons to other international schemes suggest that Australia will ultimately tax carbon at an unfavourably higher level than its competitors.

However, domestically, the dramatic reduction in support is due to a very successful campaign by the Coalition. The Opposition has deployed a consistent, vehement approach to the Tax, telling voters that it will spell existential crisis for exposed industries, and more importantly, financial pain for average Australians. On a point-by-point basis, much of what Mr. Abbott has argued can be identified as hyperbole, or in some cases simple untruth; but the tactic is aimed at inducing electoral fear and shutting down more substantive debate, and it has worked very well. Voters are fearful of manufacturing job losses and cost of living increases, and will ultimately move with hip-pocket concerns over high-minded environmental aims. The real failing of the Government, and the Greens, is that they have been goaded into tit-for-tat rebuttal of Abbott's sometimes fanciful claims rather than committing to a coherent and sustained argument for the tax.

Even accepting that the Carbon Tax will do little to reduce global carbon emissions, its second aim - a shift from fossil fuels on a whole of economy scale - is worth pursuing.

Peak Oil and the Long Game 
The concept of Peak Oil emerged in 1956 when M. King Hubbert used modelling to correctly determine that US oil production would reach its peak by 1970. Peak Oil models identify the point at which maximum oil extraction can be expected to occur, after which it will enter terminal decline.

Such models have been applied to oil on a global scale with disconcerting results. Optimistic estimates suggest Peak Oil by 2020, while in 2010 a report by the US Joint Forces Command suggested surplus oil may stop being produced by this year. A report by the Paris-based International Energy Agency in 2010 found that peak production of crude oil had already passed in 2006 , though it saw a plateau in production until 2035. It is worth considering the demand globally, particularly from China, will begin to outstrip supply in such circumstances. The realisation has seen a shift toward alternative fossil fuels, such as coal-seam and natural gas, though these too are finite resources and will ultimately 'Peak' as well. 

The reality is that in the coming century, whole economies will be burdened with a need to find sources of renewable, alternative energy sources as fossil fuel resources dry up. There is a dubious record of government-backed direct interventions in this area with small scale interventions and shifting political imperatives bringing programmes to premature halts (Queensland's solar rebate scheme, for example). Inducements to business to seek clean, renewable energy options have generally failed to have effect, frankly because oil is cheaper than developing and implementing effective renewable options. The uncomfortable reality is, however, that oil will progressively become more expensive as supply evaporates and business will be compelled to act - perhaps not before soaring costs create an economic and energy crisis.

At the heart of the ETS is the aim to pre-empt such a crisis by making carbon (and therefore, fossil fuel use) more expensive and therefore less desirable now, while there is still an energy surplus to buffer the effect; and it is designed to hurt. The hope is that when there is a painful bottom-line effect, a "python-squeeze" if you will, for business and industry, it will drive genuine engagement with the problem with more adequate resources. 

In Australia, where three-year electoral cycles colour the way we discuss policy, it seems that trying to keep such long-range goals in mind is difficult. It is hard for politicians and the media to look beyond the Carbon Tax to the Emissions Trading Scheme that will replace it in a couple of years. It seems even harder to remember that its true focus is on an inevitable energy crisis still decades away, but that needs our attention now. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Review: The Newsroom (HBO)

After a sojourn into film with The Social Network and Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin has returned to the small screen with The Newsroom, which aired Sunday on HBO in the US. It is set in the newsroom of News Night, a fictional current affairs hour, presented by jaded anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). Newsroom begins a character based approach to examining what ground the Fourth Estate occupies in the US today.

The show opens with a panel discussion of journalists. With Sorkin's classic rapid dialogue, the rancour and bile of contemporary political debate in the US is pithily encapsulated. McAvoy, who is painted as impartial, appears increasingly despondent. When finally he is pushed for a response to "Why America is the greatest country on Earth?", the dam breaks and he commits a cardinal American sin by asserting that it isn't. His subsequent tirade, which is captured for YouTube, is scathing of America's standing in the world, laments its widening divisions and loss of national purpose, and while he finishes with a message of hope, the damage is done.

It is a strong opening, which leads into a newsroom in disarray as fallout from McAvoy's outburst has led to a mass exodus of his staff and damage to his reputation. Sam Waterson is introduced as the principled, avuncular news director who hires a veteran war-correspondent from McAvoy's past, MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), to come on as executive producer and help restore News Night's journalistic credentials.

MacKenzie and McAvoy have been romantically linked in the past, and the relationship's end has damaged the two leads in different ways. MacKenzie took to the field as a war correspondent and returned physically and emotionally scarred from two years in the Middle East. McAvoy, disenchanted with the news business, gradually succumbed to his ego and to the corporate pressures on his trade. The tension between these characters is raw and a good deal of the episode is given over to developing this. MacKenzie is used to bemoan the state of media in modern age, and offers a plea to make News Night a vehicle for McAvoy's journalistic redemption and to "reclaim the Fourth Estate".

When finally some 'news' starts happening, in this case the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the newsroom comes to life with a largely off-the-cuff broadcast. McAvoy, prompted by MacKenzie's urging, delivers an impressive performance during which he pursues the corporate interests behind the spill.


It is difficult to watch a show written by Sorkin without making comparison to the first four seasons of West Wing, which he wrote and co-produced. On a thematic level, Newsroom will bear some similarities as a conduit for him to examine current affairs and the news media. However, stylistically, the show may borrow more from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkins short lived, but very good, behind-the-scenes drama about the cast and crew of a Saturday night variety programme. Studio 60, which came after West Wing, focussed more on development of its troubled characters and their interpersonal entanglements than the weightier topics of the West Wing.

While West Wing had a splendid ensemble of interesting characters, the issues often seemed to drive the show with characters growing gradually. Newsroom will be more character-driven according to Sorkin, and at times he wrestles to find a balance between character and issue. This is most apparent with MacKenzie, as she espouses a quixotic return to impartial journalism and to revivify well-informed American democracy. Her speeches have a set-piece, rehearsed quality that feels overwritten and detracts from their authenticity. Having said that, the characters are sharp-witted and likable; and the dialogue is punchy, particularly between the youthful minor characters, though the staccato cadence of previous Sorkin efforts is gone.  

Daniels is believable as man on the cusp of an ego-fuelled implosion, who retains enough of a skerrick of charm that the viewer wants to see him redeemed. Emily Mortimer's character is interesting and her humour and idealism are easy to warm to; though at times, she struggles with the stilted scripting. John Gallagher Jr., playing Jim Harper, MacKenzie's young senior producer, may occupy a Sam Seaborn-esque space and will create some dynamism amongst the minor characters.

The tension of a live-to-air broadcast is well captured in the episode with a suitably exciting though low-key, score and snappy editing. The rolling walk-and-talk´ scenes of the West Wing are gone and happily, director of the first episode Greg Mottola, has largely resisted hand-held camera work that behind-the-scenes shows so often feel the need to employ.

There is a rich vein for Sorkin to mine thematically, and the challenge will remain for him to walk the tightrope between topical and preachy, cerebral and entertaining. He has created characters that will give the show depth, and I suspect that his initial lumpiness with the dialogue may smooth as exposition gives way to a more organic narrative style.

While polarisation of the media and politics may be more apparent in the United States, as Daniel's character laments - the people not only choose the news they want, "they choose the facts they want"; recent and ongoing events in the Australian media landscape make the thrust of Newsroom all the more interesting for an Australian audience today.  With reading the media section, or watching Media Watch becoming an increasingly demoralising task, a little fantasy may be what the Fourth Estate needs.