Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Australia’s famously climate skeptic former Prime Minister Tony Abbott won leadership by a single vote, because a senior member of parliament had learned the hard way to be skeptical of defective computer models and exaggerated claims of imminent disaster.
The day that plunged Australia’s climate policy into 10 years of inertia
Ten years ago today, Andrew Robb arrived at Parliament House intent upon an act of treachery.
No-one was expecting him. Robb was formally on leave from the Parliament undergoing treatment for his severe depression.
But the plan the Liberal MP nursed to himself that morning would not only bring about the political demise of his leader, Malcolm Turnbull, but blow apart Australia’s two great parties irrevocably just as they teetered toward consensus on climate change, the most divisive issue of the Australian political century.
They have never again been so close.
Enter the quiet assassin
Robb obtained a confidential copy on the Monday afternoon. He says it horrified him.
“It was a total sell-out, but it was so cleverly crafted that it would look, to the less informed, like we’d won the lottery in the negotiations,” Robb would later write in his memoir, Black Dog Daze.
And so it was that Andrew Robb made one of the most extraordinary and — by most conventional measures — indefensible tactical decisions in the history of political chicanery.
Robb ripped himself a scrap of paper and scrawled a note to Turnbull.
“The side effects of the medication I am on now make me very tired. I’d be really grateful if you could get me to my feet soon,” he wrote.
Turnbull called Robb to speak soon after. He rose, and denounced the proposed scheme in forensic detail, his words carrying significant weight as the erstwhile bearer of the relevant portfolio.
The deal never recovered. The meeting went on for six more hours. Turnbull — a streetfighter when cornered — added the numbers of shadow Cabinet votes to the “yes” votes in the party room and declared that he had a majority.
One week and one day later — December 1, 2009 — a ballot was held for the leadership of the Liberal Party.
Tony Abbott — who nominated against both Turnbull and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey — won by a single vote.
Limits To Growth is still the highest-selling environmental book in the history of the world, having sold 30 million copies in more than 30 languages.
But Robb’s early fascination with the work gave way to distrust of its conclusions and primitive computer modelling; he says its warnings of resource exhaustion and economic collapse towards the end of the 20th century were overstated.
“The thing they didn’t talk about was technology. That you could find gas 300 kilometres offshore, for example, and find a way to bring it onshore. Because of this, the Club of Rome — which was quite a reputable group of people — looked more and more ridiculous as the years rolled on.“
The Club of Rome has its critics and its defenders; Limits To Growth was commonly derided by the 1990s as a misguided Doomsday scenario, but has enjoyed something of a renaissance lately. The CSIRO published a paper in 2008 finding that the book’s 30-year modelling of consequences from a “business as usual” approach to economic growth was essentially sound.
But what’s not deniable is that this work influenced one young man who grew up to be one member of a parliamentary party with a singular role to play in one vote on a policy that would either change or not change the course of a country.
…Read more: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-24/10-years-of-climate-change-inertiaand-the-role-of-andrew-robb/11726072
I understand Andrew Robb’s disillusionment with computer modelling, based on his experience with The Limits to growth.
LTG is easy to criticise, it is full of assumptions and guesses, assigning arbitrary meaning to abstract quantities. For example, at one point the authors admit an assumption 10x current global pollution is relatively harmless, but 100x current pollution is lethal. The author’s arbitrary assumption that substantially increased pollution is automatically harmful is contradicted by historical evidence that our ancestors’ coal powered pursuit of industrialization and economic growth radically increased life expectancy. Worst of all, The Limits to Growth does not clearly define what they mean by pollution.
The LTG criticism of technology as a long term fix for limits casually dismisses thousands of years of human innovation and problem solving.
ABC Columnist Annabel Crabb does not provide a link to the CSIRO study which suggested the Club of Rome was right, but I think she meant this one;
A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality
Graham M Turner (CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Australia) 2008
In 1972, the Club of Rome’s infamous report “The Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al., 1972) presented some challenging scenarios for global sustainability, based on a system dynamics computer model to simulate the interactions of five global economic subsystems, namely: population, food production, industrial production, pollution, and consumption of non-renewable natural resources. Contrary to popular belief, The Limits to Growth scenarios by the team of analysts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did not predict world collapse by the end of the 20th Century. This paper focuses on a comparison of recently collated historical data for 1970–2000 with scenarios presented in the Limits to Growth. The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features of a business-as-usual scenario called the “standard run” scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century. The data does not compare well with other scenarios involving comprehensive use of technology or stabilizing behaviour and policies. The results indicate the particular importance of understanding and controlling global pollution.Read more: https://ideas.repec.org/p/cse/wpaper/2008-09.html
Interestingly the CSIRO download link for the full paper doesn’t work, but I found another copy.
The CSIRO paper points out some major flaws with the Limits to Growth, such as LTG’s treatment of “non renewable resources”;
A potentially confounding issue is the aggregate nature of the non-renewable resource variable in the LtG simulation. Resources are not considered separately, but as an aggregate. If there is little substitutability between resources then the aggregate measure of the non-renewable resources remaining is determined by the resource in shortest supply because economic growth within the model is affected by the increasing extraction effort associated with this resource. If there is unlimited substitutability then the aggregate measure is determined by the sum of all resources including the most readily available resource because as other resources are diminished the industrial process can switch to more available resources without (in this case) significant impact.
Other variables were also “aggregated” in questionable ways;
The World3 model was highly aggregated, treating variables as either totals, such as population being the total world population, or appropriate averages, such as industrial output per capita. No spatial or socio-economic disaggregation was directly employed in the model structure, although the values of parameters were informed by available data at suitable levels of disaggregation.
Clearly aggregating “non-renewable resources” and per-capita industrial output as single numbers is absurd. Yet despite these criticisms the CSIRO study concludes that The Limits to Growth has value. For example, the last paragraph of the CSIRO study;
In addition to the data-based corroboration presented here, contemporary issues such as peak oil, climate change, and food and water security resonate strongly with the feedback dynamics of “overshoot and collapse” displayed in the LtG “standard run” scenario (and similar scenarios). Unless the LtG is invalidated by other scientific research, the data comparison presented here lends support to the conclusion from the LtG that the global system is on an unsustainable trajectory unless there is substantial and rapid reduction in consumptive behaviour, in combination with technological progress.
I would love to know exactly what would constitute invalidation in the eyes of true believers in “The Limits to Growth”.