by Richard Denniss
[Originally published on Guardian Australia, 24 July 2019]
How many wedge-tailed eagles is a black-throated finch worth? No doubt there’s an economist out there willing to have a crack at answering that question, but the right of Australian politics seem to have already figured it out without so much as community survey: eagles are important and finches are not.
Australian conservatives mock the idea that the government would block Adani from building a new coalmine on top of the endangered black-throated finch’s nesting grounds, yet it’s the same commentators and parliamentarians who are terribly excited about blocking a proposal to build a windfarm on Tasmania’s Robbins Island. The fact that Bob Brown is worried about both eagles and finches has created even more excitement.
So worried about the eagles is the former Greens leader that he has spoken out against the construction of what would be the southern hemisphere’s largest windfarm. An act so exciting that the Australian newspaper has now devoted three front-page stories to examining the issue.
It’s not clear why some species of bird are so important to conservatives and others are inconsequential. The fact that an environmentalist might ever oppose a windfarm is one of the most exciting things to happen to the rightwing commentariat since Yassmin Abdel-Magied used her freedom of speech to defy political correctness and criticise Anzac Day.
On 8 July, Brown wrote an opinion piece for the Hobart Mercury outlining concerns about the construction of 270-metre-high wind turbines in the flightpath of endangered migratory birds including the swift parrot, and near the nesting sites of endangered species including the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle. He also flagged the environmental consequences of clearing a path for transmission lines through the Tarkine forest. Barely a week later the Australian ran a story about Brown’s opinion piece under the headline: “Crusader Brown turns against wind farm”.
For decades, conservative strategists have painted those who take the science of climate change seriously as “zealots”. Having written Brown off as a zealot, of course the Australian would expect that if he supports investment in renewable energy in general, he should always support every proposal. But does anyone believe that Brown – or anyone else serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions – thinks there is nowhere in our natural or built environment unsuitable for the installation of renewable energy?
Put simply, those who want to take no steps to reduce emissions are determined to suggest that those who want to take some steps must want to take every step imaginable. I’m not making this up – rightwing commentators often suggest that environmentalists want everyone to “live in caves” or “the dark ages”.
Like most people, those who take climate science seriously take other issues seriously as well – including local environmental effects, economic effects and the distributional consequences of policies to reduce emissions.
But the confused attacks on Brown haven’t just come from the right and they haven’t just focused on the importance, or lack of importance, of protecting birds. Some have criticised him for mentioning that the project would be foreign-owned (xenophobia), for caring only about Tasmania (nimbyism) and for speaking out about a topic that was bound to fire up the right (the naivety!). It is amazing how many people one short opinion piece can excite.
Pointing out that the proposed windfarm would be foreign-owned isn’t xenophobic – it’s a key part of any democratic or planning discussion about who bears the costs and who receives the benefits. I’ve sat in court and argued on the side of small communities who say that foreign-owned coalmines should be opposed on the basis that their town will incur most of the costs of noise and dust pollution, while most of the benefits will accrue to people who live thousands of kilometres away. No one has, yet, called me xenophobic. As for criticising a former senator for Tasmania for speaking out on behalf of Tasmania, I’ll let others puzzle over that one.
But let’s get back to the strategy of attacking Brown. The idea is to present Australians with a false choice between doing nothing to tackle climate change or doing “everything”. The right are betting that such a choice is so difficult that many people will turn away from trying. At the same time, it distracts from the simpler question of whether the Australian government is doing enough to tackle climate change.
Democracy requires sensible debate to make sensible decisions. That’s why conservatives work so hard to link issues such as same-sex marriage to bestiality, and supporting renewable energy with the end of modern civilisation. But just because it’s juvenile doesn’t mean it won’t work.
There are better and worse places to build coalmines, wind turbines, high-rise buildings and nuclear waste dumps. Australians not only have the right, but should be encouraged, to participate in such debates.
But in Australia, if you want to talk about better regulation of the building industry you support “the nanny state”. If you want to talk about the high-quality public health systems in the Nordic countries, you want to “weigh down the economy with the burden of tax”. And now it seems, if you have dedicated your life to the environment but think there are dumb places to build a windfarm, you are a hypocrite who wants to cause climate change. Sigh.
But, exhausting or not, democracy needs debate. While arguing with conservative commentators often feels like arguing with a drunk relative at Christmas, the alternative of being silenced is worse.
There will always be local concerns associated with the construction of new freeways, new coalmines, new high-rise towers and yes, new wind and solar farms. Democracy doesn’t promise us that everyone will always be happy but it should promise us that everyone has a voice in the decisions that affect them.
It’s not Bob Brown and the other environmentalists concerned about the Robbins Island windfarm who are being hypocrites – it’s those on the right who have ignored community and environmental concerns for decades when freeways and high-rise housing were killing the birds and pissing off the locals, and who are now feigning concern about those very same issues.
• Richard Denniss is chief economist at the Australia Institute. He was a strategy advisor to Bob Brown when he was a senator.