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Julia in the Sky with Diamonds

By Michael Kile - posted Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Picture yourself on a train in a station
Where plasticine people tell marshmallow lies about marmalade skies
Suddenly she's there at the carbon turnstile
The girl with red hair and kaleidoscope eyes
And you're gone.

In Papua New Guinea they call it mani bilong skai. Big bags of it have been promised by a new breed of international offset entrepreneur to villagers prepared to sign away the "rights" to carbon imbedded in their forests. But they are not the only folk dazzled by sky money. Indigenous communities in northern Australia are now accusing state and federal governments of stealing their Wild Rivers carbon credits.

Julia has rejoined the eco-entrepreneurs down at the Carbon Cargo Cult Club (CCCC). She too wants to get high in the sky with diamonds (crystalline carbon). The Prime Minister reaffirmed her membership on 27th September. The government, supported by the Greens and two independents, will "consider mechanisms for introducing a carbon price (including a broad-based emissions trading scheme, a broad-based carbon levy, or a hybrid of both)." Her department will take the minutes.


The CCCC is an elite club. Only true believers qualify for membership of its Multi-Party (sic) Climate Change Committee (CCC). They must be "committed to tackling climate change" and "acknowledge that effectively reducing carbon (dioxide) pollution by 2020 will require a carbon (dioxide) price".

While the CCC may discuss other aspects of climate change policy, "its deliberations will be broadly limited to the issue of a carbon (dioxide) price".

Welcome to today's equivalent of the road bilong cargo (pidgin: rot bilong kako). This road, we are told, will lead to not only fabulous (sustainable) cargo, but also the power to control the planet's elusive thermostat. It will lead to a promised land where the alleged benefits of doing what the government - and its handful of advisers - want us to do outweigh the alleged costs of not doing it.

On abandoning her Citizens' Assembly election pledge, the Prime Minister justified the decision by emphasising she was "more interested in outcome than method." The CCC presumably will tell us at some stage precisely what quantitative - measurable and verifiable - outcomes a carbon price will deliver for the nation's future climate. Will there be less "extreme weather events", less droughts and deluges? Will it produce a Goldilocks climate by 2020, 2030 or 2050; one neither too hot nor too cold, but just right for Australia and the planet?

Why is creating sky money by monetising – not carbon, but carbon dioxide - an (unjustly demonised) trace gas currently comprising about 0.0385 per cent of the atmosphere - so irresistible for the political class? Firstly, it's easy. It can be done merely by government decree, like printing new currency. Secondly, it will conjure up a new revenue stream, assuming the public continues to be duped by sermons on "saving the planet", eerily reminiscent of the fundamentalism of an earlier age. Thirdly, it will create a new "property" right literally out of thin air, bringing wealth and wonder to investment banks and the fortunate whose carbon "assets" the Department of Climate Change and (now) Energy Efficiency has placed on the nation's carbon account (CON).

Whether sky money takes the form of a tax or securitised carbon credit – it is shaping up as another example of twenty-first century sub-prime "wealth"; an exercise in dubious financial alchemy far surpassing the collaterised debt obligations, credit default swaps and so on that led to the 2008 global financial crisis. Greed, liberally mixed with suppressio veri and suggestio falsi, corrupts not only financial markets, but also science and politics. As they say in PNG, samting nogut.


Cargo cult science

Cargo cults emerged in remote parts of some south-west Pacific islands in the nineteenth century. They increased during and after World War II, with the sudden arrival – and cessation – of supplies by air. Perplexed indigenes developed rituals they believed would deliver them similar "cargo". They built imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment. They also devised ceremonies mimicking behaviours of those receiving cargo they believed was sent by their ancestors to them, but had been stolen or intercepted by foreigners.

Cult leaders were typically messianic figures in Melanesian culture. While most seem to have been possessed by some kind of religious vision there may have been a few that were deliberately unscrupulous, exploiting the beliefs of gullible communities. Cult rituals tended to be secretive and held remote from established towns.

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About the Author

Michael Kile is author of No Room at Nature's Mighty Feast: Reflections on the Growth of Humankind. He has an MSc degree from Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London and a Diploma from the College. He also has a BSc (Hons) degree in geology and geophysics from the University of Tasmania and a BA from the University of Western Australia. He is co-author of a recent paper on ancient Mesoamerica, Re-interpreting Codex Cihuacoatl: New Evidence for Climate Change Mitigation by Human Sacrifice, and author of The Aztec solution to climate change.

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Alice's adventures in Warmerland
The Aztec solution to climate change

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