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Home thoughts from abroad

After my recent visit to Australia I wrote the diary column in the Australian edition of the

I flew from London into Sydney, then Melbourne, to make three
dinner speeches in a row. Through nerves I never finished the main
course of three dinners. Pity, because in my experience Australian
food is as fine as anywhere in the world: fresher than American,
more orientally influenced than France and more imaginative than
Britain. That was certainly not true the first time I visited
Australia 37 years ago, when I slept in youth hostels and Ansett
Pioneer buses, and ate rib-eye steaks for breakfast. I still
remember with horror the moment I realized I had left my wallet on
a park bench in Alice Springs, dazed after 31 hours on a bus. I
went back and it was still there, wet from a lawn sprinkler.

Like Britain, Australia’s been confronting the costs of climate
policies. The Abbott government has begun to deal with them
robustly, whereas in Britain we are still in denial. Our opposition
leader Ed Miliband has promised to “freeze” energy bills for two
years if he gets into power – a threat that probably caused
companies to push them up now — even though it was he as Energy
and Climate Change secretary who did most to load green levies on
to consumers. Conservatively it looks like his Climate Act of 2008,
with its targets for carbon emission cuts, will cost us £300
billion by 2030 in subsidies to renewable energy, in the cost of
connecting wind farms to the grid, in VAT, in costs of insulation
and new domestic appliances, and in the effect of all this on
prices of goods in the shops. If people are upset about the cost of
energy now, they will be furious by the election in 2015. I don’t
like to say “I told you so”, but I did, in my maiden speech in the
House of Lords in May: “One reason why we in this country are
falling behind the growth of the rest of the world is that in
recent years we have had a policy of deliberately driving up the
price of energy.” David Cameron should take note that Tony Abbott
is the first world leader elected by a landslide after expressing
open skepticism about the exaggerated claims of imminent and
dangerous climate change. Nor can greens argue that the issue was
peripheral. The carbon tax was what won Mr Abbott his party’s
leadership, and it was front and central in the election campaign.
More and more politicians will be finding out that defending green
levies on energy bills is more of an electoral liability than
doubting dangerous climate change.

One of the more incoherent arguments for green energy policies,
repeated unthinkingly by Mr Cameron recently, is that they are an
“insurance policy” against future typhoons like the one that
devastated the Philippines. Since there has been no increase in
either frequency or intensity of tropical cyclones during the
period of global warming since 1980 – if anything the reverse – and
since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thinks “the
global frequency of occurrence of
tropical cyclones will either
decrease or remain essentially unchanged”, this makes no sense.
There are going to be typhoons in the Pacific whether it warms or
not. What sort of insurance policy is it that costs you a fortune,
does nothing to reduce the risk and does not pay out? The way to
save lives from typhoons is to equip people with better shelter,
communications, transport and rescue services – in short to make
them richer. That’s what we have been doing, thanks to fossil
fuels, which is why global death rates from storms are down by 55%
since the 1970s.

Another issue that has parallels in Britain and Australia is
freedom of speech. Julia Gillard’s government tried in its dying
days to use the excuse of the phone hacking scandal in Britain
bring in a clumsy form of press censorship. Did embarrassing
revelations about a union slush fund have anything to do with it?
Says Hedley Thomas of The Australian: “we may never know for
certain, but the attempted regulation reeked of payback.” Thanks
partly to a vigorous campaign by the Institute of Public Affairs, a
free-market think-tank in Melbourne, she failed.

Payback is exactly how most British parliamentarians apparently
see the issue of press regulation. Almost every MP and lord seems
to have a sore memory of being viciously and inaccurately traduced
by a British newspaper (I know I do: the Guardian regularly
publishes hilariously nasty and misleading pieces about me). There
is no doubt that if they could, politicians would use the threat of
the expensive arbitration proposed by a new Royal Charter to
intimidate journalists into self-censorship. It’s a very dangerous
mood. Even lip service to freedom of the press is in pretty short
supply in the House of Lords.

Hyde Park in Sydney is full of white ibises – though many are a
dirty grey. Big birds with bare black heads and ludicrously long,
curved beaks, they scavenge litter. A colony of them nesting in a
palm tree made jabberwocky squawks as I walked beneath. This is
new: white ibises colonized the city in the last two decades. It is
a worldwide phenomenon – local wildlife becoming urbanized. Time
was, only rats, sparrows, starlings and rock doves (town pigeons)
lived in city centres. Increasingly, these face competition from
more species that used to be too shy to come near human beings.
London is now full of wood pigeons, not to mention foxes, sparrow
hawks, ring-necked parakeets (from India) and even peregrine
falcons. Because urban human beings – unlike rural ones – never
kill wildlife, urban life is safer and more reliable.







By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  spectator