All Aboard the Energy Roller Coaster

John O'Sullivan07 Mar, 2020 7 Min Read
Fasten your lap straps; it's going to be a bumpy ride.

All over the world, especially throughout the advanced Western economies, governments have placed their electorates on a wonderful machine called an Energy Roller Coaster and applauded hopefully as it jerked into life and thrust them forward into a whirling descent of carbon emission levels and shortly afterwards into a terrifying rise of energy prices. Like all roller coasters it’s exhilarating for some, mainly renewable energy companies, and frightening for others, for instance energy consumers, i.e., everyone else, whether industries or regular folk. 

The justification for this otherwise quixotic enterprise is that we face a climate emergency that will end civilization and human life as we know them unless we take drastic policy action to prevent world temperature rises reaching a specified level, though the advocates of the policy disagree on the specified level. That’s the background. 

Now, the devil working inside the details is that the strength of this argument, namely its simplicity, is also its weakness. The simplicity is the scientific truth that, other things being equal, rising levels of carbon dioxide will produce higher temperatures. That’s true and largely uncontested. But other things are not equal. There are in fact three unequal things, three kinds of logical obstacles to the simplicity of the argument.: 

  1. We know that many countervailing factors may be fueling temperature rises or perhaps retarding them too. One is solar activity which some scientists believe to be a major factor in changing world temperature. Other scientists cite different factors. If they’re right, it means that though humans may contribute to global warming, they’re not the sole cause of it. Indeed, despite the misleading claim of a scientific consensus—which applies mainly to the basic simplicity cited above—the scientific uncertainties are legion, and confident predictions of the effects of climate change keep being confounded, and the costs of some solutions are far more expensive than others. The more we learn about all these other factors, however, the more we can direct our work and our resources to solving what science tells us are the most serious problems and the most useful solutions.  
  2. Until then we have to consider two broad approaches: whether we attempt to mitigate the problem (i.e., slow down and eventually halt the temperature rise by cutting carbon emissions) or adapt to it in various practical ways. In his book An Appeal to Reason (which has never been effectively answered by environmentalist critics), former UK Chancellor Nigel Lawson pointed out that some UN predictions of higher temperatures amounted to something less than the difference between living in Stockholm and living in Madrid. Of course, that argument accounts for only those effects of climate change that people can handle for themselves by moving or by insulating their homes and offices or by better air conditioning or by greater energy efficiency. All the same, we already know how to do all those things. As for problems individuals cannot handle, for instance Third World countries threatened by flooding or other natural disasters, such problems could be ameliorated by specific aid packages to those communities to enable them to adapt more effectively. And more cheaply? Why not? When adapting to climate change is cheaper than mitigating it, then there’s plainly an economic case for doing so—whatever the scientific theory of its origin.  And that case becomes stronger if the world becomes richer while we’re still digging deeper into scientific truths. For costly schemes of mitigation will then not only be based on better information, they’ll also be financed by people who are much richer than we are today.  
  3. We may soon develop technologies that would halt or reverse climate change directly. That’s recognized by governments when they assure us that their climate mitigation targets can be met without vast expense because technologies of “carbon capture” will shortly enable cement factories or power stations to capture their emissions and keep them out of harm’s way. Those technologies don’t quite exist as yet, but there is official faith that they will be on the production line soon. There has been less official interest in the various technologies that would directly halt or reverse climate change by, for instance, reflecting the sun’s rays back into space, thus preventing or reducing its heating effect. Though this “geo-engineering” approach has been in the air for some time—the great Hungarian scientist Edward Teller was proposing it thirty years ago—it has been resisted for reasons not altogether clear. The technologies don’t yet exist for this purpose either, but that’s not regarded as an immovable obstacle to carbon capture, and they seem likely to be cheaper and to require less regimentation and fewer life-style changes than climate mitigation strategies do. Enviro-extremists dislike them for that very reason—they allow humankind to continue raping Gaia without the punishment that should rightly follow—and some moderate conservatives are uneasy about technical solutions to what they see as the moral consequences of consumerism. We can expect the present Pope to disapprove. But if geo-engineering really is more effective, less intrusive and cheaper than climate mitigation, it’s hard to believe that governments in the end won’t have to switch some of their climate financing into exploring it. Scientists are already starting to advocate that. Or to put it another way, the "settled" scientific consensus is being modified.  

If the science is unsettled even slightly, a very serious conflict will inevitably loom into view. On the one hand a vast, expensive, and powerful international machinery of governments and UN agencies now exists to promote the strategy of climate mitigation which they have successfully transformed into the world’s largest secular religion. It won’t want to rethink that strategy, and its intellectual supporters among both scientists and humanities intellectuals will be morally outraged at any such idea. On the other hand, the high costs of that strategy are gradually being imposed on electorates for which until now voting for Green policies has been a very lazy exercise in virtue signaling. It’s the classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. 

The first serious signs of this conflict emerged in British politics only one week after the Appeals Court told the British government that it cannot enable Heathrow Airport to build a third runway until it has complied with its legal obligation to publish a National Planning Statement on the matter (as I reported here last week.) On the one hand the British government announced or leaked a series of measures to implement its deep green agenda of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (inspired or compelled by its need to make an international success of a major climate change conference it will be hosting in Glasgow in September.) An end to petrol and diesel cars and fracking had already been announced. It added to that the revival of onshore wind farms (which are greatly disliked in rural areas since they seem to be disproportionately sited in places of outstanding natural beauty), and the renewal of subsidies to the renewables industry (on the paradoxical grounds that they are now on the way to becoming profitable.) And it has been leaked that the new Chancellor will end the ban on increasing the fuel tax which, when proposed by an earlier chancellor, provoked a rare outbreak of civil disobedience by Britain’s oppressed car owners. Sherelle Jacobs senses another rebellion brewing in the Daily Telegraph: 

With its drive to “green” the economy at any cost, the Tory party has seemingly decided to celebrate its populist landslide by bogging down the country in zero-carbon paternalism. And so we career towards another People vs Establishment conflict that could be more explosive even than that sparked by the referendum.

This would have a more immediate impact on the signature new policy of the Boris Johnson government: “[I]t is becoming disturbingly apparent that the Government prizes green targets over “unleashing” Britain’s potential.” And in due course that impact would become directly political: “[W]ith former Brexit Party campaigners organising once again, it won’t take long for people to realise that green tape is suffocating our potential on a scale that rivals red tape from Brussels.” 

Ms. Jacob’s rebellion may take a little longer to materialize than that—rebellions usually do—but the causes of such a rebellion are gradually mounting. And the opponents of such a rebellion are sensing it and starting to organize on their own side. One can see three tactics already being burnished. 

  • The first is continuing to insist, despite the strong case for more open debate on climate policy outlined above, that there is no respectable way of criticizing, let alone opposing, the current official strategy of climate mitigation by a net-zero carbon emissions policy with all the unpopular drawbacks Ms. Jacobs details. To describe skeptics of this policy as “climate deniers” is effectively an attempt to censor them. It looks increasingly shabby and dishonest. But there has been no change in the policy of the BBC and major newspapers to treat this as a settled editorial matter to be illustrated rather than discussed. 
  • The second is lawfare. Jolyon Maugham QC, famous for seeking to derail Brexit by various legal ploys, announced this week that his Good Law Project would in future expand its remit to include energy and environmental policy. Its first step would be to ask the courts to compel Ministers to remove an “irrational” structural bias in government energy policy and the planning system against the renewable energy industry. Such decisions belong to governments rather than to the courts, but following last week’s court postponement of Heathrow’s expansion, there will be more attempts by Mr. Maugham to draw the courts into making climate policy. And it would be foolish to believe that the courts will always resist this temptation.  
  • The third (and most devious) tactic is to treat the extreme environmentalists, such as Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, as respectable authorities on climate science who need to be consulted on policy despite the fact that their forecasts are wildly outside even the most pessimistic projections of the UN Climate Change Committee—and indeed that they resemble medieval seers possessed by visions of the Apocalypse more than scientific policy-makers. This tactic may threaten to embarrass the politicians at times. It certainly looked that way when Thunberg met European leaders this week and poured scorn on their new zero-carbon policy as a “surrender,” presumably to fossil fuel industries, adding that they couldn’t “bargain with nature” and do a “deal with Physics."

Oddly, however, they didn’t seem to feel a bit embarrassed just as she didn’t seem to expect any blowback from her withering sarcasm. In fact both sides seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly as if playing a good game of charades. And that is exactly what was happening. Policy elites in Western Europe are perfectly content to tolerate outrageous behavior from eco-bolshevik revolutionaries and moralistic teenagers—EU leaders smile paternally on Greta, the British police help Extinction Rebellion to close down roads and bridges—because it allows them to appear the moderate middle between the two extremes of progressive protesters and shortsighted voters. It strengthens them and helps them to sustain their net-zero carbon policy against both economic reality and the very practical opposition of their voters. 

That’s not a game that can continue indefinitely. Real economic pressures will eventually overcome adolescent fantasies. For the moment, however, the immovable object has the advantage over the irresistible force.  

John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review, editor of Australia's Quadrant, and President of the Danube Institute. He has served in the past as associate editor of the London Times, editorial and op-ed editor for Canada's National Post, and special adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He is the author of The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.

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