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Parkinson's Law in the Persian Gulf
John O'Sullivan • 21 Jan, 2024 • 5 Min Read
Masters of the Queen's Navee and the "climate" too.
C. Northcote Parkinson—the man who coined the term “Parkinson’s Law” to describe how “work expands to fill the time available” — also coined other laws that shone a skeptical and sometimes comic light on the realities of organization and bureaucracy. To illustrate how bureaucracies expand even while the work they supposedly do shrinks, for instance, he produced a chart that showed a perfect bow-tie image.
From the top left-hand corner a graph fell sharply to the bottom right-hand corner showing a steady decline in the number of capital ships in the Royal Navy, while from the bottom left-hand corner another graph rose evenly to the top right-hand corner showing an steady increase in the number of Admirals in the same Royal Navy. The fewer the ships, it seemed, the more numerous the Admirals needed to direct their comings and goings.
Parkinson: you could look it up.
Parkinson was a serious and impressive scholar beneath the dry wit, who wrote a number of highly readable books on business and government administration. Soviet Politburo records show that even Mikhail Gorbachev had cited his “Law” when discussing with an Italian visitor the reasons for the failures of both Soviet Communism and the Western Left. Not coincidentally, one of Parkinson’s books was a critique of Marxism with the dismissive title “Left Luggage.”
As often happens, Parkinson has been largely forgotten since his death. That’s a pity because his insights remain very topical. In particular he would have had some acid comments to make on the recent U.N. Climate Change Summit, COP28, held in Dubai in November.
This was the largest such summit in terms of numbers of attendees — an estimated 100,000 of them — compared to the 49,000 people who attended the previous COP27 Summit in Cairo. As climate alarmists would say of any event of similar size, the Dubai Summit stamped the largest carbon footprint of the entire U.N. COP series in their ceaseless quest to lower carbon emissions.
Keen-eyed journalists spotted an even more embarrassing aspect: in addition to the many commercial flights arriving and leaving Dubai airport around the conference time, there were private planes from as far afield as Nigeria, Switzerland, Japan, and India. It’s unlikely that most of the really important VIPs present—including King Charles III, U.K. PM Rishi Sunak, Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida, France’s President Macron, and Vice-President Kamala Harris—flew commercial, let alone “coach.” And then there are the world’s CEOs. In short the Climate Navy has a growing surplus of Admirals.
Climate-virtue-signaling celebrities such as U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry (soon to retire from the august post in order to join the Biden re-election campaign) are wont to dismiss such journalistic sniping as irrelevant trivialities in comparison with the great cause of "climate rescue." Even if that argument were valid—and it’s not obvious why ordinary citizens should sacrifice their living standards for the climate when policy-makers exempt themselves—it would still depend for its persuasiveness on whether the Dubai COP had succeeded in halting or reversing the rise in climate emissions.
How did Dubai meet that test?
If you were to read only the Western media reports about the conference’s final declaration, you might be convinced that it was a major step forward in “combatting climate change.” They converged on a conventional narrative that (a) COP 28 had experienced some shaky moments (e.g., when a leaked video showed its chairman expressing skepticism about climate science); and (b) that some nations (i.e., about half of those present) were opposed to binding commitments on fossil fuel usage; but (c) that it had all come triumphantly right in the end with unanimous agreement on “transitioning away from fossil fuels” which was a historic first, etc., etc., etc.
Whenever you encounter narratives of that kind, you should ask yourself: how would C. Northcote Parkinson express that in one of his laws? My suggestion is he would offer something on these lines: “The closer to unanimous support, the less significant the proposition.”
And that caution (skepticism in drag?) was the tone of most of the non-Western media reporting of the conference. That coverage, of course, reflects other realities too:
Almost all the non-Western nations in attendance were either fossil-fuel-producing countries (the Middle East, the Gulf, Russia, Nigeria) or developing countries that need to use fossil fuels to lift their people out of poverty and into the world’s middle class (India, China, Africa, Indonesia.)
Both groupings know that fossil fuels still provide 82 per cent of the world’s energy and that neither “renewables” nor as-yet uninvented new technologies are likely to replace them in the foreseeable future.
Poorer people are more attuned to realities and less likely to embrace utopian “idealistic” fantasies than richer people both within one country and between countries. They know exactly where the shoe pinches.
China: mind the gap.
Non-Western reporting and analysis duly reflected these realities. For instance, Al Jazeera’s “Explainer” on the conference by Areesha Lodhi laid out the highly limited nature of the breakthrough very fairly:
The final Global Stocktake agreement . . . marked the first COP text that openly called on countries to wean themselves off fossil fuels. However, this was only an incremental improvement from a draft on Monday that caused outrage for dropping language to “phase down” or “phase out” fossil fuels. “Phasing out fossil fuels would mean putting a complete stop to fossil-fuel burning through goals such as reaching net-zero carbon emissions by a specific year.
“Phasing down” fossil fuels involves gradually cutting down on fossil fuel burning without setting targets for the amount and deadline to achieve net-zero. The final text was able to secure a majority consensus within the 200 attending countries to include language to “transition away” from fossil fuels . . .
That greatly dilutes the commitment. As the head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, Harjeet Singh, told Al Jazeera, moreover, “transitioning away” is an ambiguous term allowing for varying interpretations and sending a weaker message about shifting away from fossil fuels. He might have strengthened his case by adding — as COP28 found in its review — that almost all previous national cuts in carbon emissions had fallen short of the commitments made at earlier COPs. (The diplomatic phrase for this failure was “gap.”) That record scarcely instills confidence that the new commitments will be met to far more difficult targets both financially and technologically.
Finally, two late developing stories. The host country of this year’s COP was rumored to be using the occasion to negotiate new oil and gas deals with the many fossil fuel lobbyists present. And next year’s COP will be held in another fossil fuel giant — Azerbaijan.
As C. Northcote Parkinson in legislative mood might say (and as Milton Friedman did say): If a program is launched to regulate an industry, its strongest supporters will be that industry’s lobbyists. Meanwhile, the Climate Change Navy is neither shrinking nor sinking, Instead, it is sailing calmly on a sea of oil.
John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review, editor of Australia's Quadrant, founding editor of The Pipeline, 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.