In this election week, dedicated as it is to democracy and the noble practice of voting, I am devoting this space to praising a debate on climate change in the unelected U.K. House of Lords that took place on the 26th of June 2019. It’s a debate that I’ve cited before in a column that concentrated on the failure of all Western governments (except New Zealand) to put realistic price tags on their net -zero carbon emissions policies. But it had other lessons for climate and energy policy too.
Admittedly, others have been debating energy and climate change in this election campaign, especially in states like Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. The two candidates have clashed on fracking and whether fossil fuels should be phased out now (Biden), later (Biden), or maybe never (Trump) .These things were then covered, sort of, by a press that wanted to avoid controversies that might threaten Joe Biden’s opinion poll lead or his memory of the issues.
But the three hours of the Lords debate stuck in my mind as being livelier, better informed, covering more of the key issues, and less packed with mere slogans than the three months of discussions in the American election campaign. Above all, the Lords debate brought to light issues that the wider climate change debate everywhere often ignores: in particular, who will pay the bills for the zero-carbon policies?
In this context a speech by the Labour Peer, Baron Donoughue, was an important and necessary contribution. Bernard Donoghue is a representative of a important but disappearing force in British public life: the postwar grammar school generation that was educated in good state schools, went onto college as the first family members to do so, rose by meritocratic routes (Michael Young’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, that first spotted and classified the new breed, was published in 1958) to senior positions in business, cultural, and public life, and staffed the top of British governments from 1964, when Harold Wilson became Labour Prime Minister, through Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism until Tony Blair and a new generation took over in 1997.
As that description suggests, the grammar school generation rose in both major parties, but until Thatcher its deepest influence was on the Labour party where it usually gravitated to the party’s “right-wing” or “Labourist” faction as distinguished from its socialist Left. The broad political tendency of grammar school Labourists was to support policies of generous universal welfare, moderate redistributive taxation, and a “soft” cultural blend of meritocracy and egalitarianism.
Donoughue himself was from a poor background, and after Oxford he rose via the Economist magazine and the London School of Economics to become the head of the Policy Unit in the Downing Street of Labour PMs Wilson and James Callaghan. Donoghue told an interviewer in 2015 (according to his Wikipedia entry) that he had gone into politics to be "associated with Labour governments which defended the interests of working people and underprivileged people." That was the kind of Labour party that has gradually lost support among blue-collar workers and provincial England as it has moved both in a culturally leftist ideological direction and into the public-sector middle class.
Direct comparisons with American life are treacherous, but Donoughue’s nearest equivalents in American public life would be people like Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia, who defends the interests of its coal miners, or the writer Mickey Kaus, author of The End of Equality, who favors policies that would strengthen the economic prospects of the working class by tightening labor markets.
Standing clearly on the political ground of defending working class interests, Donoughue raises the question of who would pay the huge direct financial costs of at least a trillion pounds by 2050 of going net-zero, let alone the staggering infrastructure costs of transforming the U.K. economy into a net-zero-compliant one. He suspects he knows the answer to that:
Will it be, as is the case with the £15 billion in current climate costs, that the working people of this country carry the main burden, relative to their incomes, through paying significantly higher energy costs and green taxes to subside renewables?
If so, and it is so, there's a political problem with that:
The climate change revolution is predominantly a professional-class religion . . .. Polls have long shown that working people do not massively support this project, and they have not yet heard of these proposed new burdens . . . it is irresponsible of the Government to push through this massive and not fully-considered project in a statutory instrument without serious assessment of the practicality of its proposed details or costs, and where those costs will fall . . .
Maybe the Brits will proud of making this sacrifice if it saves the world as its advocates claim. But they'll want to know what the world is getting for their sacrifice. Donoughue has naught for their comfort:
Our share of global emissions is just over 1%. If we alone decarbonise tomorrow, that is the amount by which global carbon emissions will diminish, yet in the next few years China and India alone—the great carbon emitters—will increase their carbon emissions by more than double that share . . . Pursuing zero carbon in Britain alone while the big emitters continue to pollute the atmosphere on a massive scale is a futile gesture of moral imperialism. (My emphasis.)
Donoughue is asking the important questions even if today and for some time to come, he can expect to be vilified rather than answered.
On this score also it’s hard to find his exact equivalent on climate policy among American public figures. It’s certainly not President Obama who happily accepted what Donoughue calls “false paper promises based on ill-supported forecasts” from the Chinese communists (who promptly broke them) in order to keep the Rio-Kyoto-Copenhagen-Paris traveling roadshow on the road even if only rhetorically.
Might it not be Donald Trump who has refused to sign such promises while presiding over a large reduction in carbon emissions because his encouragement of the fracking revolution, in addition to powering America’s economic recovery and a rise in blue-collar living standards, also replaced oil and coal with much cleaner natural gas? An all-round win.
My suspicion is that Donoughue would not be entirely happy with that comparison--Trump grates on many British nerves--but he should be. Trump during his campaign has taken the same stand as Donoughue in defending working-class economic interests and in demanding that international climate treaties should be rooted in economic reality and a fair sharing of sacrifices between nations. And if Trump ultimately wins the still-disputed election, Donoghue may not want to disavow the comparison either.