Making an End-Run Around Democracy, Part Three

[Third in a series. Parts One and Two at the links.]

I paused my last posting on this topic—let’s call it “Democracy Circumvented”—after a quotation from Dr. Roslyn Fuller, head of a progressive pro-democracy Non-Governmental Organisation, to the effect that many progressive NGOs in networks funded by billionaires were not participating in traditional acts of charity or philanthropic research but rather using their investors’ resources to “flip an entire political culture on to a different track by amplifying some voices and drowning out others.”

That may strike you as sinister. But it’s fine as long as it’s open and above board and not financed by public or tax-exempt money. But what if the NGOs are in fact not engaged in a vigorous public debate between opposing parties but are instead players in a Potemkin play of debate in which the “debaters” on both sides, the expert witnesses they call, the judge who sums up the arguments, and the panel of jurors who determine the result are all on the same side, reciting lines written advance to reach pre-determined conclusions?

When that happens in public, political, commercial, or intellectual life—and it does—the term for it is “astroturfing.” Astroturf was coined by Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen, the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate in 1988, and a wit, and it’s defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as organized activity that is intended to create a false impression of a widespread, spontaneously arising, grassroots movement in support of or in opposition to something (such as a political policy) but that is in reality initiated and controlled by a concealed group or organization (such as a corporation.)”

Sharyl Attkinson,  a brave and unbuyable investigative journalist, who has made a special study of astroturfing, explains its general importance and (alas) effectiveness in modern marketing and political campaigning in several appearances across the internet, impressing even skeptical audiences:

Its specific application to progressive networks of NGOs, as outlined in Dr. Fuller’s Spiked article, is that wealthy investors have created a chain of institutions in which each link receives assistance or information from one level which it endorses and then passes onto the next level, and so on and so on, it sometimes feels, ad infinitum.

There are primary research bodies that assemble information on, say, the Green New Deal; secondary research bodies that endorse the “correct” information or point of view (and the think tanks that produce them) and undermine rival ones; motivational research groups that advise on how to tailor their emotional appeal to key constituencies; information technology panels that advise on how to ensure your message is placed before others in internet searches;  media outreach groups that package its messages in easy-to-use op-ed or soundbite forms; political education institutes that recruit potential election candidates to carry the torch in elections; and “activist” organizations that organize public protests, sit-ins, occupations of congressional offices, riots, and other civil disobedience events to suggest that a powerful movement of public opinion is backing the Green New Deal or some other "progressive" cause de jour.

And, yes, even activism can be astroturf activism.

Put so baldly, this argument sounds a little like a conspiracy theory. Well, why not? Bear the following points in mind. First, conspiracies exist, sometimes succeed, and even have serious consequences. The First World War was triggered by a conspiracy of students to murder the heir to the Austrian throne. They succeeded, and one can’t deny that the Great War amounted to serious consequences.

This conspiracy went off like a Clockwork Orange.

Second, claiming that a hostile criticism is no more than a discredited conspiracy theory is Exercise One in the conspirator’s handbook. So please test any such denial against the evidence. Third, Dr. Fuller examines  the evidence about four organizations in the food chain in detail, checking what they do, how they cooperate, and how they’re financed. What she discovered please read for yourself. It’s partly comic and partly sinister, half stage army, half octopus. But it ain’t chopped liver. And, fourthly, the most damaging accusations against the networks of billionaire-financed NGOs is made by those activists and investors who are running them in the form of enthusiastic pep-talks (quoted below).

If it’s a conspiracy, it’s what used to be called “an open conspiracy” which almost anyone can join, read about, or listen in on via the internet. Dr. Fuller listened in on a webinar in which the leaders of two of the organizations discussed here, namely Sunrise and Momentum, which are respectively a movement of young activists and a political training operation, outlined their purposes and activities. She writes:

Speakers stressed the need to become ‘the dominant political alignment’ which ‘defines the common sense of society’ and ‘directs social and economic policy’. Having realized that this would require ‘tak[ing] over the entire United States and all the institutions in it’, they began ‘finding and developing our first leaders’. This involved moving activists into ‘dorm-style Sunrise Movement Houses for three to six months’ in order to create leaders who had a deep level of commitment ‘for everything that would come afterwards’.

Dr. Fuller concedes that some of this training offers advice that is “not bad” but adds that the “entire impression is of a very steered, technocratic process that attempts to achieve theoretical concepts (‘3.5 percent mobilisation’, ‘dominant political alignment’) through a kind of brute-force factory production.” It’s a very well-funded factory production at that. And noting that a disproportionately large number of the activists and of those recruiting the activists are young and inexperienced people, from teens to postgraduates, she offers the following balanced judgment:

On one level, it is great that young people are taking part in politics. But on another level it is incredibly fake. The youthful participants aren’t so much being empowered as instrumentalized. After all, they are part of the portfolio of an investment fund that is using them to ‘shift power’, with part of the strategy being to shame politicians for not being nice enough to hysterical children.

Dr. Fuller doesn’t mention Greta Thunberg here, but for some reason Ms. Thunberg leaps to mind.

Ride of the Valkyrie.

In instrumentalizing the young activists, these well-funded progressive networks are also instrumentalizing democracy. They are seeking to manipulate the usual democratic tools—information, debate, controversy—not to create a national conversation on political goals and methods but to construct a simulacrum of that conversation in which its conclusions are determined in advance. And when those tools break in their hands—as sometimes happens when others intrude into their staged debates—they use “activism” to de-platform the intruders and to close down a debate escaping their control. We are likely to see much more of such extra-democratic politics in the future.

Indeed, just recently,  Time magazine described how such an open conspiracy of corporate executives, labor union leaders, and progressive activists employed some of these methods and some of these troops to “prevent Donald Trump stealing the election” (i.e., to help the Democrats win the election.)

This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. “Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.”

That was very much a “macro” operation. And whatever the reason, it certainly didn’t fail.

But how do these tactics work at a “micro” level—at the level of getting a parliamentary bill passed into law, ensuring that a government report conforms to progressive orthodoxies, or manufacturing a “Green” public opinion when most voters are skeptical. Next time I’ll examine a case in which the U.K. parliament found itself playing the role of junior partner to a group of progressive NGOs in manufacturing a large astroturf carpet of public enthusiasm for Net-Zero policy.

Skeptical? It seems to have persuaded Boris Johnson. Don’t miss it!

Net Zero: Cost, Costs, and More Costs

Getting accurate estimates of the costs of going "Net-Zero" from the governments and global institutions that adopted the policy has been a difficult task from the first. That would have been so even if they had been honest and transparent in their accounting. Moving economies from dependence on cheap reliable fossil fuels to reliance on electrification fueled by renewables (i.e. wind and sun) would require massive expenditures on almost every aspect of life.

It also has the potential to be very alarming. If voters learn that the policy will result in higher fuel prices, higher taxes, and the need for them to spend large capital sums to transform their household economies by, for instance, replacing gas-fueled heaters and petrol-driven cars with electricity-fueled ground storage heaters and EVs, they may take fright and decide that the game isn't worth the dim flourescent bulb. Managing voters' opinions has therefore become an important element in the policy. It has to be "sold."

As it happens, the United Kingdom -- which has reduced carbon emissions more substantially than any other country -- has also put together the strongest political coalition in support of the Net-Zero policy. All the political parties represented in Parliament back it. So, overwhelmingly, does the media. So do all the major cultural institutions such as the BBC. Even bodies apparently remote from politics such as the National Trust (which looks after Britain's stately homes) are keen to be seen as relevant to the cause. When the Climate Change Act setting out legally-binding targets for carbon emissions reduction was passed, only five MPs voted against it.

That legislation created a climate change committee, rooted in parliament but independent of the government, and gave it the task of holding ministers to account over whether they have met the carbon reduction targets written into law. Its sixth annual report was issued at the end of last year. And it offers a very useful glimpse into the lifestyle changes and probable costs of the Net-Zero policy which most governments and agencies have been reluctant to publish or discuss in detail.

No, ministers

That's understandable. When wind and sun still contribute only a measly 1.5 percent of global energy consumption, as Matt Ridley pointed out recently, it's hard to estimate the costs of expanding that share to the 94 percent now contributed by fossil fuels of one kind or another. But the costs won't be small. And there will be a great many of them spreading into every area of life since the mere act of living consumes energy and is sensitive to its cost.

To prevent this article becoming an encyclopaedia, I'll examine only three kinds of cost: lifestyle costs, economic costs, and political costs. I have to admit that the committee's report is relatively honest about the lifestyle consequences of net-zero, though it wraps up its admissions in honeyed phrases. Here, for instance, is its cheerful summary of how "we" will reduce demand for carbon-intensive activities:

The U.K. wastes fewer resources and reduces its reliance on high-carbon goods . . . Diets change, reducing our consumption of high-carbon meat and dairy products by 20 percent by 2030, with further reductions in later years. There are fewer car miles travelled and demand for flights grows more slowly. These changes bring striking positive benefits for health and well-being.

And here's my grouchy response to it:

But what if our diets don’t change voluntarily? Or consumers don’t actually like the new low carbon foods predicted here? Or they want to use their cars and fly on vacation more often than the planners predict? Those "striking positive benefits for health and well-being" sound alarmingly like the medical authoritarianism currently running our lives in the fight against Covid-19. Will doctors and other planners change their presciptions if we don't like the medicine? Or will they ration the foods, car trips, and vacations that the consumers (who are also voters) are determined to enjoy?

My sarcasm notwithstanding, these recommended (a.k.a. imposed) lifestyle choices imply heavy economic costs as industry and agriculture change what they now produce in response to market demand to quite different goods and activities prescribed by ministers and civil servants. The U.K.'s decision to prohibit the sale of petrol-driven automobiles from 2030 in order to require a switch to electric vehicles will force both the taxpayer to finance the electrification of the entire country and the driver to buy a much more expensive car.

When we see the scale of this economic and industrial transformation, it's plain that it's a very expensive project indeed. As I pointed out last month, even the committee chairman concedes that if it is to make us richer rather than poorer, then "[l]ow carbon investment must scale up to £50 billion each year to deliver Net-Zero." Not to worry, however, because he also assures us that "our central estimate for costs is now below 1 percent of GDP throughout the next 30 years."

But these estimates were  immediately challenged by Dr. John Constable, energy editor of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, as "entirely divorced from reality":

Some of them are out by several hundred percent, meaning that the claim that we can decarbonise painlessly doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Offshore wind is twice as expensive to build as the CCC assumes, and two to four times more expensive to operate. The resulting electricity will be many, many times more expensive than they claim, making the use of heat pumps and Electric Vehicles utterly unaffordable.

So the estimate that net-zero costs will be less than 1 percent of GDP annually for the next thirty years is a fanciful one. Almost all other estimates are higher, some several-fold. Net-zero is a plan fueled not by fossil deposits but by optimism.

And that takes us to the third cost: political costs. These are obvious. Everyone has accepted at the back of their minds that there'll be a price to be paid by governments in power when the higher taxes and energy prices fall due. But that won't be tomorrow or, with luck, before the next election. So MPs never seem to have done the calculation of how heavy the political costs might be -- until last week when the Onward think-tank in London produced an analysis of the political impact of net-zero and discovered that it would be formidably high.

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In particular the carbon-intensive industries most reliant on fossil fuels are concentrated in the Midlands and North of England -- the very regions where Boris Johnson broke Labour's "Red Wall" and won a slew of traditionally Labour sets to swell his parliamentary majority to eighty seats. Johnson has since acknowledged that he had only "borrowed" those voters and would have to justify their trust in him by leveling up their economic prosperity to that of Britain's booming South-East.

What the Onward report suggests is that Johnson's green industrial revolution risks pushing the poorer regions further down the prosperity index rather than levelling them up. Boris Johnson's green agenda is completely at variance with its post-Brexit policy of an infrastructure build-up to as well as being economically regressive

Consider, now, the report's analysis of how this will impact the seats won in 2019 as summarized by the Telegraph:

Some of the biggest concentrations of polluting jobs are in Conservative-won seats West Bromwich West, with 59pc, as well as Hyndburn in Lancashire and Stoke-on-Trent North with 55pc each, according to the Road to Zero report.

The East Midlands has the highest share of jobs in high-emitting industries at 42pc compared to London, the lowest, with 23pc.

The research suggests that up to 10m jobs could need to be replaced, or see workers retrained, as the UK aims to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

What makes this report so interesting is that Onward, a progressive Tory think tank, and the GWPF, a Thatcherite one, now agree on at least one aspect of the net zero policy: It's a political suicide note.

Diary of an Acclimatised Beauty: Resetting

Paradise at last! I couldn’t take one more day in St John’s Wood as London goes into yet another lockdown and daddy grumbles about Boris. One day leading to another… and all of them leading nowhere.

But I am alive again in Lyford Cay, having arrived late last night—and mask free! I got up rather early today, put on lipstick and perfume, availed myself of a golf cart and got myself down to the club. I was so excited you’d have thought I was sneaking into Buckingham Palace. I wasn’t hungry in the least but wanted to feel part of a living breathing world. Surely my hosts here wouldn’t miss me — I’d  only just met them over Thanksgiving at Annabel’s anyway.

In minutes I was drawn into familiar noises… silverware, and ice being poured from a pitcher… oh it was just like the movies! Or every single day prior to coronavirus.

Now this is what I call green.

Lyford (the former Cay) was hopping! And nearly everyone dressed in white which could only mean they have an all-white rule for tennis or croquet or maybe everything. The substantially older women—the ones who delineated between jewellery and breakfast jewellery, were none of them in white, so it must indeed be a sporting requirement.

I looked around the room like a tourist might do. I felt as though I were looking through a window only because I hadn’t seen humans with coiffed hair or gold sandals or anything even remotely resembling civilisation for so long. I signalled the waiter for more tea, more berries, a paper if possible? Just more of everything because I wanted to bask in the glow of what was officially called… breakfast.

There were no papers but the waiter provided me with a card that allowed me to read several publications on my phone. “Even better!” I squealed. Lyford was green! Peering over my phone so that I could secretly scan the room, I settled on a conversation of a group of businessmen across th way…”the Great Reset”. Whatever could that be?

I googled on my phone to very little success… just links to a conference in Davos with futuristic looking businessmen talking intently. Was it staged? They were yellowish and pocket-sized. I googled and found it’s meant to be a global green push—post Covid. Things really were looking up. But I was very confused about seeing Prince Charles and Yo-Yo Ma in the promo and I was a little iffy on “a brighter, better and more sustainable future" from the ashes of Covid-19.

I texted daddy to ask him about the great reset and he texted back: “A lie.”

Really? A lie? I texted back, “What about financing sustainable recovery?

His response, “A lie.”

I started another text but before I could even finish he texted back -- 

“Also a lie." Followed by, “I can keep this up all day.”

As I made my way to the pool  I got another text from him: “And don’t bother your nice hosts about this unless you are prepared to return via commercial flight. Mummy and I miss you. Take pictures.”

What I know is there is no stopping him when he’s in one of these moods. I know deep down inside he is committed to our planet but no one is willing to do the heavy lifting. I got out my laptop and decided I’d write about this very important opportunity. This may be the biggest pro environmental initiative of my lifetime.

After sketching out my outline, I took a short swim and returned to my notes. Somehow my arguments weren’t so clear. I called father for help. “Hi, so…  I’m a bit wobbly on why the presentation features people like Meghan Markle instead of…”

“An economist with credibility?" he replied. "Because this is not an economic plan, it is just a lie, disguised as an economic plan, disguised as a way to save the planet. But it’s also about demilitarisation, and, independent media… oh and saving the arts. Shall we also throw in the whales?”

“Please just go with me for a minute… the great reset will ensure that every recovery stimulus from now on must include green conditions. To my mind this can’t be bad.”

“But specifically what?” He asked. Green stimulus money… to be spent on what? Tearing down infrastructure and rebuilding it to be more carbon neutral? Poof- our house in an adobe."

“But what about, you know, infrastructure… and trains?”

“You mean a tax! You want to tax everyone to build a train, even if everyone doesn’t ride on this train because it is better for the planet, yes?”

“Yes, but it is better.” I insisted.

“Perhaps but we are talking about things in places where they don’t exist -- take your new hometown. A train in Los Angeles would be prohibitively expensive, and would require a huge tax increase, so really we are talking about a tax.”

“Well, Tesla managed with private money.”

“Tesla sells carbon points, to other polluters, and makes a profit from it, so what have you achieved? It’s a shell game, darling. Listen, you know I’m all for environmentally ethical rules but that is not the role of business, the singular motivation of business is to make a profit, and profits make for better economies, better economies are better caretakers of the land-without exception.”

“And their promise of one hundred new carbon-neutral cities?” I continued.

“Find me the carbon-neutral city that you both want to live in and which respects the environment.”

The carbon-neutral city of the future!

He had me there. And I imagined my life with no luxury, no air travel, no country house, and sharing of all IP. This wasn’t going to work. I’m not giving up on the planet but I’m not giving up thousands of years of progress to these people whose main accomplishment, as far as I can tell… is to hold forums. Something to ponder tomorrow after my morning swim.

Is It Me That's Mad, or the World's Leaders?

Yes, I know that the headline should really read “Is it I who am mad—or the world’s leaders?” but the dubious grammatical form used above is better suited to the populist sentiments of this article. And though populism and populist are words routinely used to mean “insane,” “dangerous,” or worse “problematic,” some kinds of populism are in fact social truths that experience has shown to be accurate and valuable, i.e.,  commonsense.

That applies especially to truths about spending, saving, investment, and borrowing. Copybook maxims on that score go from Thomas Jefferson’s “Never spend your money before you have it,” to Shakespeare’s “Neither a borrower nor a lender be/For loan oft loses both itself and friend/And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

With that prudent advice ringing in our minds, let’s look at how prudently our political masters are handling our collective expenditures, revenues, borrowings, and investments. The first thing to notice (though few do) is just how massive the sums involved are.

Estimates differ but in the U.S., apparent president-elect Joe Biden is proposing a budget of $5.4 trillion equal to 24 percent of America’s GDP. He’s also proposing a smaller (but still massive) tax increase that would leave a gap of $2 trillion dollars for the U.S. Treasury to borrow. But cheer up—it’s bipartisan. President Trump’s budget estimates for 2021 weren’t much lower at 4.8 trillion equal to 21 percent of GDP and a deficit of $966 billion.

Now, expenditures to cope with the pandemic and lockdowns are emergency spending that almost everyone agrees is justified or, to be more precise, inevitable. That’s why the Trump budget rose to an annualized rate of 30 percent of GDP at the height of the pandemic this year. But a cool $700 billion is accounted for by Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda that would increase spending on infrastructure, the environment, and the Green New Deal. That's equal to one-eighth of Biden's projected total spending for 2021 and one-third of the likely deficit.

The picture is the same in Britain where Boris Johnson’s government, as well as spending vast sums to ameliorate the pandemic and concomitant recession, is embarking on a green industrial revolution and unrelated (even contradictory) infrastructure spending. There too the Labour, Lib-Dem, and Green opposition parties attack these plans as too little, too late. In both countries the general attitude has been Spend! Spend! Spend!

Well, it is -- right?

After all, everyone knows that Tomorrow Is Another Day!

Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With The Wind’s heroine, may be out of fashion in racial politics, but financially she’s never been so enchanting to so many powerful people.

That may be because we simply can’t get our minds or even our imaginations around the figures when they rise from million to billions to trillions. To help us do that, here’s David Schwartz, the science writer and a brilliant popularizer, explaining them to NPR listeners:

The difference between a million, a billion and a trillion is like the difference between eleven and a half days, 32 years and 32,000 years.” Do the sums: a $2 trillion dollar deficit the equivalent of 64,000 years in time measurements.

And an $5.4 trillion dollar total annual budget... or a $23 trillion accumulated national debt... is equal to... but I see the audience’s eyes glazing over... No -- they’re crying.

Now, it’s certainly true that borrowing is economically justifiable and potentially profitable if it’s likely to produce a stream of income or equivalent benefit that over time more than equals the cost of the capital borrowed. A home mortgage is a humble example.

It’s also the case that government investment can be economically worthwhile if it creates an economic environment that hikes productivity, spurs general economic growth, and thereby increases tax revenue for the Treasury. Some state investment meets those criteria, but by no means all. So we should apply certain tests to proposals such as the green industrial revolution and the Green New Deal?

The test that governments seem to like most at the moment is the question:

Can we borrow at a low interest rate?

It’s a fair question but it should be a secondary one. A low interest rate means it’s cheaper to borrow, but that’s a modest benefit at the best of times and no benefit at all if the investment produces less wealth than the cost of borrowing. And if interest rates rise as they tend to in periods of inflation produced by government over-spending, then the modest benefit becomes a horrendous cost, especially when your accumulated borrowing has reached $23 trillion. So the next—or rather, prior—question becomes:

Can we make sure the investment pays off?

To which the honest answer is, No. As the distinguished political theorist, James Burnham, author of The Managerial Revolution, used to say in his rules on life: You can’t invest in retrospect. Some of the visionary Green schemes proposed by Joe and Boris, such as electric airplanes and cheap hydrogen cars, can’t be  invented simply because we establish a state fund to invent them, any more than the flying cars and personal jetpacks of Matt Ridley’s youthful imagination exist today because we wanted them, as he noted in a column on the ten big things wrong with the green industrial revolution.

I quoted the column last week, but it can’t be quoted too often because to judge from government policy no one in Whitehall or the Beltway has read it. It should be especially worrying that many of the schemes for transitioning from fossil fuels to “renewables” all cost more than the cheap fuels they are meant to replace and need state subsidies for longer than their advocates claim in advance. Demands for extended government subsidies should be a warning. Innovations will occur, of course, because a free economy is an innovation machine. We simply don’t know what they’ll be, and if we concentrate state funding on bright ideas too early, we risk being unable to fund the good ones that survive the sorting out process.

But they lift productivity and economic growth, surely?

Again, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but the signs don’t look that good. What economic benefit is likely to arise from the total electrification of Britain electric cars require that would match both its cost and the cost of forcing motorists to give up petrol-driven cars from 2030 onwards? If the answer is that we will benefit from the technological innovations that British and American auto manufacturers make in the course of developing cheaper and more efficient EV’S, we could have those benefits anyway by allowing them to make the cars that the motorists want at a price they can afford and at a pace that would allow government and industry to transition in line with market demand changes. Then we might get technical innovations in both EVs and petrol-driven cars.

But, Miss Scarlett, do you really need an electric car?

We don’t do that because the real aim of policy is not technical innovation—that’s a by-product at best—but a reduction in carbon emissions, or net-zero in short. That’s why everyone concedes that electricity prices will rise for industry as well as for consumers, putting the industries in countries with green hairshirt economic policies at a serious disadvantage with their foreign competitors. How will that kind of enforced economic primitivism help us either to raise productivity or to pay back the money we’re now borrowing? It won’t.

Since this is a global problem, though, surely, our competitors like China are making the same sacrifice?

Well, no they’re not, as a matter of fact, and when they say they will, they usually ask “the West” to give them subsidies to do so. In the meantime, the Chinese Communist Party—no idealistic Greens in that Politburo—is bringing new coal-fired power stations on line with emission levels greater than the U.K.’s entire carbon output.

So why are we doing this?

That’s a bigger question to which I’ll return next week. But it certainly requires explanation because unless the laws of economics have been repealed, the policy of spending and borrowing massively in order to make our economies less productive and efficient can only have one result. It was forecast most eloquently by Rudyard Kipling in his once-familiar poem "The Gods of the Copybook Headings":

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Something to think about.

BoJo's Bizarre Climate Scheme

Boris Johnson's Tories won the 2019 British election in a landslide on the strength of their promise to "Get Brexit Done," but for most of the time since they've been distracted by Covid-19 and by Boris's odd dalliance with climate hysteria. On the latter point, he seems to believe that expending political capital on building wind farms and mandating electric cars will help him maintain his hold on those working class, traditional Labour voters whose support he promised not to take for granted on election night.

This seems a bizarre play, as polling suggests that climate issues are fairly low priority to Brits in those former "Red Wall" seats in the North and the Midlands. Throughout Britain healthcare, the economy, and Brexit remain people's top concerns. A recent survey has what is referred to as the "climate emergency" prioritized by just 23 percent of the populace, and less than that (unsurprisingly) in those working class outposts which the P.M. is targeting.

Nevertheless, Johnson is determined to go full speed ahead with what he's calling Britain's "green industrial revolution." He recently released a 10-point plan, which includes pledges to ban the sale of combustion engine automobiles by 2030, quadruple offshore wind farms by the same year, invest heavily in the development of various "green" technologies, and to transform London into “the global centre of green finance.” This plan, BoJo assures us, will generate "up to 250,000 jobs," and all for the low, low cost of £12 billion!

In response, Matt Ridley has put forward a 10-point demolition in the Telegraph. First off, he points out, that jobs-for-pounds ratio isn't actually that impressive.

£48,000 per job is a lot. Cheaper... to create the same employment erecting a statue of Boris in every town. Anyway, it’s backwards: it’s not jobs in the generating of energy that count, but jobs that use it. Providing cheap, reliable energy enables the private sector to create jobs for free as far as the taxpayer is concerned.

Then there's the fact that Johnson is "hugely underestimating the cost." Among other things, he's relying on the wind industry's own claim that their costs are coming down, when the actual "accounts of wind energy companies show that both capital and operating expenditures of offshore wind farms continue to rise." Should wind energy be mandated, Britain's already high electricity prices will actually increase, which "will kill a lot more than 250,000 jobs."

Ridley makes several more important points, including that the prime minister "misreads how innovation works," and thus foolishly assumes that pumping money into the problem will necessarily generate new technology required to make his plan work. It won't. He concludes,

My fear is that we will carry out Boris’s promised 10-point plan, cripple our economy, ruin our seascapes and landscapes, and then half way through the 2030s along will come cheap, small, safe fusion reactors. The offshore wind industry, by then so stuffed with subsidies they can afford to lobby politicians and journalists even more than they do to today, will suck their teeth and say: “no, no, no – ignore the fusion crowd. We’re on the brink of solving the reliability issue, and don’t worry, the cost will come down eventually. Promise!”

Fingers crossed, no doubt.

Cracks Appear in the Climate Consensus

On the face of it, international progress towards a global consensus on reducing carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050 in order to restrain the rise in world temperature to between 1.5 and 2.00 degrees above pre-industrial levels is about to be resumed after a four-year interruption. When President-Elect Biden overcomes the remaining legal hiccups to take office on January the 20, 2021—as I am assuming he will —his first acts will include returning America to its observance of the Paris climate accords. Since 195 other nations have already signed on to the Accords (and everyone has agreed to treat them as a treaty, even if a non-binding one), it’s full speed ahead to a net-zero carbon world.

Or so it would appear.

This global pact rests on strong support from the world‘s governments which in turn rest on a firm consensus of political parties, scientists, officials, “Green” activists, and the media that a net-zero carbon policy is essential in order to avert a global climate catastrophe. This consensus is so universal that anyone who dissents from it, even a distinguished scientist or a Nobel Prize winner, risks being treated as a dangerous eccentric and finds it hard to get a hearing in respectable forums. Demands are sometimes heard that such people be kept off the airwaves altogether or even prosecuted for “climate denialism.” Fortunately, there are very few such eccentrics.

As green as they come.

Not that those within the consensus deny that the net-zero policy has problems. On the contrary everyone acknowledges that it will require quite heavy sacrifices from the ordinary citizens in their countries in the form of higher taxes, higher energy prices, and lower living standards. But these sacrifices will be worth it not only because they will avert a global catastrophe but also because Boris Johnson’s “green industrial revolution” or (according to taste) Joe Biden’s “Green New Deal” will create well-paying jobs in cleaner green industries such as windfarms.  And the last obstacle to this green utopia in the form of President Trump has now been removed.

Thus ends my rather bland outline of the Authorized Version of climate change politics. If we examine it critically, it surely becomes clear very quickly that it rests on two unsteady supports: the strength of the establishment consensus and the electoral popularity of a policy of transitioning to a net-zero carbon economy. Both seem strong at present. As climate skeptics such as Allister Heath in the London Daily Telegraph have conceded, the elites on both sides of the Atlantic have committed themselves wholeheartedly to the consensus; and a poll taken before the recent U.S. election showed that America voters were greener than ever before:

Seven in 10 voters support government action to address climate change, with three-quarters wanting the U.S. to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind within 15 years.

In both cases, however, there are grounds for predicting that trouble lies ahead. Take, first, the establishment consensus. That is far from being a spontaneous embrace by almost all scientists and economists (climate policy being a blend of both disciplines) of manifest truths. Nor could it be, for a variety of reasons: science itself offers only provisional truths; climate science alone covers a wide range of scientific disciplines; and even the U.N. IPCC reports offer a range of possible outcomes with varying degrees of probability attached to each.

When its tentative and uncertain conclusions disappear and re-emerge as government policy, they have become firm doctrines (e.g., outlawing the U.K. sale of petrol-driven cars after 2030) enforced by quite strong sanctions: the granting or withholding of official contracts; appointments to official boards, university posts, and the civil service; publication in scientific journals; threats to employment and promotion; and even a de facto censorship of heretics in mainstream and official media. It’s hardly surprising that few people contest the establishment consensus when there are serious risks and no practical benefits in doing so. What’s surprising is that some do.

The whole world is watching.

Who are they? Usually, the first critics of the consensus are natural heretics who look at any powerful structure of ideas maintained by force and try to find cracks in it. Others join them because they may have either economic or intellectual interests in doing so—a naturalist opposes windfarms because they kill birds, for instance.

Some people working to advance the policy discover flaws or scandals in its operations and resign to oppose it from outside. Then there are journalists, natural heretics often, but looking for a good story always. Finally, there are critics who are simply very clever people who notice things and realize they don’t add up. And when all these “types” start examining climate policy and how it’s going, they find all kinds of risks being taken and mistakes being made.

Of course, there have been sharp-eyed critics of  “climate change” alarmism—and of the policies intended to ameliorate it—from the first: former U.K. finance minister Nigel Lawson who founded the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg who founded the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, and the late Nobel Laureate Freeman Dyson, who thought for Princeton.

But their numbers have been growing in the last year. The American environmentalist, Michael Shellenberger, announced his de facto resignation as a leading environmentalist by writing his book,  Apocalypse Never. Its theme, echoing Lomborg's, is that climate change is a serious problem but not a looming catastrophe requiring drastic emergency measures.

Dieter Helm, the Oxford professor who was commissioned by the U.K. government to report on British energy supply chains and climate change, has now written a new book, Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change that challenges the central orthodoxies of the Western establishment’s climate policy. In a review on the U.K .Reaction website, Jack Dickens writes:

Two fatal flaws in the current global approach are emphasized in Helm’s book – the focus on reaching Net Zero carbon emissions while maintaining high levels of carbon consumption, mostly through off-shoring carbon-intensive activities, and the faith in a symbolic but ineffectual top-down approach to solving the climate conundrum, as exemplified by grand United Nations summits in Paris and Tokyo. The result, he argues, has been the creation of an illusion that something is being done while individuals and governments are consistently failing to take decisive measures.

And the U.K.’s main conservative papers in the Telegraph group—papers read by Tory activists and thus important to Tory politicians—have started to take a more skeptical view of Boris Johnson’s boasted “green industrial revolution” in op-eds by three of its star columnists—former editor Charles Moore, Sunday Telegraph editor Allister Heath, and columnist Matt Ridley. It doesn’t amount to a complete conversion; the Telegraph’s formidable financial columnist, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, remains on Boris’s side. Still, all three have written strong criticisms of the government's net-zero policy recently, and Ridley offered an especially scathing critique of ten reasons why it’s a mistake.

Ridley, who moonlights as a member of the House of Lords, is the author of several well-regarded books on science of which the latest, How Innovation Works, is highly relevant to the climate debate. He takes aim at Boris’s ideas on  innovation in climate policy with a double-barreled shotgun. The first barrel demolishes the Prime Minister’s own proposed innovations:

Innovation will create marvelous, unexpected things in the next 10 years. But if you could summon up innovations to order in any sector you want, such as electric planes and cheap ways of making hydrogen, just by spending money, then the promises of my childhood would have come true: routine space travel, personal jetpacks and flying cars. Instead, we flew in 747s for more than 50 years.

The second barrel aims at Whitehall’s neglect of more realistic innovations that get no money or attention in the green industrial revolution:

My fear is that we will carry out Boris’s promised 10-point plan, cripple our economy, ruin our seascapes and landscapes, and then half way through the 2030s along will come cheap, small, safe fusion reactors.

It’s a bracing attack from a government supporter, friendly fire in fact, and taken together with the other skeptics, it’s a sign that the establishment consensus is showing some cracks. In part, these criticisms are a reaction to the fact that policies like net-zero carbon are ceasing to be distant possibilities and becoming real prospects. No sale of petrol-driven cars is only nine years away. And as Dr. Johnson wrote two centuries ago, when a man knows he will be hanged in the morning, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Mind, concentrated.

But surely these policies are popular with the voters? Wasn’t that the story of the U.S. opinion poll quoted above? How can a popular policy be reasonably compared to being hanged in the morning?

The answer to that objection is a rule that I’m thinking of calling O’Sullivan’s Second Law. It goes as follows: The popularity of a policy is less important than the popularity of its consequences.

How popular are the consequences of a policy of net-zero carbon by 2050 likely to be? It is hard to estimate that because governments constantly evade answering the prior question of what will be the costs of going net-zero in terms of higher taxes, higher energy prices, and a lower standard of living. They concede in a vague and slightly noble way that people will simply have to make heavy sacrifices, but they don’t want to put a figure on it.

That’s not surprising. When the New Zealand government did just that, it discovered, according to Lomborg, that getting to carbon neutrality would “cost more than NZ$85 billion annually, or 16% of projected GDP, by 2050. That is more than last year’s entire national budget for social security, welfare, health, education, police, courts, defense, environment, and every other part of government combined.”

Sixteen percent of projected GDP annually. That’s what you call political suicide. No policy that requires it will remain popular. It runs up against Stein’s Law formulated by the late Herb Stein, a distinguished American economist: ““If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

It can’t go on. Long before 2050, the net-zero policy will have to be abandoned. And the longer that political establishments cling to its defense, the worse the resulting crash will be.

Diary of an Acclimatised Beauty: Distancing

Oh, Boris, you have got to be kidding me! I thought we went over this… herd immunity only comes if we have exposure. I don’t understand how he thinks it’s OK to shut us down again. The small businesses that managed to survive will surely perish in an additional lockdown.

Now what? No restaurants, no gyms, and no chance I can return to California any time soon. Worse yet, this means daddy is having one of his crusty old MP friends round -- to discuss god knows what… probably the 2008 Climate Change Act,  which apparently never changes. And Judith (mummy) is headed to a friend’s house for a socially-distanced coffee; and to avoid getting the dreaded Covid from daddy’s MP friend.

And that’s the thing Boris doesn’t understand… the behaviours of a virus, and the behaviours of a people. Let alone the fact that he wasn’t elected Prime Socialist. But with daddy’s meeting now moved here, I’ll just stay up in my childhood room and avoid all of it.

I want you... to stay at home and cower in the face of the dreaded Covid!

I don’t know how long daddy’s friend was downstairs but I woke up with my legs over the exercise ball and a crick in my neck. Is this what you wanted Boris? I decided to head downstairs and see what we were doing about dinner. Judith’s coffee must have turned into a gin and tonic. She’s nowhere to be found and daddy reported we have frozen steaks and fish fingers, but he’s sure everyone that was open yesterday is doing delivery today. He clicked off the radio and announced,

“We had to know we couldn’t trust a fat man who bicycled around London to be a true conservative.”

“Daddy!”

“Have you seen his bum on a bike or one rational decision since he caught the dreaded Covid? No, you have not.”

I hadn’t. And I knew the £800m cycling initiatives were mostly Sadiq Khan and not Boris but daddy would make the point that the invading cycle lanes had ruined London, and he would be right.

“Well, we know what we are getting with Biden at least” I beamed, “…and it will be fantastic for the environment.”

“Yes, fantastic”, he scoffed. “He promised to decimate the energy industry and I’m sure he’ll do damage enough. Unlike your boyfriend Trudeau… who promised legalised pot and Canada was too stoned to realise that when Alberta goes, so too goes Canada.”

... to ride a bicycle in the dark and the rain.

I knew on this point he was right. I’d heard he and Patrick discussing the death of so many pipeline projects in Canada compared to the very real gains in the US, better for the economy and the environment.

“Well, be that as it may”, I began, “having a green president in the White House has got to be a good thing at the end of the day.

“Got to be?”

“Yes!” I said emphatically.

“Yes, indeed. Let’s look at… you, shall we? You’re a U.S. taxpayer now, and forgetting that your energy-efficient flat and car were provided by the money your dear father earned as a geophysical engineer and responsible oil executive… what will be the really big gains? Top three…”

I ran through a million things in my head, knowing that they all led to higher taxes, lower profits, and business busting results. But I wasn’t giving up on my beloved planet that quickly.

“ Well… upgrades to infrastructure, and a carbon tax, and jobs guarantees…”

“That’s three taxes actually. But the point is I want you to think about the consequence of your passions. The consequence of a carbon tax will mean higher airline fares and might mean fewer seminars for your clients, fewer clients, less income… you see the result, yes?”

"Yes, of course but what’s the alternative?”

“The alternative to what? Socialism?”

“Daddy, it’s not the planet or socialism -

“No, but everything you suggested is,” he said, with a sad finish.

Forward, into the glorious energy future of a carbon tax!

I can’t talk to him when he’s like this. And also I didn’t have any good argument. I went back up to my childhood room to change for dinner and decided to find some evidence in my favour before I let it rest.

My search just kept taking me to coal vs natural gas, and although I already knew that some radical environmentalists despised natural gas, I also  knew their argument was indefensible.

I had covered all this with my father years ago, lest I continue to go on making unfounded arguments. Truth was, that by every metric natural gas is cleaner than coal, it emits 40X less sulphur dioxide, a fraction of the nitrous oxide, almost no mercury, less water, and it’s why carbon emissions from energy declined. Perhaps I’m not in the mood to be right.

Just then I noticed a text from a client asking how I was, and if it was true that Christmas was cancelled in England? Boy, she had some nerve! I had half a mind to write back and ask if it was true that Thanksgiving was cancelled in New York or only moved outside? But I realised that would be as tough to swallow as dry turkey. And mean.

Lockdown redux was getting to me. But apparently not to Judith who I heard coming in downstairs, and by the sound of it had many bags with her. I scrolled past another article entitled How Greed, not Greenpeace Saved the Whales. OMG enough for tonight. I hope she bought cake.

Learning the Lessons of the Pandemic

In the last few days the World Health Organization has announced that it does not recommend lockdowns as the “primary means of control” of the coronavirus. Dr. David Nabarro, who is the WHO’s “special envoy” on the coronavirus epidemic and presumably knows something about the costs and benefits involved, went on to suggest that there was only a limited role for lockdowns in combatting the virus:

“The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to re-organize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we'd rather not do it," he told the media.

Other methods of controlling the virus are as good or better than lockdowns—there’s a long list of them on the WHO’s website—and they don’t have the catastrophic impact of lockdowns. As Nabarro explained with some feeling:

Look what's happened to smallholder farmers all over the world. … Look what's happening to poverty levels. It seems that we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year. We may well have at least a doubling of child malnutrition.

On most occasions when we hear appeals like that, they come accompanied with a bill for the rest of us in the form of higher redistributive taxation. We sigh “well, it’s a good cause” and pay up, even if it means cutting down on some little luxuries (or, if we’re among the poor ourselves, giving up some portion of necessities too).

On this occasion, however, industries, social services, charities, and ordinary taxpayer-citizens, rich and poor alike, would all benefit economically if the lockdowns were to end. Dr. Nabarro might have said with equal force and relevance: “Look at what’s happening to steelworkers, coal-miners, secretaries, para-legals, physiotherapists, plumbers, carpenters, Anglican vicars, waiters, travel-agents, and strip-tease dancers.”

It might not have had the same emotional impact as his appeal to prevent child poverty, but it would be pointing to severe everyday economic damages experienced by the whole community. Almost everyone in the private sector is hit by lockdowns, and they will by paying the accumulated bill for their own enforced idleness for a very long time to come. And that should count for something.

Don't go away mad, just go away.

Of course, Nabarro was announcing a U-turn by the WHO. That’s usually felt to be a political disgrace and a cause for great embarrassment. Maybe sometimes it is exactly that. But it surely makes sense to change policy, however drastically, when the evidence suggests that the existing policy is producing negative or perverse results. And that seems to be the case with lockdowns.

Almost simultaneously with Dr. Nabarro’s statement, three distinguished medical experts-- Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University—wrote what amounted to a statement of skepticism about lockdowns which were, they said, inflicting irreparable damage on health.

That statement, known optimistically as the Great Barrington Declaration, became a petition that’s already been signed by 1200 health professionals. It is unsparing in its critique of the policies of many, even most, governments worldwide:

As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists, we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.

Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people. Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.

Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

Even or especially if governments agree with the professors, however, they must be horrified  by the idea that lockdowns are a mistake, an overreaction, and a net disadvantage in cost-benefit terms. That conclusion is politically disastrous for them. They have spent much of the last year telling their voters that lockdowns were essential to prevent the spread of the virus and protect lives.

In the countries of the Anglosphere that usually pride themselves on their dedication to liberty, they have been exceptionally heavy-handed in their enforcement of lockdowns on the citizenry, imposing heavy fines on citizens for breaches of it and insisting on closing down cities with curfews and prohibitions of church services, drinking, and even singing. And they have made lockdowns a key item in a coronavirus “orthodoxy” that dismissed other policies—Dr. Gupta’s “focused protection” (focused that is on the elderly and especially vulnerable), or Sweden’s alternative policy mix that included a much more limited lockdown.

No lockdowns, please, we're Swedish.

Nor are governments alone in the dock. Scientists too have to share in the blame. Did the Imperial College and SAGE scientists in the UK, for instance, make a mistake when they recommended abandoning HMG’s original strategy ( tested and approved by the WHO only the previous year) and moving to a lockdown one? Not at the time, perhaps, when UK policy was dominated by a need to avoid the National Health Service being overwhelmed by the avalanche of cases that had overwhelmed Italy’s health services.

That decision was in line with Dr. Nabarro’s argument that a lockdown was “justified to buy you time to re-organize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, etc. Long after that threat passed, however, the scientists continued to press the politicians to tighten the lockdowns ever more firmly. And the politicians are afraid to disagree with the scientists.

Britain’s current policy is now a kind of paralysis: almost everyone, including ministers, realizes the lockdown was a mistake and is increasingly a catastrophe for the country’s economic future but the government has been so successful in inculcating a fear of the virus that far outstrips the real risks to the entire population that it carries that the public now supports tightening the lockdown rather than lifting it.

Covid headache, check.

For that outcome—which is worse in Australia and the U.S. than in Britain—the media must accept a heavy share of the blame. Their coverage has often been more driven by political considerations than by medical ones. Mainstream reports of the pandemic in the U.S. has been more concerned to damage Donald Trump than to provide a cool and fair-minded examination of how best to treat the virus—“Orange Man Bad” being its main diagnosis of any of the cures proposed.

And social coverage is worse. At the time of writing, Twitter had ruled against coverage of the Great Barrington Declaration on the grounds that it was misleading (i.e., Twitter disliked its political implications.)

The lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic will be relevant long after the virus has reached herd immunity and become one of the many illnesses dormant in the population that springs into life every Fall. They tell us that whether the threat is a global pandemic or a rise in global temperature, we must preserve a free and skeptical public debate. That means asking the experts to give us their opinions but also to tell us where they differ and why.

Some of the most prescient criticisms of the lockdown policy came from other experts like Dr. Gupta and some from intelligent non-experts like (Lord) Jonathan Sumption, a distinguished lawyer, who saw in official  policy the logical likelihood that a lockdown could do little more than redistribute Covid-19 infections and deaths over time—but at huge loss in our economic prospects and our political liberties too.

In short, the biggest global threat today is the ever-present danger of an establishment consensus that won’t allow other views to be expressed and debated. And that threat hasn’t faded even if the lockdown does.

Low-Energy Joe v. High-Carb Donald

In last week’s column I compared the energy-related policy agendas of the two men, Joe Biden and Erin O’Toole, who have been chosen to lead their parties, both in opposition, in the United States and Canada respectively. It was a task requiring at least some subtlety and fine distinctions, because both men claim to be pursuing the same goal of zero-carbon emissions by . . . well, by different dates but let’s not quibble yet.

O’Toole is the more cautious politician, and he has hedged this pledge about with more qualifications than does Biden, who in his embrace of Green policies is a purist missionary devoted to environmental virtue at any cost. Joe’s 47 years in politics haven’t exactly demonstrated this selfless devotion to principle, but it’s possible that, like President Truman, he’ll be a different man if he makes it to the White House. Anyway, let’s take the charitable view.

Besides, now that President Trump has accepted the GOP nomination for the 2020 November election, we can compare Biden with Trump directly which means we have at least to start by treating their energy-related policies at face value. Just to show that we’re not naïve, however, we’ll lay out a key reality test:

Economic growth means more energy. Growth needs more energy and it generates more energy. Sure, there are qualifications and off-sets which is why we always add the rider, “other things being equal.” And innovation can produce more growth without using more energy in those cases where an entrepreneur arranges the factors of production more efficiently. But the overall truth remains that growth and energy go together like a horse and carriage—with the horse providing the energy and the carriage representing the greater comfort and wealth of a economically prosperous society.

All aboard for the 21st century!

Most politicians try to confuse this truth and avoid the difficult problem it imposes on them. Since they want both to increase growth and to reduce the carbon emissions that fossil fuels generate, they have to avoid putting realistic prices on their “carbon net-zero” policies and to argue that as yet elusive technological innovations, such as carbon capture, will enable them to produce the same amounts of energy with lower carbon emissions.

Boris Johnson is a prime example of this approach since his energy policy is deep green and his signature economic policy (before the Covid-19 pandemic) was to borrow large sums on money at low interest rates in order to fuel a U.K. recovery via infrastructure spending. Nice work if you can get it, as Gershwin wrote, but there’s a car crash in the future of such a contradictory policy.

So it’s a pleasant surprise that both Trump and Biden do their best to be honest about their choice in the Growth versus Greenery debate. Trump favors a policy of encouraging economic growth above all else; so he accepts that it will require energy policies that exploit as many new ways of generating energy as possible. His motto might as well be “Let 'er rip!”

Biden makes the opposite choice. He wants to move the U.S. away from fossil fuels and towards “cleaner” energy as quickly as possible and he seems to accept that this will mean less economic growth overall even if it encourages jobs growth in specific areas. He doesn’t spell out that choice exactly, but the phrase “economic growth” is hard to find in his grand $700 billion economic program.

It’s low-energy Joe versus the high-carb Donald.

Of course, we already know what Trump is about because his first term was based on the policy choice of liberating energy production, de-regulating, and cutting taxes in order to hike growth. Just in case we’ve forgotten, however, his acceptance speech this week reminded the viewers of how he began four years ago:

Days after taking office . . . I approved the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, ended the unfair and costly Paris Climate Accord, and secured, for the first time, American Energy Independence. We passed record-setting tax and regulation cuts, at a rate nobody had ever seen before. Within three short years, we built the strongest economy in the history of the world.

And the future?

Over the next four years, we will make America into the Manufacturing Superpower of the World. We will expand Opportunity Zones, bring home our medical supply chains, and we will end our reliance on China once and for all. We will continue to reduce taxes and regulations at levels not seen before. We will create 10 million jobs in the next 10 months.

All that’s clear enough. But what of the environmental costs of Trump’s booming pre-Covid US economy? These should have been visible in rising carbon emissions. But, remember, that depends on “other things being equal.” In reality carbon emissions in the industrialized world—the US, the EU, and Japan—fell in the last few years because these economies were switching to cleaner fuels. And they fell faster than most in the U.S. because the “fracking revolution” in America meant that cleaner natural gas was replacing dirtier coal.

For the future, Trump is banking not only on the continued spread of fracking and its benefits but also on the likelihood that a booming economy will produce innovations that to make both renewables and fossil fuels cleaner, cheaper, and safer.

Frack this.

It’s a bold gamble, but so far it’s paying off.

Now, Biden makes his choice almost as clear. If you type “Joe Biden and economic growth” into Google, what you get back is this: The Biden Plan To Build a Modern Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future. In other words, you get an economic program that subordinates the need for economic growth to other desirable things—notably, a switch to cleaner energy.

That’s very clear in his plan’s section on what he proposes for those communities who powered the industrial revolution over centuries. He means people working in the fossil fuels industry, and his policies include “securing the benefits coal miners and their families have earned, making an unprecedented investment in coal and power plant communities, and establishing a Task Force on Coal and Power Plant Communities," etc. In other words, coal miners and perhaps other fossil fuel producers will not be part of Biden’s sustainable and equitable clean energy economy, but their workers will be economically protected.

The key elements of the Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future include:

  1. Build a Modern Infrastructure
  2. Position the U.S. Auto Industry to Win the 21st Century with technology invented in America
  3. Achieve a Carbon Pollution-Free Power Sector by 2035
  4. Make Dramatic Investments in Energy Efficiency in Buildings, including Completing 4 Million Retrofits and Building 1.5 Million New Affordable Homes
  5. Pursue a Historic Investment in Clean Energy Innovation
  6. Advance Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation
  7. Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economy Opportunity

In fact, there’ll be a Biden program costing $2 trillion that will finance both the transition from dirty to clean energy production and a large variety of other infrastructure expenditures and industrial subsidies to, for instance, the auto industry. But all economic forecasts of the costs of switching to non-fossil fuels show that it will be extremely expensive. And though two trillion dollars will finance many good things, unless there’s economic growth overall—and the Biden plan doesn’t seem to promise that—there won’t be any net additional jobs. What there will be is “jobs growth” in the industries favored by the Washington planners granting the subsidies.

So instead of Trump's policy rooted in growth and abundant cheap energy, we have a Biden policy based on cleaner energy and state industrial investments financed by . . . redistribution and tax increases.

And a very substantial overall increase in taxation at that. The Democrat candidate has so far proposed the following:

US Budget Watch, synthesizing the estimates of several other economic consultancies, suggests that the plan would increase taxes for the top 1 percent of earners by 13 to 18 percent of after-tax income; indirectly hike taxes for most other groups by 0.2 to 0.6 percent; and moderately slow the pace of economic growth by discouraging work and capital accumulation.

Biden’s gamble here is a kind of mirror image of Trump’s: he proposes to increase taxes sharply and use the proceeds to re-direct investment from existing industries to "cleaner" and more sustainable ones, leaving them to achieve higher growth and technical breakthroughs in the future. A lot of bad decisions can occur that way.

Moreover, whereas overall growth and technical innovation will be financed from the proceeds of a growing economy in Trump’s plan, much of the state finance for growth and innovation in Biden’s industrial plan is earmarked for the expensive transition to carbon neutrality, and his tax plan will leave much less for private investors to spend on inventing the future. On top of which the psychological atmosphere of an economy powered by state control and direction of investment is unlikely to inspire the kind of entrepreneurial innovation we saw in the pre-Covid Trump economy.

What have I done?

How do things look, however, when we leave the Big Picture and go micro-economic? Consider how the contenders fare on fracking, nuclear power, and renewables.

Fracking is a clear advantage for Trump who has encouraged it with deregulation and who has been helped by its contribution to reducing carbon emissions. If fracking were a flag, Trump would be waving it. On the other hand, Biden has got himself twisted into knots on the issue, having earlier promised the illogical policy of “no new fracking” under pressure from the Green lobby. Unless Biden can embrace fracking fully, his overall energy policy becomes significantly more expensive. Plus, it’s a vital jobs issue in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Mexico on which hundreds of thousands of job depend.

Both Trump and Biden favor a revival of nuclear power, but Trump has an advantage there, too, because a year ago he asked his Energy Secretary to assemble a nuclear energy working group to find ways to expand the U.S. nuclear energy industry in an effort to compete globally (i.e., versus China).

Renewables should be an easy win for Biden because he’s been a champion of them (his plan depends heavily on their success), whereas Trump has been a loud skeptic about the industry. Such is the unfairness of life, however, that last year there was a surge of investment in the U.S. industry. Expect more “America First” rhetoric about renewables, therefore, from the president. That said, better news for renewables is better for Joe Biden, just not that much better.

On those micro-economic measures, therefore, Trump wins two out of three, and when they’re added to the macro-economic outlook for their plans, Trump expands his lead over Biden by a head.

Trump and Biden are both to be congratulated on giving us a generally clear idea of how they would govern economically and especially on energy policy. It’s not a K.O, for either.

But on the evidence so far, High Carb Donald has it over Low Energy Joe.

'Climate Change': Passing the Paris Parcel Back Again.

Boris Johnson received a very early Christmas present this week when the courts told him that Her Majesty’s Government could not proceed with its plan to build another runway at Heathrow Airport on the grounds that an extension would clash with its legal commitments on climate change. That may not sound like much of a gift, but the court’s ruling saved the Prime Minister from betraying a well-known personal pledge.

As the MP for a constituency in the path of Heathrow, he had told his discontented voters that he would personally lie down in front of the bulldozers rather than let the extension proceed. And though election promises are like pie-crusts, made to be broken, as Lenin remarked, voters tend to remember those promises that directly affect their personal and local interests, especially when they have been expressed with Boris’s trademark vivacity.

As a very new Prime Minister, however, he had inherited an established policy of Heathrow expansion that was supported by the Transport ministry and—moreover—in line with his wider economic policy of letting Britain rip in an orgy of borrowing and infrastructure development. He was trapped in the jaws of a dilemma.

Now, with one bound, our Boris was free.

The Court of Appeal had lain down in front of the bulldozers instead, ruling that it was illegal for HMG to approve a third runway without taking its own climate change commitments under the Paris Treaty (subsequently put into UK law) into account. Its judgment is interesting. It attributes HMG’s error as follows: “the reason why it was never done is that the secretary of state received legal advice that not only did he not have to take the Paris Agreement into account but that he was legally obliged not to take it into account at all.” In particular HMG had not issued a National Planning Statement as it is required to do.

That’s quite a mistake.

Ministers were free to appeal the judgment but decided not to do so. It’s true they have other options. They could now re-embark on the process of developing the case for Heathrow expansion by consulting with interested parties, holding hearings, and, of course, taking the Paris accords into account. But that process would add at least eighteen months to something that has already taken a decade. It would extend the uncertainty that, like the Brexit uncertainty (still quietly continuing), has so far bedeviled the plans of business and exporters. Above all, it would still not guarantee that any future Heathrow expansion plan would be approved by courts examining its fidelity to the Paris agreement.

Those are the immediate costs of saving Boris’s face. So stitch-up or cock-up? My guess is the latter because, as we shall see below, the costs of this judgment go higher and further than Heathrow.

It’s customary at this point for those who, like me, deplore the intrusion of the courts into what have hitherto been political decisions to denounce the rise of undemocratic judicial imperialism. And I shall give mild vent to these opinions lower down. But there is no avoiding the fact that in this case the courts have been invited by government and Parliament to intervene. A succession of laws have laid down that government planning and economic decisions must observe the legally-binding obligation to reduce carbon emissions consistent with holding a global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees between now and the end of the century.

That’s the Paris agreement, but Britain had already proposed even more drastic carbon reductions in earlier domestic legislation. The Climate Change Act of 2008—passed with only five brave, honest, and intelligent MPs voting against it, among them the Cambridge science graduate, former deputy prime minister, Lord (Peter) Lilley—laid down that Britain must reduce its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. And this target was made still more unrealistic by Theresa May’s government in 2016 when the 2050 target was raised to 100 per cent of carbon emissions.

Successive governments had kept their fingers crossed and hoped they could argue that these targets are aspirational—and, hey, we made a good faith effort but we just missed again! But if you make such targets legally binding, then both Ministers and the general public must anticipate that the courts may intervene to require their enforcement. An earlier and more deferential generation of British judges might have been more willing to accept ministerial prerogatives on such plainly political matters. But today’s judges are more interventionist than those in the past. And, after all, they can reasonably claim that they were invited to ensure that on climate change HMG would keep its word and fulfill its treaty obligations.

Accordingly, it seems that the courts—other things being equal—will now help to impose a zero-carbon policy on the British economy. As Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh, “an international public law expert at Leiden University” in the Netherlands, told the Guardian: “For the first time, a court has confirmed that the Paris agreement temperature goal has binding effect. This goal was based on overwhelming evidence about the catastrophic risk of exceeding 1.5 C of warming. Yet some have argued that the goal is aspirational only, leaving governments free to ignore it in practice.”

Her judgment seems more authoritative on the law than on science. For activists will certainly mount legal challenges to any future substantial infrastructure or energy exploration projects. The government, other public bodies, and industry will find that many of their legal arguments have been foreclosed by this judgment. All industrial projects will be slowed down; many, perhaps most, will be either abandoned or not proposed in the first place.

Heathrow itself would struggle to meet the requirements of the UK’s climate legislation even without the lawyers’ mistakes. Its third runway is estimated to likely to bring in 700 more planes a day with a consequent large rise in carbon emissions contrary to the law. But that’s true also of the policy now touted as an alternative to another Heathrow runway—namely the expansion of existing British airports, especially Birmingham, to accommodate the rise in passenger and goods traffic that is the aim of Boris’s policies of overall economic expansion and the economic “leveling up” of regions outside the South-East.

It would also prevent his other great personal infrastructure project: the HS2 super-railway between London and Birmingham in the next decade and to Scotland and the North later. Indeed, objectors would be able to kill almost any industrial project that increased carbon emissions overall from a small power-station to a massive national industrial program like HS2—kill either by direct prohibition or, more likely, from endless legal delays as in Canada over pipeline construction. When other nations from the US to China are building runways and exploring new energy sources, oblivious to the fact that a British court had outlawed such things (pace Professor Wewerinke-Singh), Britain will be suffering from a historically unique plague: a legally-binding rule of national impoverishment. Such a policy might have been devised by the European Union to make Brexit an apparent failure.

Not surprisingly, HMG is coy about the likely costs of this. Ministers have outsourced the estimates of a zero-carbon economy by 2050 to the Climate Change Committee established under the 2008 legislation which estimates a £50 billion cost for 2050. But the Committee is composed mainly of enthusiasts for climate puritanism, and its estimates have been challenged both within and outside government. An overall review of cost estimates has been made by Harry Wilkinson of the Global Policy Warming Institute which includes a warning from the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, to Prime Minister Theresa May that the cost was likely to be 40 per cent higher, at £70 billion per annum—with households paying an average of £2,400 every year between now and 2050. Ministers have since gone quiet on making estimates about the costs of their policies, but Wilkinson quotes an overall estimate by Andrew Mountford that total costs would probably exceed £3 trillion when the investments needed for decarbonising transport and industry are taken into account.

Cut this estimate in half and it is still staggering!

If this policy continues unchanged, it will prove extraordinarily unpopular with the voters who have been given no warning at all that the idyllic Green future they have been promised (and which they have largely embraced) would come with such a massive bill both in money and in job losses. Only climate zealots from the parliamentary climate committee to Extinction Rebellion will be happy with the outcome—and perhaps only Extinction Rebellion, which actually wants the pre-industrial world of equality in misery that a zero-carbon planetimplies in the absence of major scientific advances such as nuclear fission on which it would be reckless to depend.

More than half of the blame for this extraordinary leap into the carbon-free unknown, however, has to be placed on the politicians—all but the gallant five MPs who rejected such dangerous extremism in 2008. Politicians of all parties in recent years have wanted to appease Green hordes—which in practice meant never seriously challenging their wildest forecasts. Their method of doing so has been to pass “aspirational” laws that mandated massive emission cuts, and even to make modest bows to the Green agenda where it was easy -- as Boris Johnson did when he ruled out “fracking” in the last Tory manifesto because a non-existent industry has few supporters, while ignoring such laws when they obstructed existing policies they considered important such as his infrastructure agenda. That way they could claim to be following environmentalist policies while putting off their actual more painful implementation until another party took power.

As Ross Kemp points out in the Spectator, moreover, this habit of exiling serious policy commitment to enforcement by the courts or semi-independent bodies like the Climate Committee has grown without anyone really thinking through the consequences: “Is the government going to be able to freeze fuel duty in the Budget? That too could be said to be inconsistent with working towards zero emissions. Then again, is Rishi Sunak going to be able to announce any spending increase? I am not a lawyer, but there doesn’t seem to me to be any reason why, say, the Taxpayers’ Alliance should not go full Gina Miller and take the Chancellor to court on the basis that he has failed to run a surplus – something which was written into George Osborne’s Charter for Budgetary Responsibility."

Boris escaped one minor trap when the court decided to declare the expansion of Heathrow illegal, but it placed him and Britain in a much more restraining one when it made his entire policy of infrastructure expansion dependent upon the approval of activist judges. To escape from that trap, he will have to repeal or amend laws that passed overwhelmingly. And that’s a bigger battle than Brexit.