Net-Zero: Poorer, Meaner, Slower, Dearer

One of the most consistent themes of this occasional column has been the contradiction between the pessimistic analyses of the costs of the Net-Zero policy adopted by the Western world and the optimistic belief of its governments that its overall impact will be positive all round.

Keep in mind that this contradiction is not an argument that global warming or climate change is not happening, or if it is happening, that it’s not damaging. It’s a question directed solely at whether or not Net-Zero—as a solution to climate change—will in fact make life better or worse. Climate change may be a real problem without Net-Zero being a solution to it. And if that’s the case, we should be looking for other solutions.

Realization of that possibility—which was slightly below Net-Zero a year ago—is now breaking rudely in upon the community of public policy intellectuals. Dominic Lawson in the London Sunday Times pointed out that the G7’s proposed reduction in carbon emissions would be swamped by China’s increase in them and thus render the sacrifices made by the West’ populations pointless. Irwin Stelzer in the Washington Examiner demonstrated that the policy was politically unachievable. And Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus, a veteran of the climate wars, recently argued that the contradiction above--he calls it Orwellian “doublethink”—will collapse into itself when predictions of the International Energy Authority come to pass:

By 2050, we will have to live with much lower energy consumption than today. Despite being richer, the average global person will be allowed less energy than today’s average poor. We will all be allowed less energy than the average Albanian used in the 1980s. We will also have to accept shivering in winter at 19°C and sweltering in summer at 26°C, lower highway speeds and fewer people being allowed to fly.

Let me add the conclusion that all three writers make clear. At these prices, Net-Zero simply isn’t going to happen. Almost everywhere it has been offered to the voters, the voters have rejected it—most recently in a Swiss referendum that asked them if they would pay higher taxes in order to meet Net-Zero targets. They voted no.

Such popular resistance is making itself felt before any serious sacrifice has actually been imposed on electorates. Until now, their pain has been purely rhetorical. How will they react when told that they can’t drive fast cars, take plane rides to Sicily, or turn up the heating on winter nights? They’ll vote no.

Would that i'twere so simple.

Since Net-Zero is not a solution, the obvious question arises: is there another solution we haven’t yet considered?

Dominic Lawson rules out the heavy reliance on higher “hypothecated” energy taxes promoted by the G7 on the commonsensical grounds that if U.K. chancellors have fought shy of raising fuel duty for twenty years, they’re not likely to embark on massive new ones in the more straitened circumstances of today. In his Examiner article, Irwin Stelzer proposes among other things that we should concentrate on developing carbon-capture technologies that would allow us to use fossil fuels without adding to carbon emissions. That’s a narrow solution—we shouldn’t rely excessively on single possible innovation--but it makes sense.

And Bjorn Lomborg offers a broader version of the same thing on the basis of a highly topical comparison:

COVID is fixed with vaccines, not unending lockdowns. To tackle climate, we need to ramp up our investments in green energy innovation. Increasing green energy currently requires massive subsidies, but if we could innovate its future price down to below that of fossil fuels, everyone would switch.

What makes all of these proposals more persuasive, however, is an argument advanced in a monograph published by London’s Global Policy Warming Foundation.  In this short analysis, Tim Worstall, a businessman and blogger, begins by establishing that relying on future innovations as a solution to global warming becomes more plausible as the likely crisis looks more manageable.

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Not convinced? Think about it this way. If climate change really is an “emergency” likely to produce prolonged droughts, a rise in the sea level threatening coastal cities, crop failures, starvation, and all the other predictions made by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion—and all by the day after tomorrow—then we probably couldn’t rely on continuous gradual innovation to reduce the price of renewables, the carbon emissions of greener fossil fuels, and the invention of alternative fuels not yet imagined. We would be climbing a very steep hill by baby steps.

As Worstall points out, however, those alarming predictions were rooted in a “worst case” scenario of future trends in carbon emissions that assumed a world in which the consumption of coal  (the “dirtiest” of fuels which is actually declining in use throughout the West) would rise to higher levels than ever before—with the result that there would be a rise in temperature of almost five degrees (over pre-industrial levels) by the end of this century.

As several environmentalists (including Nature magazine) have complained, however, this worst -case scenario has since been treated as “business as usual” in official and unofficial discussions of climate policy. That in turn has led to a massive exaggeration of both global warming and its “emergency” impact.

How can we be sure that this “cooler” prediction is accurate?

Good question. And it has an even better answer. It’s not a prediction. It’s already been happening for some time. The explanation is fracking, which has reduced the use of coal and replaced it with the cleaner greener fuel of natural gas wherever governments and the courts have allowed it to be developed over the protests of , ahem, the Greens.

And yet the solution is right to hand.

The fall in American carbon emissions under the late Obama and Trump administrations occurred almost entirely because of the spread of fracking (which incidentally also fueled a rise in American growth and prosperity.) And if you want a negative example, Angela Merkel’s boneheaded decision to abandon Germany's nuclear power led directly to the greater use of coal and a consequent rise in carbon emissions in a Germany that was meanwhile spending massively on unreliable renewables..

Fracking! It’s the start of the answer—the remainder is innovation—to the problem of halting global warming without closing down the world economy (which is otherwise the respectable establishment strategy.) If you want to be technical about it, fracking has helped to move the world from a Representative Concentration Pathway of 8.5 to an RCP of between 4.5 and 6. And as every schoolboy knows, that makes a helluva difference.

So, following Chancellor Merkel’s example, Boris Johnson has blocked fracking in the UK, and Joe Biden is placing obstacles to it in the U.S.

There’s a horrible sort of inevitability about that, isn’t there?

How the Wuhan Virus Stopped Global Warming

Or knocked it off the front burner, at least:

The coronavirus crisis calls for an urgent review of Germany's climate targets under goals set by the European Union, the leader of the economic council of the conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) said on Saturday. The COVID-19 pandemic is "putting the German economy to the test," and the EU should consider a "deferment of climate policy targets," Wolfgang Steiger said in comments published in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Steiger said the fallout from the pandemic on the economy could amount to a new "de-industrialization" of Germany. Experts are predicting a global recession as a result of the business shutdown and subsequent layoffs.

The EU's ambitious 2030 climate goals include a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels and at least a 32% market share for renewable energy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged that a large amount of the bloc's budget would go towards achieving the EU Green Deal.

Deferring this ruinous course of action would seem to make sense. Germany is loath to give up its ongoing Wirtschaftswunderwhich has seen it go from wartime ruination to postwar industrial powerhouse. To destroy a 75-year record of achievement in order to attend to an imaginary future crisis when confronted with a real one in the here and now would be crazy. But fear not, Germany still has plenty of crazies:

However, Germany's environment minister, Svenja Schulze, warned against "connecting climate protection and economic prosperity." It may be possible "to use the exit from the corona crisis to promote climate-compatible and sustainable economic structures," she said.

The radicals, of course, want to go farther, faster:

Jennifer Morgan of the environmental activist group Greenpeace is among those who believe the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the weaknesses of the global economic system. "We are being offered the chance to fundamentally change how things work," said Morgan of the shutdown brought about by the health emergency.

In a meeting on March 26, EU leaders invited the commission to start working on a comprehensive coronavirus recovery plan, incorporating green transition.

Never let a crisis go to waste, indeed. As the Western world emerges from its China-induced economic coma, we need to be vigilant lest the patient, in a still-weakened state, fall prey to an even more insidious and destructive disease, cultural and economic Marxism disguised as "environmentalism."

'Progressivism' Versus Progress

A cry is going up across the world— in Cambridge England, in Germany, and above all in Canada. It’s the cry heard down the ages from the Common People, the Reasonable Person, the Over-burdened Taxpayer, the Forgotten Man, the Silent Majority, and whoever is feeling his shoes pinching and his belt tightening. That cry today is more puzzled and poignant than usual because it expresses bafflement as well as indignation.

That cry is: “What the hell’s going on?”

The note of inquiry is entirely justified. Last week some hooligans (in Newspeak: protesters) invaded Trinity College, Cambridge and dug up its famous lawn, carting off the soil and dumping it in Barclay’s Bank. They were activists from Extinction Rebellion, or XR, a group of Green extremists, who argue that since there is a “climate emergency” that will destroy humanity, civilization, and the world in about a decade, they will take direct action now to obstruct and punish companies and institutions that “profit from” the emergency.

Their justifications for this ecological vandalism—the Trinity lawn was itself a symbol of environmental stewardship over centuries—both vary and multiply.

In this case the protesters were angry both because Trinity has investments in “fossil fuel” companies and because it had sold land to the Port of Felixstowe which might be used for a car park. Half of Britain (and most of the world) depends on fossil fuels for their energy. Industry and individual car-owners depend on car parks in order to move goods and themselves around the country. All these activities are legal, and the government regulates them to ensure that, as far as possible, they don’t impose unwanted costs on third parties or the general public. XR’s vandalism, on the other hand, imposed quite serious costs on Trinity, Barclay’s, the people living in Cambridge, and not least the environment.

Two days later, while the public outrage was still fresh, the protesters added a new complaint: the university had sold land for developers to build housing. The project in question had been designed to be environmentally sustainable. The claim of sustainability did not save it, however, because it was to be sold at a unit price of £385,000 that could only be bought by wealthy people.

A quick check via Google shows that £385,000 is lower than the average price for a Cambridge house which is a little over £388,000. So, in principle, Extinction Rebellion is opposed to building sufficient housing in Cambridge for a rising population. If XR runs out of specific justifications for its vandalism, however, that won’t really handicap it. Any extended discussion of XR’s aims invariably climaxes with its call to end “capitalism” which in XR’s ideology is the cause of all environmental ills.

Yet even a brief glance at the history of the Soviet bloc would show that it had a far worse environmental record than any Western country. Two examples from its last days suggest the ecological consequences of replacing capitalism with “socialism”: the pollution of Lake Baikal so befouled with chemicals that it actually caught fire—and the breakdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor (recorded in a brilliant dramatized HBO miniseries.) Chernobyl’s breakdown scattered nuclear fallout over a large region but it was concealed for a time by a managerial bureaucracy anxious to protect the good name of Soviet nuclear power. Such risks inevitably grow when a Politburo which manages industry consists of the same people who appoint the regulators and dictate coverage in the media.

If it makes you happier, by all means call them “the People.”

 

Nevertheless, the environmental history of socialism provides a very weak argument for getting rid of capitalism. Yet, it is where most solutions to the climate emergency end up and, not coincidentally, where they begin too.

Why so?

XR’s multiplication of justifications for their hooliganism is explicable when you realize that their predictions of doom keep not happening. And when any particular doom doesn’t happen, the climate seer needs to invent another likely catastrophe to justify his activism. Dr. Madsen Pirie, founder of the Adam Smith Institute in London, gave a fairly comprehensive list of such predictions here.

Of course, Pirie was writing in 2014; the list will be longer now. But however often the predictions are falsified, the soothsayers never admit error. Like the religious lunatics who assemble on a mountain to witness the Apocalypse in this Peter Cook sketch, their conclusion is always: “Okay, next week, same time, same place. We must get a winner some time.”

This combination of hooliganism and hysteria is happening not only in Cambridge. Similar protests erupted recently in Germany where the local XR activists were trying to halt the building of a factory that will manufacture electric cars. (Such are the contradictions of climate emergency ideology.) Parts of London have been repeatedly brought to a halt by XR demonstrators who have glued themselves to streets and police vehicles in recent months to demand a change in government energy policy from its current enthusiasm for carbon reduction to monomaniacal passion on the topic. And as readers of The Pipeline know better than anyone, half of Canada has been effectively immobilized by protesters who block railroads and highways in a campaign of forceful obstruction to prevent a pipeline that has passed every legal, democratic, and indigenous test laid down by governments hostile to it.

All of these cases of activism, though described as “non-violent,” involve the use of force to prevent individuals and companies going about their lawful business or simply going about. This is worth pondering. If protesters leave others only a choice between using force of their own to overcome obstruction or abandoning their lawful business, it is false to describe the obstruction as non-violent. Obstruction is itself a kind of tame violence—which is why laws in every country prohibit it. And why the police are required by law to intervene, prevent the obstruction, and enable the general public to live their lives.

Which brings us to a curious aspect of these protests—namely, the passive (and sometimes active) cooperation of the police and governments with the protesters. In Cambridge the police discussed with XR protesters which roads should be closed; they were on hand to see that their obstructionism observed the agreement; and they stopped members of the general public from removing the obstacles erected (one of which forced an ambulance to turn back.) They took no action to prevent the digging up of the Trinity lawn. Nor does Trinity seem to have requested their intervention. And though they have since brought charges against people suspected of offenses in these cases, that was probably in reaction to the angry and widespread public criticism of their previous inaction.

Earlier that inaction had been defended by a police spokesman on the grounds that legislation gives police a duty to superintend political protests. That seems right. But commonsense suggests that it means they should regulate such protests rather than assist them to gain their objectives. Laws also require the police to enable ordinary citizens to go about their lawful business unhindered. Taking those two duties together, they require police to regulate protests in such a way as to enable citizens to go about their lawful business. If it comes to a choice between those two duties, helping members of the public should come ahead of enforcing the will of activists upon them.

In the case of Canada, an entire government has been wobbling nervously for more than a week in order to avoid enforcing public order on left-wing and environmentalist constituencies whose support it is reluctant to lose. Only when those defending the pipeline failed to surrender in a timely fashion did the Trudeau government move—still nervously—to require that the law and the democratic decision making process it supports be upheld. And as to that, we’ll see.

For the moment, these different but similar events illustrate the degree to which our political life throughout the West has been changed by the cultural conquest of our institutions by progressive ideas. Under progressive governments which sympathize with the protesters, of course, but also under conservative governments which fear to challenge a respectable orthodoxy even when it breaks the rules that are supposed to govern everyone.

That conquest, which had already taken over the HR departments of corporations, the media, and even the armed forces, has now spread to the police who seem to have imbibed the silliest sociological ideas of the last few decades. In these cases they apparently have decided that the police should, where any choice exists, side with the protesters against society—even when, as here, the protest movement is unusually “white”—against the respectable classes who bear the odium of keeping society’s rules, obeying the law, and seeking change only through democratic channels. It looks liberal, but it is really a form of anarchy. And an anarchic police force is not something to treat lightly. It is odd and perhaps sinister.

Which is why people say: “What the hell is going on?”