It’s been an eventful year, and there are many candidates for the title of 2021’s most momentous event. But the winner has to be the failure of the U.N.’s Climate Change conference in Glasgow in November. That is in part because COP26—its formal title—was billed as the event that would save the world from an existential emergency crisis of global warming that would otherwise consume civilization in a massive conflagration. Or something like that.
If you bothered to read the fine print in the reports of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, you would find that the situation was really not as dire as that. As is the way with such things, however, the press handouts (which are written by government and U.N. officials rather than by scientists) went straight to the “worst case” scenarios and proceeded to exaggerate them—as The Pipeline has demonstrated on numerous occasions. Then the media devoted its famous skepticism to suggesting that these doom-laden forecasts might well be rosy scenarios.
On top of this the British government—which was the main host of COP26—had arranged a massive propaganda barrage extolling the world-historical importance of the Conference and of Boris Johnson’s role in it. Its theme was that COP26 could not be allowed to fail, and the BBC told us this repeatedly.
Alas, fail it did, not only in the predictable sense that it could not possibly reach its promised target of reducing the world’s carbon emissions to Net-Zero (compared to late 19th century levels) by 2050—that’s always been obvious—but in the much more embarrassing political sense that some of the most important countries at Glasgow more or less said so.
Admittedly, this was done with a kind of bureaucratic hocus-pocus: every pledge came with a get-out clause. Countries will meet next year to agree on more cuts to carbon emissions, but previous pledges haven’t been met, and these pledges won’t be legally binding. One such pledge was that coal was to be “phased out,” but when China and India objected, that became “phased down.” There was talk of a trillion-dollar-a-year fund to finance a switch by developing countries from fossil fuels to cleaner ones, but earlier pledges of a fund one-tenth of that amount have not been fulfilled. Richer countries will phase out subsidies to fossil fuels domestically but, ahem, no dates have been set for this.
Or as the BBC analysis observed wearily, most such pledges will have to be “self-policed.”
A heavy sense of déjà vu clings to these proceedings. It wasn’t the first failure of the U.N. “Kyoto process”—the 2009 Copenhagen conference had a similar outcome—but it was the most disappointing because it was meant to be the moment when the world not merely endorsed Net-Zero but also made it legally enforceable on nation-states. Its failure was therefore the collapse of a passionate delusion.
Or perhaps several delusions. There is the recurring belief among climate alarmists that developing countries like India and China will be prepared to give up the cheap energy that is the only way their populations will emerge from grinding poverty. That’s remarkably similar to the delusion that oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia will give up selling energy and so force their populations back into the grinding poverty from which they have only recently emerged. Neither group of countries (whatever they say at COP conferences) will plunge their countries into poverty merely to please Europe’s Green parties. And indeed they disappoint the climate alarmists at every COP.
Another delusion of climate alarmism is the following logic: if global warming is an existential emergency crisis for the world, then any solution to it must be a good one. But a solution that imposes heavier costs on the world than the costs of living with global warming is no solution at all. That’s what Net-Zero does. But attempting to replace fossil fuels—which now provide the world with about eighty-five per cent of its energy—with more expensive and less reliable energy sources is the opposite of a solution. It’s choosing to create a problem voluntarily. And as Net-Zero moves from the realm of rhetoric into that of real life, more and more people are realizing that.
That’s why the failure of COP26 has led to public lamentations by climate activists but also, more quietly, to governments looking for alternative energy policies that reduce emissions without crashing the economy and living standards. These usually turn out to be some mix of nuclear power, natural gas, and encouragement of technical innovation.
Michael Shellenberger recently reported that Britain, France, and the Netherlands are reviving plans for nuclear power to be a larger part of the mix. Even in Germany, with powerful Green parties in its new left-wing government, “resistance is growing . . . to closing nuclear plants, and a new YouGov poll finds that over half of Germans say nuclear should remain part of their nation’s climate policy.”
Not everyone is taking the failure of COP26 so sensibly, however. I am grateful to the newsletter of the Science and Environmental Policy Project SEPP for drawing my attention to one particular academic program at the University of Bern in Switzerland designed to make us take climate sustainability more seriously than we apparently want to do. It’s worth quoting at some length: Published in the journal Cortex, the abstract reads:
While many people acknowledge the urgency to drastically change our consumption patterns to mitigate climate change, most people fail to live sustainably. We hypothesized that a lack of sustainability stems from insufficient intergenerational mentalizing (i.e., taking the perspective of people in the future). To causally test our hypothesis, we applied high-definition transcranial direct current stimulation (HD-tDCS) to the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ). We tested participants twice (receiving stimulation at the TPJ or the vertex as control), while they engaged in a behavioral economic paradigm measuring sustainable decision-making, even if sustainability was costly. Indeed, excitatory anodal HD-tDCS increased sustainable decision-making, while inhibitory cathodal HD-tDCS had no effect . . . Shedding light on the neural basis of sustainability, our results could inspire targeted interventions tackling the TPJ and give neuroscientific support to theories on how to construct public campaigns addressing sustainability issues.
In short: we have ways of making you think sustainably.