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Let them ride electric bicycles

Having spent the past three years trying – and failing – to rewrite the outcome of the 2016 election, the US Democrat Party have finally woken up to the fact that there will be another election next year; and that the best way of getting rid of Trump is to offer the American electorate a viable alternative.  The trouble is that having spent so much time donning aluminium foil hats and pursuing far-fetched conspiracy theories, they have neglected to develop an actual policy programme with which to defeat their orange nemesis.

Climate change is, however, one policy area where the Democrat contenders believe that they can win; which is why all of the contenders are currently trying to outdo each other over just how radical they will be if they become president.  Even former vice-president Joe Biden – who famously plagiarised a Neil Kinnock speech back in the 1980s – has been plagiarising other people’s climate change proposals in an attempt to show that, despite doing nothing to wean America off fossil fuels when in office, he can be trusted to lead the world in tackling the climate emergency.

Climate change – on paper at least – is one area where the Democrat party can beat Trump hands down.  As Jessica Campisi reports in The Hill:

“Nearly 40 percent of registered U.S. voters say a candidate’s position on climate change is “very important” to them in deciding who they’ll vote for in 2020… Forty-five percent of those surveyed also said they’d support a U.S. president declaring global warming a national emergency if Congress doesn’t take action.”

Climate change plays particularly well among the Democrat base.  A recent Rasmussen poll found that 67 percent of likely Democrat voters, and 48 percent of the electorate as a whole, believe that we have just 12 years left to act before the climate emergency runs out of control.  This makes it almost certain that the Democrat candidate in next year’s election will run on some version of a green new deal in an attempt to exploit Trump’s continued ignorance and denial of climate change.

The trouble is that we have seen the movie before; and it ends badly.  Just last month the pundits were assuring us that climate change had become a major issue for Australians ahead of their Federal election; which the media even christened “the climate election.”  The Australian Labor Party ran on a green policy platform which polling appeared to show would go down well with the electorate.  And as in the USA, their opponent Scott Morrison is ardently pro-fossil fuels.  For those who do not follow the machinations of antipodean politics, the outcome was a “miracle majority” for the climate denying Liberal (which has the opposite meaning in the USA) Party.  As Matt McDonald at ABC lamented:

“It was supposed to be the big issue of the 2019 Australian federal election: climate change. A range of polls and surveys had left many analysts, myself included, with the sense that this would be a crucial issue at the ballot box.

“The annual Lowy Institute Poll demonstrated stronger support for climate change action in Australia in 2019 than in any previous survey since 2006…

“Crucially, those identifying it as the most important issue had risen from 9 per cent in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2019. Advocacy groups and even media outlets also encouraged the view that 2019 was, and should be, Australia’s climate election…

“[However] support for climate action looks broadly consistent with a ‘post-materialist’ sensibility.

“Here the emphasis on quality of life over immediate economic and physical needs encourages a focus on issues like climate change. But this is a sensibility that speaks to those in higher socio-economic brackets, and principally with higher levels of education.”

In other words, climate change played well among the affluent middle classes in the Melbourne and Sidney suburbs, but failed to win over working class voters; especially in those areas where polluting industries like coal mining continue to provide the bulk of the jobs.

This points to a dimension of the growing crisis that neither climate campaigners nor politicians have been willing to discuss.  Across the non-US developed world, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the population regard the climate science as settled and expect their political leaders to do something about it.  In the USA, the proportion is lower, but is still a majority. The devil, as they say, is in the detail, however.  Robinson Meyer at the Atlantic after last year’s US midterms, shed light on why support for climate action in opinion polls fails to translate into votes at actual elections:

“The results were pretty good for the climate-concerned. Democrats swept into the House of Representatives, winning nearly 40 seats in the chamber. For the first time since 2010, the chair of the House Science Committee will affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.

“It was a fine Tuesday, in other words, for the day-to-day climate advocacy of the Democratic Party…

“Yet last week, one of the most progressive and outdoorsy states in the country defeated a ballot question that would have established America’s first carbon tax…  Statewide, Democrats trounced in last week’s elections: Almost 59 percent of voters reelected the Democrat Maria Cantwell to the U.S. Senate. Yet nearly the same number, 56 percent, rejected the carbon-tax measure.”

The same thing happened in a more disruptive manner in France last year, when Macron attempted to impose a supposedly uncontroversial tax on diesel as part of his overall plans to cut carbon emissions.  The result was the yellow vests protests which continue to this day.

Put simply, while the overwhelming majority of us agree that “something must be done” about climate change; the consensus breaks down the moment anybody puts an actual proposal on the table.  Carbon and fuel taxes sound fine so long as someone else is paying them.  Installing solar panels and wind turbines is okay until you discover that your already eye-watering energy bills will have to rise again to pay for them.  Electric cars are great until you realise that the government is taxing you to claw back the subsidies offered to the affluent minority who can afford to buy them; and that you will either be paying more taxes or having more basic services cut to fund the necessary grid upgrades to allow them to be recharged.

Expensive as these policies are, they barely scratch the surface of the reforms that would be needed to meet the Paris Agreement targets.  As Thomas Hornigold at The Singularity notes, staying within 1.5C of warming would involve a lot of disruption; beginning immediately:

“Imagine that, starting in 2019, all carbon-emitting infrastructure is phased out at the end of its lifetime. Any power plant that closes down, any car that breaks down or is sold, any plane, or any ship is either replaced by a zero-emitting alternative, or not replaced at all. Deforestation is stopped instantly (in reality, it’s still accelerating).

“Any industry that currently emits carbon dioxide finds green alternatives or buries its emissions over the next few decades. Perhaps most dramatically, within a few years all those methane-emitting livestock (cows and sheep) are either slaughtered, or their emissions are offset somehow.

“If all of this is done, everywhere—and it would represent the most radical industrial transformation the world had ever seen… we would have a 64 percent chance of hitting the 1.5C target.”

One reason why we ought to have heeded the warnings about the damage we were doing to the environment back in the 1970s is that economic inequality was considerably lower than it is today.  Moreover, the social security and social services of the period provided far more of a safety net than the patchy and inadequate equivalents today.  In Democrat-controlled California – which, were it a nation in its own right, would be the fifth largest economy in the world – twenty percent of the population are living in poverty; while the lives of those at the bottom of the heap increasingly resemble life in Hogarth’s  1751 “Gin Lane.” 

California is far from unique, of course.  In the UK more than 14 million people live in poverty; with whole swathes of rural and ex-industrial Britain condemned to economic and social decay.  While average incomes have been rising, prosperity – the amount of discretionary spending people have available after taxes and essentials have been paid for – has declined dramatically in the UK and across the developed world.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones sums up the problem this raises for climate campaigners when he says that:

“I think this is generalizable as support for addressing climate change is a mile wide and an inch deep. Carbon tax? Sure! But add even the smallest reason to abandon it, and people do. Merely reminding them that a carbon tax will raise energy prices cuts support by a third, and if you give people an alternative to latch onto they’ll leap at it…

“It’s easy to look at polls and declare that big majorities support liberals on climate change. But those polls are nearly meaningless. As this study shows, support for climate policies drops dramatically when faced with even tiny changes in messaging. Just consider how this carbon tax question would have gone if it had instead faced the headwind of an opposition that can fund huge amounts of scaremongering. Support would drop like a stone. That’s the real world we live in.”

Most climate campaigners have a blind spot in this area.  As I have said before, just because economics is a pseudoscience does not mean that the economy doesn’t matter.  And those at the bottom of the heap in regions that have been experiencing the slow motion collapse of industrial civilisation for the best part of the last half century are more realistic in their assessment of where we are going than starry-eyed affluent liberals who maintain the fiction that we can overcome the climate emergency with barely any inconvenience to our entirely fossil fuel-dependent way of life.

Those who are already struggling to feed their families and to heat their homes and keep their lights on because the government has slapped a “green surcharge” onto their energy bills to pay for affluent liberals to drive expensive electric cars and deploy free solar systems on their roofs know all too well where all of this greenwash is going to end up… and it isn’t anywhere pleasant.

In fact, tackling economic inequality and raising people out of poverty is as essential to any serious attempt to tackle the climate crisis as closing coal power stations and banning petroleum cars.  Indeed, it is no longer simply about sharing some of the pain with the affluent classes by, for example, curbing commercial air travel or imposing carbon taxes on international shipping.  The only way in which climate policies are going to be acceptable to the increasingly hard up majority of the electorate is if those at the very top of the wealth and income ladder shoulder – and are seen to shoulder – a proportionate share of the pain. And that, dear reader is something that they will resist to the end… which is why the middle class entreaty to “swap your petrol car for an electric bicycle” may very well prove to be our historical era’s equivalent to “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”

As you made it to the end…

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