For the best part of 40 years, the climate debate has split across a broadly left (liberal)/right (conservative) divide in which the left argue that we need urgent action to prevent runaway global warming while the right questions the validity of the evidence. Meanwhile, businesses and households carry on with business as usual in the vain hope that if climate change turns out to be real, smart people somewhere else will figure out what to do.
So long as the conservative right put up obvious energy industry-funded idiots like Nigel Lawson in the UK and Jim Inhofe in the USA to argue that climate change is a hoax, the left has never had to question its own assumptions. But the political right are not all climate change deniers. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher – one of the global right’s iconic figures and also a scientist fully capable of evaluating climate data – was all too clear that climate change was real and posed a great danger to humanity.
What made Margaret Thatcher’s view on climate change uncomfortable to many on the left was that she opened up a political divide among the broad movement to address the problem. Thatcher believed that free markets were the route to reversing climate change. The market would deliver new technologies like carbon capture and storage, nuclear fusion, safe nuclear fission and efficient solar and wind power. By distorting the market, state intervention could only get in the way. The left’s counter to this is that without states forcing corporations to pay the full cost of the damage they do to the environment, they will continue to unfairly undercut the emerging green technologies and prevent them from ever becoming commercially viable.
Both positions are a matter of faith. The real world has never witnessed a free market, so we will never know if such a theoretical entity could produce the desired outcomes. Meanwhile, the reality of corporate power and market manipulation has allowed business as usual to continue to the point that we now face a global catastrophe in the very near future. Against this, the state has yet to be created that will act in the public interest against the interest of the corporations. So we will never know whether such a state would deliver the kind of international legislative framework that might force corporate power to act responsibly. In reality, states’ primary function is to protect and advance their narrow national economic interests. None is going to unilaterally hamstring its own economy by implementing environmental regulations that will render its domestic industries uncompetitive.
What neither left nor right factored into their positions was the looming energy crunch. The global coal industry is on the verge of bankruptcy. Oil and gas companies cannot survive on oil prices below $50 per barrel; and countries (like the UK) that depend upon oil sales to fund (at least in part) public spending need prices closer to $100. The trouble is that every time prices have spiked, the result has been a recession and a collapse in demand. What this adds up to is an inability to drive global coal, gas and oil production much higher than it is today; and without additional energy, we cannot have additional economic growth. Indeed, without new energy, we may well face a future of permanent recession.
The thinking right understands this problem all too well. What they also understand is that the solutions put forward by the left are simply not going to save the day. James Taylor, in Forbes is clear about this weakness, and offers a low-carbon alternative that will be unpalatable to many climate campaigners:
“Conservatives have a golden opportunity to show political leadership and checkmate the left on global warming policy with a conservative energy agenda championing natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. This would address global warming concerns while bringing more affordable energy options to consumers. Conservatives would force liberal political leaders to repudiate the far left’s ‘wind and solar only’ energy position or defend to a skeptical electorate why they are obstructing affordable energy options that dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”
This cuts straight to the Achilles Heel of the climate campaigning left. The narrative of the left has been that we can continue to enjoy extravagant Western lifestyles and, indeed, continue to grow even as we abandon coal, gas, oil and nuclear in favour of a new energy infrastructure based around renewables like solar, wind, hydro, biomass, tide and wave. Perhaps for fear of frightening the horses, the proponents of this narrative neglect to mention that our current fossil-fuelled way of life would inevitably collapse in the event of our making that shift in anything like the timescale required to prevent runaway climate change; and may do so anyway if we experience bankruptcy in the fossil fuel industry before we have deployed green energy alternatives.
But there is an even more devastating problem with the left’s current stance on climate change… it ignores social class. At a global level we understand that it is the poor who bear the brunt of a warming planet (at least for the time being); but it is those of us fortunate enough to live in developed countries whose lifestyles are the primary cause of the problem. But at a personal or household level, few of us are prepared to act on the basis of this understanding. And this results in a domestic class divide too. American essayist John Michael Greer puts it this way:
“Let’s imagine, for a moment, that there’s an industry in today’s industrial nations that churns out colossal amounts of greenhouse gases every single day. It doesn’t produce anything necessary for human life or well-being; it’s simply a convenience, and one that, not that many decades ago, most people in the industrial world did without and never thought they’d need. If it were to be shut down, sure, a certain number of people would lose their jobs, but most of the steps that have been urged by climate change activists would have that effect; other than that, and a certain amount of inconvenience for its current users, the only result would be a sharp decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide and certain other greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere. That being the case, shouldn’t climate change activists get to work right now to shut down that industry, and shouldn’t they start off by boycotting it themselves?… The industry in question actually exists. It’s the commercial air travel industry.”
The broad point Greer makes is that the kind of actions that have been taken – closing down coal mines, adding renewable energy subsidies to household bills, offering grants to install solar panels and wind turbines, etc. – have tended either to punish the poor and/or to privilege the affluent:
“To wage class Americans, anthropogenic climate change is just more of the same, another excuse to take jobs away from the working poor while sedulously avoiding anything that would inconvenience the middle and upper middle classes. The only way climate change activists could have evaded that response from wage class Americans would have been to demonstrate that they were willing to carry some of the costs themselves—and that was exactly what they weren’t willing to do.”
There is no energy/climate science-based reason why we should not have begun by campaigning to severely limit carbon emissions from aviation. Insisting that we continue to be allowed to fly just once a year adds the CO2 equivalent of each of us running a large SUV for a year. But asking those who can afford it to give up their holidays abroad is just too politically difficult. Perhaps more pertinently, climate campaigners have been notably reluctant to call for bans on car use, still less to give up their own cars. Nor have they championed giving up the meat and dairy products that collectively add dangerous volumes of methane to our atmosphere. Instead, the very poorest have to shoulder the costs through the decline of heavy industry and jacked-up energy bills that, for millions of people, make for an unpalatable choice between energy and food.
While this level of inequality within our response to climate change continues, can we really be surprised that large swathes of the US, UK and EU working class turn instead (as they did with Brexit and as they are doing with Donald Trump) to a right wing narrative that prioritises jobs and apparently affordable nuclear and gas-based energy over the left’s expensive zero-carbon alternatives?