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Too much green energy “musterbation”

The term “musterbation” – over-using the word must (or should or ought) comes from cognitive therapy.  It refers to the way mentally ill people hold themselves to wholly unrealistic beliefs about what is possible.  Such patients will often express beliefs such as, “to be a good person, I must be married with children,” or “to be successful I must have a six-figure salary.”  The inevitable failure that usually follows such unrealistic expectations serves to drive these poor souls even deeper into the depths of despair.

Shift attention away from mental illness, however, to the way we talk about green energy and we find the same unrealistic beliefs – “to stop climate change we must switch to wind and solar,” or “we must decarbonise our economy to save our planet” – and to the same effect: we end up feeling powerless, useless and depressed.

Libraries around the world are now bursting at the seams with reports and policy proposals from a host of learned bodies explaining how we could green the global economy and why we must do so for the sake of our children.  But, like the distorted thoughts and beliefs of someone in the grip of depressive illness, these tend to be short on any realistic strategy for achieving the desired outcome.  As Nick Butler at the Financial Times notes, the latest of these reports is no different:

“The words “can” and “could” appear frequently throughout the report.  For instance: ‘By 2040 intermittent renewables (solar and wind) could reach 45% of the global power mix with other zero carbon power sources representing about 35% and unabated fossil fuels the remaining 20%.’”

Butler cautions us here that:

“Optimism is a great thing, but without a cold recognition of reality it is dangerous because it distracts attention from what is actually happening and what is not.”

The point here is not that our various green energy wishes are undesirable.  Rather, without a much greater grasp of the complexity of the global economy, they are simply unrealistic.  For example:

“[The report] concludes that the additional investments in the energy system — that is around $300bn to $600bn a year — ‘do not pose a major macroeconomic challenge’. The desired outcome, it says, can be achieved by reducing investment in fossil fuels by some $3.7tn between now and 2030 coupled with investment of an additional $6tn in renewables and other low carbon technologies and almost $9tn in more efficient energy-saving equipment and buildings.”

To give some context to this fantasy investment proposal, British politicians are today arguing about the state’s ability to continue to fund a £300 winter fuel allowance paid to pensioners in the event of temperatures falling below 0oC for seven days or more – something that hasn’t happened in the last three years.  At the same time, Donald Trump has announced the sale of half of the USA’s strategic oil reserves in order to fund at least some of the infrastructure promised in his election campaign.  The point is that Western governments that are still struggling with the consequences of the 2008 financial crash are not about to invest billions in the Chinese factories that produce most of the world’s wind turbines and solar panels while simultaneously destroying jobs in their domestic fossil fuel industries.  Most green energy reports assume that such economic and political considerations are unimportant.  As Butler points out:

“The options for taking action have been clear for the last 20 years and science and engineering are gradually reducing the costs of many of the possible steps. The challenge now is not about identifying what could be done, but rather about understanding why the possible and the actual are still so far apart.”

The “Big State” solution to climate change is not going to happen simply because there is no such big state apparatus that can command that level of investment.  In any case, individual governments are unlikely to tolerate the kind of political disruption that would inevitably follow the kind of capital transfers involved.  That leaves “The Market” – the sum total of transactions that every individual, firm and government on earth enters into day-in, day-out.  Here there is some scope for optimism.  Technologies have been improved and costs have fallen dramatically.  Politically, it may prove far more fruitful to develop alternative energy strategies at a local (city and regional) level – where renewable energy has the potential to cut millions off annual public sector, business and household energy bills – than to wait for the national state to ride to the rescue.  But none of this is helped by sweeping and ultimately pointless musterbation:

“The picture is complex and the chances of a neat global solution to the challenge of climate change are still low. That is why it is a disservice to present a report that lays out a utopian outcome without tackling the economic and behavioural challenges, and without opening up the essential debate on plan B — a strategy for adaptation.”

When a cognitive behavioural therapist works with a depressed patient, one of her first tasks is to encourage the patient to drop his unrealistic overarching beliefs, since these most often lead to paralysis.  Instead, the therapist will ask, “what one thing could you do today?”  This, perhaps, is the approach we should take to climate change and green energy.  Instead of treating the state like some surrogate parent who we demand must ride to our rescue, we need to grow up.  If we each make changes to our own lifestyles and business practices, we have a basis on which to ask our local politicians to make changes to the way our cities and regions operate.  And if enough households, villages, towns and cities make enough of the changes that we need, sooner or later national and international politicians will have to follow our lead.  Or perhaps we must commission yet another report?

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