Faced with non-English speakers, the stereotypical Englishman abroad had a nasty habit of shouting ever louder in the vain belief that this would make him understood. In what passes for a summer of 2023, the British Eloi have taken to the same bad habit in relation to global warming. The fingerprints of the Covid “nudge unit” are all over the garish red and black weather maps and lurid forecasts of heatwaves which somehow fail to put in an appearance. Meanwhile, an activist “journalist” takes a 1,800 mile flight to tell us that the weather is hot in the Mediterranean at this time of year. And then there was the strange lady who gate crashed George Osborne’s wedding, who had previously declared a “climate emergency” just before jetting off to Thailand for a three-week holiday.
When it comes to rank hypocrisy, of course, these examples pale into insignificance compared to the world’s uber-wealthy jetting off to Davos for their annual pilgrimage, where they feast on prime steak and high-class prostitutes while telling the rest of us that we’ll have to holiday at home and get used to eating bugs. And then there’s the rolling COP conferences – which would be conducted via Zoom if they were serious – where the great and the good are flown in and driven around in cavalcades so that they can decide on the eco-austerity which will be applied to the rest of us.
Craziest of all though, is that none of it matters. The population is – or at least was – already convinced. Survey after survey shows that some 75-80 percent of us are concerned or very concerned about climate change… you don’t need to shout. If the aim is to make that last 20 percent change their minds, then we’d just as well pack up and go home… because it isn’t going to happen. Indeed, the more the nudgers and the hypocrites are allowed to lead the way, the more entrenched the opposition is likely to become.
There is though, a very real – and unresolvable – issue beneath the angry surface of the latest official scaremongering. This is that nobody has a plan… its just another instance of the neoliberal Underpants Gnomes approach to problem solving. Indeed, go back to that 1989 UN conference when Margaret Thatcher set out the neoliberal approach to climate change, and we see the origins of the problem:
“But as well as the science, we need to get the economics right. That means first we must have continued economic growth in order to generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment. But it must be growth which does not plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow.
“And second, we must resist the simplistic tendency to blame modern multinational industry for the damage which is being done to the environment. Far from being the villains, it is on them that we rely to do the research and find the solutions.” (my emphasis)
“Market forces” were going to come to the rescue, so there was no need for governments to do much more than stand aside and let global industry solve the problem. Except that this isn’t what industry does… no matter how much we care to reify the mythical marketplace. What industries do, is to make profits for shareholders. Sure, if they see an opportunity in cloaking themselves in green or rainbow flags, they will do so – perhaps selling us non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) as a false solution along the way. But figuring out how to reverse the environmental damage caused by three centuries of industrialisation was never really on the agenda.
Nor should we have expected consumers to affect change. Certainly, people could – and did – make changes around the edges. We recycled… only to discover later that our trash was being exported to the global south to be burned, dumped in landfill, or thrown in the ocean… out of sight and out of mind, and all that. We could – and often did – lower the thermostat, wash in lukewarm water, and fit energy-saving lightbulbs. And it really did have an impact. As the International Energy Agency reports:
“The United Kingdom is a global leader in decarbonisation with a net-zero goal by 2050 and 5-yearly carbon budgets, and a plan to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, from 1990 levels. Building on the UK’s strengths, energy technology and innovation is at the centre of the decarbonisation policy.”
The UK’s final energy consumption is 25 percent lower than its high point in 2005 and is 1.25 percent lower than it had been in 1990. And Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions are 44.9 percent lower than in 1990 (mostly as a result of switching from coal to gas). But the dark truth behind these numbers is that a large part of British emissions occur in other countries from which we import our food, our raw materials, and our finished goods… something which bodes badly for our future energy and emissions mix.
Climate scientists must themselves take some of the blame here too. Long after a critical mass of the population had accepted the reality of climate change, the climate scientists continued to hog the media airwaves, when the people we needed to hear more from were the physicists, engineers, and technologists who would have to develop a workable plan of action. Instead, climate scientists and climate activists made entirely unsupported claims about renewable energy and about future technologies which simply do not exist outside the deranged minds of Herr Schwab and his techno-psychotic followers. Meanwhile, global carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependency continue to grow remorselessly… and the angry shouting grows ever louder.
So much so that our modern political class – professional gobshites with little clue how to get anything done – has been obliged to “do something” just to appease those making the noise. Except that there never was a viable “something” which could be done. Because, despite the protestations of climate scientists and climate activists, the economy matters… and the political consequences of getting it wrong are potentially horrific.
By the time Thatcher made her speech to the UN, we were already running behind where we needed to be to maintain global temperatures. So that what was called for was a coherent plan rather than a free market free-for-all in which the interests which could shout the loudest were given priority. And by far the loudest narrative on offer has been one or other variant of the mythical “fourth industrial revolution” – aka, the green new deal/net zero/fully-automated luxury communism – in which our complex, global, industrial economy simply swaps NRREHTs for the coal, gas, and oil which currently accounts for eighty percent of our energy.
Nobody bothered to check whether this was possible or, whether there was enough energy and enough mineral resources to build the proposed alternative energy system. Indeed, nobody even checked whether it is possible to manufacture, transport, deploy, and maintain wind turbines, solar panels and nuclear power plants using renewable energy alone. And so long as climate change was decades in the future it didn’t really seem to matter.
Fast forward to today, and it turns out that all of those things that we didn’t bother checking are show-stoppers. Without coal, gas, and oil – all of which are approaching peak production and will be less available in future – it is impossible to build and deploy the proposed alternative energy system. And even if fossil fuel growth could continue, there is not enough left of planet Earth to provide even a fraction of the minerals required… which leaves us with the socio-economic crisis which has just begun.
With no plan – still less one that the majority of us could buy into – there are three broad alternatives. First, and least likely to work, is to continue with business as usual in the hope that market forces will deliver the technology to save the day. Since no such technology is even “over-the-horizon,” and since, in any case, it would have to be coupled to a new source of cheap and energy-dense energy (so not NRREHTs) the risk is that we are wilfully passing a raft of environmental tipping points of which, climate change is only one.
The second alternative, often expounded by environmental activists, is some version of de-growth in which we return to a kind of rural idyll – usually one in which all of the benefits of industrialisation are maintained and only the bad elements done away with. But that isn’t how de-industrialisation will play out because, again, there is no plan. In reality, the complexity of the global economy is such that it is like one of those Jenga games where pulling blocks out at random causes the entire structure to collapse… de-growth is more likely to look like Mad Max than a scene from a Turner painting.
Third, is the alternative we are actually pursuing, in which the uberwealthy use project fear to panic the population into accepting a version of change in which ordinary people are plunged into poverty even as those at the top cling onto their supposed wealth. And the most interesting thing about this version of our proposed future is that it is as impossible as the other two. The reason for this is that, ultimately, wealth is energy. That is, money – which we mere mortals often equate with wealth – is only really a claim on future goods and services which, in turn, depend upon energy at every stage in their production. And here’s the kicker: it is precisely because the neoliberal system pumped so much wealth into the hands of so few people, that as the energy depletes, so, ultimately, must the wealth of the godzillionaires.
Things will unravel a lot sooner than that, of course. In Britain, for example, the political class is beginning to have second thoughts. A little over a week ago, Labour lost a by-election which ought to have been a shoe-in because of the lunacy of devolving environmental policy to profligate local authorities. This was bound to amplify the trend in which climate policy imposes eco-austerity on ordinary people. In this instance it was the mendaciously named Ultra Low Emissions Scheme (ULEZ) which is primarily a fundraiser for the high-spending London Authority rather than a genuine effort to lower emissions… if the problem is that serious, you outright ban high-emitting vehicles, you don’t just charge people £12.50-a-day to continue emitting. Even those broadly in favour of the ULEZ aims are critical of the way it is being done. For example, Jessica Byrne at threds accepts that:
“Still, it’s hard to ignore how Sadiq Khan may have got expanding the ULEZ wrong. Moving 5 million drivers away from high-emitting vehicles requires a lot of pre-planning that seems to have been overlooked.
“If local residents should lean into electric vehicles (EVs), there needs to be a matched supply of electric vehicles available for sale. At the moment, the demand for EVs is higher than the supply due to still-lingering supply chain issues.
“Even if there was enough stock, Londoners would need an abundance of strategically placed charging stations located across the city. But poor planning and slow implementation mean there are only 45,000 stations available across the entire UK.
“Finally, for diesel truck drivers – of which there are 30,000 in London – Auto Traders reports having only 5,181 vans that meet London’s low-emission criteria available for sale.
“Basically, the enforcement of the ULEZ is a hot mess. While it might force emission levels in the city down, it going to take many already-struggling businesses down with it.”
ULEZ is just one example of a harebrained scheme implemented at least in part to fill a hole in a council budget, whose lack of forward planning guarantees that people will oppose it at the ballot box. And while the cost of so-called “green” policies is lower down the electorate’s list of priorities – the cost-of-living crisis and unmanaged immigration poll higher – as the additional costs associated with renewable energy become apparent, more people are making the link with eco-austerity.
Across the North Sea, a similar backlash occurred in the Dutch local elections following the poorly planned attempt to turn Holland from one of the world’s biggest agricultural exporters into a food importer. The Farmer-Citizens’ Party won the most seats (137) on the biggest share of the vote (19%). At the same time, the nationalist-populist Alternative for Germany has emerged as the main opponent to the Green-Social Democrat coalition which, among other things, has been systematically de-industrialising the German economy… ironically, with the German wind turbine industry being one of the early casualties.
Al Gore buying a beachfront mansion in California while lecturing us on Sea level rise, Joe Biden travelling in a 21 car motorcade to take “the most carbon intensive afternoon nap in history,” and the London Mayor parading around in a convoy of SUVs while lecturing the public on air pollution, play into the emerging counternarrative that this is all fake, that climate change is a scam to cover one final wealth grab by the rich and powerful… and the poorer people get, the more they will buy into this narrative – Just like with Brexit – as the only hope that their fortunes might improve.
In the end though, nobody’s fortunes are going to improve because the energy upon which all of our current wealth is based is going away. As it does so, any ability to act which we may once have had, will evaporate too. And as the political class loses its ability to pacify us with bread and circuses, the fear will be ramped up. As I wrote eight years ago:
“Because of our current economic woes, politicians are less able to provide us with rewards. As we progress into an uncertain future, politicians increasingly utilise our fear to encourage apathy and compliance. They ruthlessly utilise the insights provided by neurobiologists, psychologists and behavioural economists to prevent the rest of us from using our rational neo-prefrontal cortex to start to seriously address the predicament that we all find ourselves in.”
But there will come a time – perhaps not that far in the future – when the majority are too poor to be concerned with the latest politically-inspired fear story, and too focussed upon their immediate needs to worry about things which may or may not happen in future. By which time, the political class itself will be irrelevant… or worse.
As you made it to the end…
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