Some thoughts about policy for the aftermath of the climate wars.
Charles Mackay wrote in his book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds – “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” The book may have been written in the mid-nineteenth century, but here we are at the kick off to the twenty-first, and that mass psychology is only too familiar. Maybe Hari Seldon was on to something after all.
The global warming craze is dying down. People, as Mackay noted, are coming out of it one by one and that process is accelerating with every passing day. Governments are cutting subsidies for green technologies not only because they don’t work, but because government coffers are empty. They’re broke. The politicians no longer mention it because it no longer gets votes and indeed just attracts a baleful hostility from a cash-strapped electorate, worried about paying their soaring power bills in the midst of the worst recession in living memory.
The reputation of climate science has taken a terrible beating, with one iconic symbol after another brought down by the skeptic blogosphere. The arrogant and at times criminal behaviour of some of the alarmist scientists involved, such as Peter Gleick, has further eroded any respect for it. Within the field and in related ones, researchers are now emboldened to question the supposedly “settled” science. Across the world, the carbon trading market is dead. The journalists specialising on the environment are finding their jobs disappearing or under threat, and are consequently moving on to other more viable niches. Basically, the popular media are deserting the party. High principles about saving the planet are all okay, but one’s livelihood is so much more important, isn’t it?
The whole political movement has already made too many poor inward-looking decisions and from any conceivable strategic viewpoint, their position is by now unrecoverable. The mainstream politicians are avoiding them like the plague or keeping them in the waiting room for a change, and there’s an emergent pattern of alarmists being released from hitherto safe sinecures like NASA, the BBC and certain prestigious news outlets in places like Washington, amongst others. The embarrassment factor has just got too big and the establishment is, as they euphemistically say, reconfiguring its posture.
The only people, who will be left on the burning deck of the sinking ship when all else have fled, will be the political activists and the committed climate scientists, who aren’t all that clued up politically.
That’s a wall, look at it, and read the writing on it. You’re being flushed.
Their reaction to that message is to scream ever more loudly, ever more dire warnings of the increasingly terrible things about to crash down on us. With such extreme behaviour, they’re rapidly pushing themselves towards the political fringe, which is exactly where we want them to be. They’re not thinking too straight. It’s like watching a manifestation of that definition of insanity; persistently and single-mindedly doing exactly the same thing over and over and somehow expecting a different result.
Even the science wing of the cause is trapped in that same obsessive compulsive loop. No matter how many times they try to rehabilitate things like the hockey stick, it’s by now irrelevant. Even if they could get it to successfully run the length of the skeptic gauntlet, it would still be irrelevant. Crying wolf louder and louder, results in people not listening, harder and harder. That’s the basic syndrome and they’re by now already well into diminishing returns.
As they say on all the wrassling programs; there’s no way out, you’re going down Dude. It’s just a matter of time and time, as I’ve said before, is on our side.
If you agree that’s a reasonable assessment of the current state of play, the “let’s get ahead of the game” question has to be – where do we go from here?
Now that it’s in retreat, we have to start the push to get much of the environmentally justified policy scrapped or reversed. However, there’s two decades worth of policy and regulation in place, so it’s consequently difficult to see where one should start. There’s so much of it.
Stepping back from the problem, I think we should be guided by a complete reversal of the current environmental priority. From now on, we should save people first and then the Earth, rather than the other way around. If any policy injures people in favour of the name of the environment, it gets scrapped. People first, planet second. A nice simple mantra.
Some environmentalists actually do think that’s already the priority but the boots on the ground reality is the other way around. Environmental policy is pushing the poor of the developed world into things like fuel poverty and butchering its way through the defenseless in the developing world. The victims know that too. As a typical example, read the article on VAD below, but there are lots of other instances.
Replace food staples with biofuel crops and let the food riots begin. Refuse to let the developing world have access to better GM seeds, and let the crops fail. Let them starve. Don’t allow them funds to build power plants, leave them without light and heat. Don’t let them have access to DDT, let millions die needlessly of malaria every year. The list is endless but the common denominator of them all, is spending lives to save the Earth from various perceived but illusory threats.
Explicitly and publically swapping the priority in this way is not some sort of optimistic stab at a solution on my part. If you really want to protect the environment, then that’s actually the only way of achieving it, especially if you want to get the developing world on board. One of the key reasons why the whole green project failed, was that the developing world not only distrusted it, but always despised it for its rank hypocrisy. It’s the people of the developing world who are on the bleeding edge of environmental policies. That’s why they torpedoed Copenhagen and every annual climate clam bake since. They’ll do the same to any future ones too, unless there’s a sea change in the politics of the environment.
When the ordinary person is prosperous and feeling good, it gives them the time, the leisure and the disposable wealth to care about things beyond life’s essentials. It’s not difficult to get them interested in the environmental fundamentals such as clean air and water, and conservation of endangered flora or fauna.
Conversely, when people are hungry, desperate or under economic stress, care for the environment drops to the very bottom of their list of concerns. Every honest opinion poll in the developed world has been showing this since the recession began. In the developing world, if desperate people need heat and light, they’ll keep doing things like burning every tree in sight until there isn’t a single one left, Haiti being an extreme and terrible example of the latter.
If what people in poverty need to do to get by, is trash the environment, that’s exactly what they’ll do and they’ll be right as well. People first, planet second. If you are seriously expecting them to do anything else, you really need to park your ideological baggage on one side for a moment and really think – this argument is a no brainer. When you stress people, they go back to basics – they’ll look after themselves and their dependents and to hell with you and your tender environmental concerns. You’re the one living in cloud cuckoo land, not them.
Using that simple change in priority, there are many obvious quick win policy changes which could easily be put in place. Simply abolishing the lavish subsidies enjoyed by the renewables gravy train, would stop the money transfer from the poor to the already rich, and lift hundreds of thousands out of fuel poverty in the developed world. When you’ve been backed up against the wall and can no longer afford to heat your home, you don’t much care about the environment.
In the developing world, the changes are mainly in the area of food and health. In the short-term, we can quickly implement policy changes, which while they may result in a lot of professionally offended people being knee-deep in the blood of sacred cows, will save a lot of lives.
We need to give real help in fixing the root causes of problems rather than just mitigating their effects. They need access to cheap GM seeds that are drought and disease resistant. We need to stop growing bio fuels, to bring back down the price of food staples. They need access to things like DDT, so they can get rid of malaria, like we did half a century ago.
The big thing which is needed, and will bring on prosperity, is electricity. So much of the developing world is rich in minerals and ores. Africa, for instance, has 4% of the world’s coal. Let’s help them build generation plants. Whatever your view on that, what is obvious is they will build those plants in the end, because renewables are a laughably inadequate option for the developing world. It’s only by building real infrastructure that prosperity can come about.
When people are lifted out of grinding poverty, then they’ll be inclined to consider the environment, never mind the planet.
Longer term, we have two other problems closer to home facing us, neither of which have any simple solutions, but both will have to be addressed at some point. The commonality they share is rehabilitation.
The first one is rehabilitating environmentalism. Like every global warming skeptic out there whom I’ve ever talked with, I was and still am an old-fashioned environmentalist. Like a surprising number of them, I was there at the start, doing my part in preventing the needless and wanton destruction of nature, because I loved it.
We human beings are not some new suddenly discovered strange creature living outside the food chain, we’re part of it and always have been, part of nature and that’s what every true hunter celebrates with every kill. Everyone in the whole chain has to eat. We all have to get by. Believing anything else is a dangerous and decadent self-indulgence, which only people fundamentally out of touch with nature could have come up with it. That’s how we got into this situation in the first place.
The political monstrosity environmentalism mutated into now threatens to lose some of the ground that was gained in the seventies and eighties. I’m not sure what can be done to mitigate that damage except rebranding it to something new like stewardship of nature, but I fear the damage runs deep. It’s by now a tainted brand. People are deeply cynical nowadays about anything to do with the word environmental. Two decades worth of damage in the popular psyche, I’m afraid.
The environmental movement has only itself to blame, and like a lot of people who actively supported its genesis, I must take my fair share of blame. We took our eye off it and allowed it to be hijacked by the gangrenous and rotting stump of left of centre western political extremism in the aftermath of the collapse of soviet communism. Once they’d done that, it was easy to suck in the fashionable but feckless sons and daughters of the well-to-do middle classes, especially in the midst of an unusually long economic boom. Just dangle a righteous cause in front of their noses, in just the right way, to give their lives some shadow of a grand mission, and leave the rest to their youthful enthusiasm and entitled nature.
The coming battle for the real soul of environmentalism, I leave to my children and their’s, because that’s what I see as the timeframe of that particular struggle. But, by the time they walk onto the field, what will constitute what’s left of the environmental establishment will be institutionalised, moribund and I think, fairly easy to knock off its perch. It’s already looking distinctly shell-shocked.
The next one that’s going to need some rehabilitating is science, but fortunately the position on that one isn’t so dire. This may come as a bit of a shock to all you scientific lads and lassies out there, but the common person has always taken what any scientist says with a pinch of salt, and that’s even if they can be bothered to listen. As soon as they hear that magic opening phrase – scientists have said that – they tend to switch off. It’s a real tribute to the standard of science education around the world.
It’s not actually as strong a brand as its adherents like to believe. Amongst the self-declared intelligentsia – yes, among ordinary people – no. That’s why it was always the sons of the well-to-do middle classes saying they’d lay down their life to save Mother Earth, never a son of the working classes. It was that hidden stripe of retro class politics running through the whole thing.
That was always a flaw in the idea of hijacking science, or to be more exact, hijacking climate science, in the name of doing some re-engineering of society. Despite what people might think, science isn’t actually too important to the common person. A major facet of the climate wars was the vicious dog fights over the science, but what you’ve really got to take on board is that the vast majority of people never had a dog in those fights. They didn’t even watch them. You know, it was just bebop Jazz to them, some modern composers making terrible diatonic noises, crashes they couldn’t hear any damn point in, Kraftwerk at their inexplicable worst. You just can’t dance to the stuff.
Sorry about that, but scientists are actually not that significant to the ordinary man in the street.
If there was a single effective result from those fights, it was wresting the scientific heights out of the hands of the alarmists, which gives the politicians the authority to say the science is far from settled. It simply created that crack in the establishment consensus, that room for manoeuvre, which they will use. The alarmists signally never ever came close to proving their case, and for me that was science at its glorious best. It’s pure Missouri – show me. Proof talks, bullshit walks. Science is a harsh mistress, as the alarmist scientists have found out.
The one thing we must not allow to happen, is to win this war, and by default leave a policy vacuum there. Let it drift without direction and leadership, and it’ll be taken over by the same sort of venial creatures we’ve just beaten. It’s obviously not over, but it’s undoubtably heading in that direction and now is the time for what few real policy leaders we have, to start thinking about what comes next and make some sound proposals.
Too much damage has already been done. What we need now is a confident and timely take up of the policy initiative.
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