Monday, 17 December 2007

The environmental debate has to be rescued from the flagellants who would cut growth

Bruce Anderson:

Like all fanatical cults, they have their Devil, in the US, and their rituals, in recycling plastic bags, et al
Published: 17 December 2007

Last week, we saw some of the people who put "mental" into environmentalism. Important topics were discussed in Bali. That is not necessarily as absurd as it sounds. But it rapidly became so. Who popped up? A crying Dutchman in a flower-power shirt. The Flying Dutchman had better tunes.

Yet it could be dangerous to be distracted by laughing at the lunatics, who must not be allowed to obscure an important truth. At the core of environmentalism there is a common-sense proposition: man-made climate change. Climate change has occurred throughout the earth's history.

The causal link between carbon emissions and global warming is only a hypothesis. But as Karl Popper argued, we approach scientific truth through hypotheses, discarding them when they are proven wrong. Far from being proven wrong, carbon-burning climate change sounds plausible. You do not have to be a tree-hugging, tofu-eating America hater – or even a lachrymose Ivo de Boer – to recognise the risk that a huge increase in carbon emissions might destabilise the earth's atmosphere.

Sir Nicholas Stern's report does not read as if the typescript was tear-stained. It is a coolly argued document, proposing sensible measures. Nick Stern does not think that the human race ought to live in long houses eating roots and berries. He does not even believe that we need to renounce cars, supermarkets or air travel. He merely proposes sensible readjustments and this raises the question of the balance of proof.

Even if you do not accept that carbon has been proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, there are good grounds for siding with Sir Nicholas. Suppose he is wrong. In that case, there would have been unnecessarily early expenditure in order to find substitutes for carbon fuels. Yet, there would be gains. Fossil fuels not only tend to be located in geopolitically inconvenient regions; one day, they must run out.

So the Stern measures would not be that wasteful. But suppose he is right. If nothing is done over the next few years, the catch-up costs could be enormous – and insufficient to avert instability and perhaps war. Just because some of the silliest people on earth are proclaiming that there is a mortal threat to the planet, we cannot assume that they are mistaken.

Nor need we share their pessimism about Bali. Progress was made. Even if there are no figures for reductions, there is a framework which includes the US, China and India. That offers a basis for hope – as long as the next phase of the emissions' debate is sufficiently radical.

There were always two problems with Kyoto. It was far too influenced by the Greenpeace-style excesses of mid-90s environmentalism and it did not include America. At that stage, the anti-nuclear power movement was at its most powerful in both the US and Europe. Since then it has lost ground, largely because governments have had to think through the consequences of reducing carbon emissions and the real-world alternatives to fossil fuels.

In those days, however, a major US nuclear power programme would have been impossible. As a result, there was the worst possible stalemate. The Green Movement, though incapable of persuading Americans to consume less energy, did succeed in cutting off new energy sources, whether nuclear plants or offshore oil drilling.

America should not be criticised for failing to sign Kyoto. Someone ought to remind Al Gore there was never any question of it doing so. Anyone who doubts this should remember that, while Bill Clinton was president and Al Gore vice-president, the US Senate rejected Kyoto by 95 votes to nil. This happened because American legislators who agreed on little else did come together on one point. The Kyoto limits were incompatible with economic growth.

That is where the post-Bali negotiators must do better. What is needed is a fundamental change of emphasis. Instead of focusing on carbon reductions, much more attention should be given to the increased use of clean energy. Over the next dozen years, the Indian and Chinese economies might well double in size. Nothing ever seems to stop the US economy from growing. Europe desperately needs higher growth rates. So does Japan; so, above all, does the poor world.

Growth depends on energy. It might be possible to use emotional blackmail to persuade some Western countries to cut their growth rates. That will not work in India and China. Whatever Mr Gore now says, it is unlikely to work in the US and it ought not to work in the poor world.

Higher energy consumption is vitally important and there are only two ways of achieving it: fossil fuels or nuclear power. Although carbon capture and other technologies to ensure a cleaner burn could make it possible to increase fossil fuel use without grave consequences, there is only one answer to the problem of clean energy. Everyone who cares about the environment should agitate in favour of a greatly increased global nuclear power programme.

We can be fairly sure that this is not going to happen and the blame lies with the enviro-"mentals". They are not pursuing disinterested science, in the spirit of the Stern report. Their environmentalism is a religion. Like all fanatical cults, it is hostile to science and to reason. It has its Devil: the US, abetted by the Western consumer. It has its rituals: recycling plastic bags, etc. It offers endless excuses for self-flagellation, such as possessing plastic bags in the first place. It even has its own temples.

It could be argued that the British wind-turbines are the most wasteful public works programme since the Pyramids. But there is a difference. The Pyramids are objects of wonder, grandeur and beauty. In future, the turbines will, no doubt, be objects of wonder. People will wonder why our generation was so daft to build them when they require large subsidies for an uncertain output while despoiling large tracts of the British landscape.

There is no harm in the occasional domestic wind turbine. But anyone who believes that such turbines could be the answer to Britain's energy needs has either failed to understand the need for energy or is indifferent to the consequences of energy shortage.

The environmental debate has to be rescued from flagellants. It is perfectly possible for the world to go on enjoying a rising standard of living while reducing carbon emissions. If the problem is approached in that spirit, there is no reason why the Americans, Chinese and Indians should refuse to co-operate.

So there are grounds for believing that the Bali discussions could prove fruitful. The next meeting might achieve more, as long as one precondition is met. There must be no blubbing Dutchmen wearing two floral shirts, one on his upper body, the other between his ears.

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