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On the curious schemes of various activists, ideologues and politicians to minimise the emission of certain atmospheric gases by restructuring our energy supply and thereby our entire civilisation
As the insanity of the pandemic era recedes, I find myself writing more and more about climate politics. Many of my posts on this matter – especially the last one – elicit disagreement from readers who believe that my arguments validate the premises of climate propagandists, who want me to know that methane does not actually cause warming, who think fracking is wonderful, who observe that CO2 is essential to life, and who point out that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures have fluctuated wildly over the earth’s long history. I think these objections arise from a misunderstanding of my position. Probably the fault is mine, as I’ve not made my general views on climate change totally clear. In this post, I will endeavour to fix that.
Climatism attracts my interest above all for its many, many parallels with pandemicism. Both are internationally directed political programmes deeply rooted in professional academic research and scientific institutions. They depend on an extensive network of NGOs, think tanks and philanthropic enterprises, which feed prewritten interventions to the political arm. They are both fundamentally technocratic projects, seeking to leverage a mythologised Science to silence dissenting views and to marginalise popular sentiment, and they both depend on highly complex models to justify their irrational restrictions. Both also use apocalyptic fears as a means of corralling public opinion and coordinating the vast managerial state apparatus. There is also one very crucial difference: Pandemicism addresses itself to epidemiological phenomena that work on a timescale from weeks to years, while climatism concerns itself with epochal trends that will unfold (or not) on the scale of generations and centuries. In consequence, pandemicism can incite greater near-term hysteria, but it also has strong self-discrediting (and thus self-limiting) elements. Its many separate panics burn brighter and faster than the singular doom scenario of the climatists, which lurks effectively unchallenged by present reality in the black boxes of the climate models and the immensely complex and voluminous reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
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I am not very interested in poking empirical holes in the climate change edifice. This has been done to death, by a lot of people, with varying degrees of success and credibility. The internet is full of contrary views, debunkings, debunkings of the debunkings, debunkings of the debunkings of the debunkings, and all manner of bespoke theories, ranging from the very plausible to the highly intriguing to the crazy. I have read more of these than some of my readers seem to realise, and I have formed my own views. For the sake of transparency, I’ll lay these out here – not for the purposes of convincing you that my take is right, but just so you’ll understand better my basic attitude towards these matters. I don’t find it hard to believe that industrial development has altered atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Some portion of the recent warming is probably anthropogenic, and first became apparent, ironically, as a consequence of our efforts since the mid-twentieth-century to limit particulate pollution. That’s it, the extent of my personal beliefs on this matter. Before you fire off your angry emails, please note what I haven’t said: I don’t abhor industry or the burning of fossil fuels, I don’t offer any future predictions and I don’t think that hysterical fears of impending disaster are very serious.
What I am interested in, is probing the politics of climatism, and I think we can learn a lot by casting our eyes to the recent history of environmental movements. Broadly speaking, these movements seem to be driven by two interrelated impulses. The first is the conservationist impulse, which reacts to the impact of human industrial activities on wildlife and the natural environment. Its primary focus is the welfare of animals, plants and ecosystems, and in its purest, most naive form, it regards humans as unnatural (male) violators of a pristine and innocent (female) nature. The second impulse responds more exclusively to industrial pollution. In some contrast to the conservationists, pollutionists directly incorporate concerns about human flourishing. Both the conservationists and the pollutionists have roots extending back to the nineteenth century, when the often-drastic impacts of industrialisation first became apparent. The pollutionists fought for legislation to reduce urban smog and clean up waterways, but in the course of the twentieth century they came to focus more intensely on single pollutants, whether DDT and other pesticides, ozone-depleting substances, plastics, all things nuclear, and even the humanity-threatening oversupply of humans themselves.
Here we see the characteristic search for specific metrics that is diagnostic of managerialism. Vague injunctions to save the planet are no good for the managers, who prefer interventions to optimise specific, measurable things. As managerialism came to dominate the environmentalist discourse, it steadily displaced competing conservationist impulses. In the insane readiness of our present-day climateers to tear down entire forests for their wind farms, you may take the measure of conservationist defeat. Ultimately, the managers seized upon the biggest metric of all to manage, namely carbon dioxide emissions. These are fairly directly correlated with industrial and economic activity in the developed world, and so they are a natural focus for environmentalist anxieties, which as we have seen were always rooted in ambivalence about industrialisation. Even if CO2 had no remotely plausible connection to global warming, in other words, I’m pretty sure it would’ve sooner or later attracted the attention of environmentalist managers.
CO2 and its greenhouse potential have been known for generations, but it was in the 1950s – precisely as political environmentalism and the search for specific pollutants was gaining speed – that an anthropogenic warming effect from industrial activity made it into modern scientific literature for the first time. By 1979, when the mass famines prophesied by Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb had failed to materialise, the World Meteorological Organisation held an international climate conference in Geneva, the first major event to thematise global warming specifically. In 1988, the WMO and the United Nations co-founded the IPCC, and scientists at the Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere advised reducing emissions by 20% percent by 2005. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change followed in 1992, and its measures were implemented by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 – a treaty with over 190 signatories that ran from 2005 and 2020. Kyoto has since been superseded by the Paris Climate Accords of 2016, which demand a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 to keep warming below the arbitrary target of 1.5° Celsius.
While this is a very compressed history, it is enough to show that climatism first out-competed other environmentalist themes in the 1970s, and became an overarching political concern for the international order precisely as the Cold War drew to a close. The truth is that climatism is a political preoccupation for the wealthy and the secure. Major powers with serious security concerns like the United States have been ambivalent about climatist demands, and developing nations like India and China mostly disregard them. Meanwhile, climatism reigns supreme in the upper ranks of the liberal international order and in that wealthy American protectorate known as Europe. The global effort to combat climate change is anti-competitive, because curbing emissions with present technology amounts to voluntary deindustrialisation. Even if everything Greta Thunberg says about anthropogenic warming is true, I doubt that any significant mitigation is possible. Fossil fuels confer an enormous advantage on those states that choose to burn them, and whoever opts out of this resource will merely reduce oil, coal and gas prices for their rivals. Ultimately, climatist states will find themselves boxed in economically and possibly even militarily by powers that do not share their anxieties. The promotion of renewables as a source of near-infinite cheap energy, if only we might somehow transition to them, is a fairly transparent effort to escape this paradox. Despite billions and billions of investment, the energy transition has not worked out very well for Germany, but that will not stop us from investing billions more.
There are many, very important internal contradictions within climatism. Its pollutionist roots are a particular source of incoherence. Carbon dioxide, as an atmospheric gas, is not really a pollutant as that term is normally understood, and efforts to mitigate CO2 emissions often align poorly with the pollutionist impulse. The concerns of the German Green Party were originally dominated not by global warming fears but by opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy – that earlier class of pollutant which CO2 has now largely displaced. They retain their anti-nuclear obsession and they have succeeded in phasing out all nuclear power generation in Germany, at the cost of higher CO2 emissions and more expensive electricity. They are also very opposed to that arch-pollutant known as coal, and here too their concerns drive them to make very irrational choices. This was the point of my post on the emissions impact of liquid natural gas. The actual global warming potential of methane is not very important to me; the point is rather that Green orthodoxy itself holds that methane is at least 25 times worse than an equivalent amount of CO2 over a century. Their pollutionist fears of coal, however, nevertheless make LNG more appealing to them.
The ceaseless catastrophising of the climatists has also constrained this discussion in very bizarre ways. It concentrates attention on the harms of emissions, while ignoring the overwhelming advantages fossils fuels confer. We don’t just emit for fun or out of carelessness. Billions and billions would die of famine and disease were we to Just Stop Oil. It also seems highly probable that, whatever harms may come from warming, we will need fossil fuel-enabled technologies to mitigate them.
Finally, I have thought for a long time about a phenomenon I propose to christen the Incitement to Compatible Opposition. Specific regime doctrines have a way of calling forth opposition that is strangely compatible with orthodox premises. This was my concern about some of the ‘early treatments’ critique that emerged during the pandemic. Here was a whole discourse that confirmed wide aspects of establishment mythology about Covid-19 – namely that it was a serious and unique threat requiring unique medical interventions. Once you have accepted these premises, you’re along for the ride, because we control neither The Science nor the solutions it dreams up. I am very eager to avoid similar traps where climatism is concerned. It’s totally appropriate to scrutinise the empirical assertions of the climateers, but it’s equally important to recognise that the force we’re confronting here is political more than it is scientific. We can’t just argue that climate policies are bad because anthropogenic global warming isn’t real; in this universe we don’t get to determine what is considered real. We have to insist that climate policies are bad whether or not anthropogenic global warming is a thing, just like pandemic restrictions were bad whether or not they had any prospect of stopping Covid. This case is also a much clearer and easier one to make, which is why the regime would much rather deboonk their fabled (and, at least in their construction, compatibly opposed) “climate deniers.”
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