I have a vivid recollection of a conversation with my father when I was a child. It’s a strange thing to remember, and I don’t know why I do, but the conversation stayed with me. It must have been a day in the 1970s when (strange to think given today’s traffic levels) road traffic seemed unusually busy. My dad turned to me and told me what his father had said to him many years before about motor cars – he dreamed of the day when every working man (because in those days, rightly or wrongly, it was mostly men who brought home the bacon – am I still allowed to talk about bacon, given its carbon footprint?) would be able to afford his own motor car. In my grandfather’s day, motor cars were relatively uncommon, and no working class families could afford them, certainly not in the town of his birth in north east England, in long-term industrial decline.
And here we are today, with over 30 million motor cars on Britain’s roads, many working class families owning one of them, and some families owning two, three or more cars. My grandfather’s dream is now a reality. And yes, perhaps the dream has soured, with many urban areas suffering pollution from particulates, many roads gridlocked up and down the country, and obese children being dropped off at school in their mother’s 4 x 4 because they can’t be bothered to walk (over 20 years ago, as a school governor, I remember that one of the recurring themes of governors’ meetings was the danger to children from parents insisting on driving up to the school gates to drop off and collect their offspring). Despite these issues, however, mass motor car ownership has liberated the working class people of Britain. Subject to other constraints such as work obligations, they now have the freedom to go where they want, when they want. They don’t have to rely on limited public transport running expensively at inconvenient times, often not going where they would like it to go and not connecting conveniently with the next bus or train to their ultimate destination. They can travel door to door, whatever the weather, without getting cold or wet. So, the dream may have soured, but it remains a marvellous thing for many people.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this headline in the Guardian the other day – “‘What if we just gave up cars?’: Cop26 leaders urged to dream big”. It was the title to an articlei which discussed the desire of some activists to see an end to cars altogether. Going electric doesn’t cut it for them:
Environmental critics of electric cars argue that they still clog up cities and are dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians. While they are vastly less polluting than traditional cars, lithium is mined in often controversial circumstances for the batteries used by electric vehicles, and dust from car brakes and tyres still give off a certain amount of air pollution.
I sympathise with those points. The silence of electric cars potentially renders them dangerous to pedestrians, especially to today’s younger generation of ear-bud wearing, smartphone-toting music-listening pedestrians, who are often blissfully unaware of what is going on around them. I have read reports (I know not whether they are accurate) suggesting that electric cars, because heavier than conventional diesel and petrol vehicles, are more polluting in terms of emissions from brakes and tyres. And lithium mining is indeed controversial, to say the least, in terms of the damage it is causing, both environmentally and societally.
However, I would add that electric bikes and scooters are even more dangerous, being equally silent and often used on pavements (which should be safe spaces for pedestrians). So isn’t the solution to slow down the transition to electric cars? Especially given that the infrastructure to support them isn’t in place, and won’t be, in any meaningful sense, for many years to come.
During the summer (during a good summer, anyway) in the UK, it’s nice to dream of everyone walking or cycling everywhere, and failing that, catching a nice convenient electric bus or train with a convenient timetable taking people where they want to go when they want to travel. The reality, of course, is very different. Public transport in much of this country is little better than a joke. For many people, relying on it is completely impracticable. Walking and cycling aren’t much fun when it’s cold, dark and wet. And how do you manage if you want to travel with something bulky and heavy (furniture, the weekly food shop, etc.)? I have to say the Guardian’s dream seems to me to be a nightmare, and it would perplex greatly my working class grandfather, were he still alive to see it. He would regard the UK in 2021, for all its faults, as a land of milk and honey, of affluence and convenience on the part of the working class beyond his daily experience (if not beyond his dreams). The idea of giving it all up would leave him shaking his head in disbelief.
Meet the ‘inactivists’, tangling up the climate crisis in culture wars
All of the above was by way of an introduction to the Guardian “long read” articleii under the above title, which appeared on its website on 11th November 2021. Its sub-heading is “As climate science has gone mainstream, outright denialism has been pushed to the fringes. Now a new tactic of dismissing green policies as elitist is on the rise, and has zoned in on a bitter row over a disused airport in Kent”. Without wishing to get bogged down in a debate about the “disused airport in Kent”, I do want to discuss the question of whether or not it is legitimate to question the costs of “green policies”.
The article begins by discussing some videos put out by the Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF), and has this to say about them:
All focused on the supposed irrationality and hypocrisy of climate campaigners, and the hardship they wanted to inflict upon society’s most impoverished communities. “Those who demand action on climate change continue to fly around in private jets from one virtue-signalling climate conference to the next,” stated one, against a backdrop of Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry delivering speeches from lecterns. “Is this fair?” Another video took aim at the idea that countries should be transitioning towards “net zero” carbon dioxide emissions, calling it an “unnecessary and swingeing plan that hits the poor and costs the earth”.
I suppose that we all (me included) have our inbuilt biases, but that phrase “supposed irrationality and hypocrisy of climate campaigners” stood out for me. Facts and opinions do tend to elide, and it can be difficult to say when one has become the other. However, I struggle to understand what is “supposed” about the hypocrisy of someone with a hugely privileged lifestyle and a huge carbon footprint lecturing others about the need to restrict greenhouse gas emissions and the need for the world’s population to make lifestyle changes. We all have our different viewpoints, but while I see those criticisms of many who pontificate on the subject to be perfectly legitimate, the Guardian somehow seems to regard it as all being a bit below the belt. The reason why soon becomes clear:
The videos being tested by the GWPF in the spring and summer of 2020 were part of a strategic pivot away from explicit climate crisis denialism, and towards something subtler – a move being pursued by similar campaigners across the world. Welcome to a new age of what the atmospheric scientist and environmental author Michael E Mann has labelled climate “inactivism”: an epic struggle to convince you not so much to doubt the reality of climate crisis, but rather to dampen your enthusiasm for any attempts at dealing with it.
The article goes on to label those who are campaigning against the changes demanded by climate activists as “a loose coalition of fossil-fuel interests, conservative ideologues and supportive politicians and journalists”. Maybe some of them are, but I am none of those things, and I agree with much of what they say. One of the many things that puzzles me greatly is how I find myself, in my opposition to policies which will greatly harm the interests of the poorest in our society, standing alongside “conservative ideologues” when, by rights, I ought to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Labour Party politicians and Guardian journalists. No such luck – they seem to have given up long ago on any interest in the plight of the poorest and most disadvantaged in society.
The article, in its certainty, continues:
But there is now an even more powerful weapon in the inactivist armoury. It comes in the form of an appeal to social justice: one that casts environmentalists as an aloof, out-of-touch establishment, and the inactivists as insurgents, defending the values and livelihoods of ordinary people.
It’s remarkable, I think, to see who the “environmental” (I use the term loosely in the case of people who are anxious to trash our countryside with wind turbines and solar panels) activists are. The likes of XR and Insulate Britain are performing wonderfully well in persuading ordinary British people that the activists are “an aloof, out-of-touch establishment”, one which moreover not only doesn’t understand the lives of ordinary working people, but doesn’t care about them either.
Trying to make the impossible case it has set itself, the Guardian continues:
It is here [economic insecurity] that inactivists have spotted an opportunity to harness some of the antagonism towards prevailing power systems and use it to undermine support for what they see as unaffordable climate action. As decarbonisation efforts expand into the realm of our everyday lives, touching on the ways we heat our homes, for example, or the cars we own and the roads we are allowed to drive down, that task has become easier. Their efforts have been aided further by social media platforms, which have enabled the rapid spread of disinformation and helped fuel social division. The defining – and mutually reinforcing – phenomena of our age are political turbulence and technological disruption. It’s into this crucible that debates over climate breakdown are now being poured.
It’s interesting that social media platforms only spread disinformation in one direction in the eyes of some Guardian journalists. Of course, as we knowiii, the Guardian is not above a bit of disinformation itself. Note also this:
The GWPF is not a science website: it is the campaigning arm of a well-funded foundation accused by opponents of being one of Britain’s biggest sources of climate science denial.
Compare and contrast the description offered of the organisation on whose research the article relies in part:
DeSmog– a journalism platform that aims to expose and eliminate the “PR pollution” around climate breakdown, and one of the project’s partners.
The “project” in question is:
In the run-up to Cop26, more than 30 leading organisations came together to develop a new set of tools capable both of monitoring the online spread of inactivist messaging, and anticipating the next Texas blackout campaign before it takes off. The ongoing project is being led by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, or ISD, a thinktank better known for its work tackling hate and extremism.
So it must be right, mustn’t it? The problem is – for me at least – that for all the talk of identifying misinformation from climate deniers who have pivoted to a new strategy, nowhere does the article actually take the time and trouble to meet the argument head on. Remember the crucial few words:
As decarbonisation efforts expand into the realm of our everyday lives, touching on the ways we heat our homes, for example, or the cars we own and the roads we are allowed to drive down, that task has become easier [for those who criticise net zero].
There is thus an acknowledgement that the everyday lives of ordinary people are going to change, if the net zero zealots have their way. Yet there is no effort in the Guardian article to deal with the problem of the likely huge costs associated with changing “the ways we heat our homes,” or changing “the cars we own” from petrol and diesel to electric ones or – scarily – “ the roads we are allowed to drive down”. I can find no attempt anywhere in the article to deal with this huge problem. Instead, we find a myth about a supposed myth:
The idea that decarbonisation is inherently elitist is a myth, peddled largely by political figures who have shown little concern for deprived communities in any other context, and who ignore the fact that without a net zero transition it is the very poorest – globally and domestically – who will suffer most severely.
We are regularly told that if we don’t prevent “climate chaos”, the poorest will suffer the worst. Here it is stated as a fact, when it is nothing of the sort – it is a highly contentious opinion. First of all, we are talking about the cost of “net zero” in the UK. While it is possible (assuming that we really are facing a climate crisis that will produce only bad outcomes and no good ones) that some poor people around the world in the places that are likely to be affected by climate change, might be disproportionately affected. But there is a long way to go from asserting that hypothesis to proving it as a fact. Secondly, the debate in question is not about the effect on the global poor, but about the poorest in the UK. I have seen no evidence that would stand up in a Court of law that suggests that poor people are likely to suffer much from climate change in the UK, and there is nothing in the Guardian article to back up the claim. Secondly, there is nothing in the Guardian article to dispute the costs of net zero to the UK as a whole, and specifically to the poorest in society. If this was a football match rather than a climate change debate, I think the whole article would be described as playing the man, not the ball.
And playing the man it is. Remember, the GWPF is denigrated as “the campaigning arm of a well-funded foundation accused by opponents of being one of Britain’s biggest sources of climate science denial.” That’s rather limp, isn’t it? “Accused by opponents”. Well, opponents would say that, wouldn’t they? Where’s the hard evidence? And why no discussion of the work of the GWPF? GWPF is short for both Global Warming Policy Forum and Global Warming Policy Foundation. The latter has produced numerous peer-reviewediv reportsv but nowhere in the Guardian article are their contents disputed or debated. I can only guess at the reasons why, but the two obvious ones that strike me are an inability to counter the points raised and/or an unwillingness to give the GWPF any credit or credibility at all. It is certainly hated by those who push the net zero agenda, as a quick internet search will confirm.
What a pity that such a vitally important discussion (the costs of net zero) is reduced to rubbishing those who argue that the costs are prohibitive and damaging, an assertion of opinion as fact, and a complete failure to engage with the basic points at issue.
Home discomforts at COP26
This was the title to a BBC articlevi which appeared this week as part of the BBC’s COP 26 coverage. Perhaps Guardian journalists would do well to read it. There are many costs associated with COP 26 and the net zero agenda, and this article chooses to focus on one only – the cost of “greening” our houses, or at least Scottish houses. And this is what it tells us:
The challenge of removing greenhouse gas emissions from the heating of Scotland’s homes and other buildings is a colossal one technically and financially, with an estimated £33bn cost.
And that’s just Scottish homes. With Scotland having perhaps 10%, or a little less, of the UK population, that is a pretty telling indication of the massive cost of just one part of the net zero agenda. The cost is huge and the logistical problem is huge:
But in the great energy transition, getting your home ready for climate neutrality, or net zero, is far from simple.
In Scotland alone, more than two million homes use gas central heating. Nearly 200,000 more – usually rural – have boilers that burn oil…
But what is to replace those boilers? The question of which technology should replace them is still open. There are different answers for different properties.
The pace of technological development for each one is unclear. There isn’t yet sufficient manufacturing capacity for all the air or ground source pumps that will be needed.
Nor is the pricing clear. A shift from gas to electricity has left many paying much higher bills. But the price signals may be switched, to discourage further gas and push people to electricity. We don’t know yet.
…What does the £33bn represent? It’s roughly half of all the spending by governments in Scotland in one year, including pensions, benefits and public services.
Unlike those, it’s capital investment, so it gives lasting returns. However, it’s six times the size of this year’s Scottish government capital budget.
And it comes to around £6000 per head.
No denying the cost, but it’s quite crafty to call it £6,000 per head. If one assumes that most families contain three or four “heads”, then that sounds like £18,000 – £24,000 per household. I don’t know many poor households for whom that would be anything other than totally unaffordable. And that’s just net zero as it affects housing. What about cars?
That was the heading to another BBC articlevii that Guardian journalists might do well to read. It tells us:
The average cost of an electric car in the UK is about £44,000, but you can buy a basic one for less than £20,000. That’s partly because the price of the batteries which electric cars use has fallen sharply in recent years.
At the moment, the price of raw materials is threatening to push battery prices up again, but the industry expects that as electric car sales increase, economies of scale will kick in.
Experts predict that new electric and petrol/diesel cars will cost the same within the next five years.
Expectations and predictions are not the same as reality (whatever a “reality check” correspondent might like to claim), and for most families in the UK I reckon electric cars are currently unaffordable (as well as impracticable) and that is likely to remain the case for some time. And it’s worth pointing out that a prediction that in five years’ time they will cost the same as petrol/diesel cars, as well as being guesswork, is not an indication that the price of electric cars will fall – it could just as easily be because politicians in Westminster decide to tax petrol and diesel cars ever more heavily to try to dissuade us from buying and using them.
Personal Carbon Budgeting
This is the title to a paperviii produced by the UK Energy Research Centre as long ago as June 2009. Despite its age, the ideas it contains haven’t gone away and remain popular in some circles (mostly on the left – bizarrely in my opinion, for reasons I will explain below). Its sub-title is “What people need to know, learn and have in order to manage and live within a carbon budget, and the policies that could support them?”
In fact, as long go as 2006 David Miliband, brother of the architect of the UK’s Climate Change Act, advocated carbon trading ‘credit cards’ for everyone. A Guardian articleix at the time offered up a summary of the proposals:
Every citizen would be issued with a carbon “credit card” – to be swiped every time they bought petrol, paid an energy utility bill or booked an airline ticket – under a nationwide carbon rationing scheme that could come into operation within five years, according to a feasibility study commissioned by the environment secretary, David Miliband, and published today.
In an interview with the Guardian Mr Miliband said the idea of individual carbon allowances had “a simplicity and beauty that would reward carbon thrift”.
The idea was floated in a speech in the summer, but the detailed proposals show Mr Miliband is serious about trying to press ahead with the radical idea as a central part of his climate change strategy.
Under the scheme, everybody would be given an annual allowance of the carbon they could expend on a range of products, probably food, energy and travel. If they wanted to use more carbon, they would be able to buy it from somebody else. And they could sell any surplus.
Quite apart from the alarming social engineering and Government control over citizens’ lives that such a programme involves, I see bigger problems, problems that should be all too apparent to those who claim to be on the left of politics. Giving us all carbon allowances/vouchers to use or sell simply means that poor people will sell theirs to rich people to fund the extra cost of heating their homes resulting from “net zero” energy policies, while rich people will continue to fly and drive wherever and whenever they want, because poor people will have sold their right to do so to rich people. It is advocated by some as a progressive policy, but to my mind it is massively regressive. It smacks of the very elitism and hypocrisy that underlies the whole project. It will further constrain the lives of poor people while allowing rich people to continue with their greenhouse gas emitting lifestyles, for no better reason than that they – and they alone – will be able to buy allowances or vouchers from poor people who will desperately need the money just to get by.
As recently as 2nd November 2021, Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardianx of such a policy:
Everyone would have a carbon allowance to spend on heating, petrol or flying, issued by a central carbon bank. The national allowance would shrink each year to cut personal carbon emissions. The well-off use the most carbon – they have big houses, drive SUVs and fly frequently – while half the population never flies, and many live in flats or small homes. Some 17m households have no car. Carbon credits would be tradable [sic], so those using least could profit by selling some of their allowance, while heavy users would have to buy their spare credits via the carbon bank.
This policy could be a potential win-win-win: it would fix an annual reduction in carbon emissions and redistribute cash from the extravagant to the carbon thrifty in this most unequal country. Above all it would engage everyone to think hard about their carbon consumption, giving them an incentive to save or profit.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Polly that the reason why a lot of the large number of people who don’t fly or have a car isn’t because they don’t want to fly or to have a car, but because such things are unaffordable to them. They would like to do so, but this policy guarantees that such behaviours will forever be beyond them. Yes, the extra income may be welcome, to enable them to afford the increasingly high costs of heating their homes when we’re all forced to rely on heat pumps and renewables, but this is far from being the sort of brave new world that my grandfather hoped to see.
Not only does Polly not see that, she tells us that “I think it could be popular”.She may be right, of course, and I may be wrong. But I think that such a policy would be more likely to annoy the poor, who would resent the need to do without the cars and flights enjoyed by rich people, so as to “save the planet”. An equal share in the pain of lowered expectations, less foreign travel, fewer convenient journeys, might be accepted if it could be seen that “we’re all in it together.” But poor people selling their rights to what many currently either enjoy or aspire to, just so that they can afford to heat their homes, while rich people continue to live as they always have done is more likely to be resented than to be popular.
I find myself continually bemused by the direction of travel of “progressives” and those who claim to be on the left of politics when it comes to the policies they espouse in connection with climate change. They defend the hypocrisy of hectoring gas-guzzling celebrities and politicians and activists while advocating policies that will make the poor in society even worse off. They advocate policies that will allow the rich to carry on regardless, while shrinking the lives of the poor. And they pour scorn on the motives of those who point these things out, rather than dealing with the issues head-on and engaging with the problems of “solving” the “climate crisis”. Policies are not to be discussed and approved democratically, they are to be handed down, de haut en bas, as the little people can’t be trusted to know what’s good for them. I am bemused, and I am politically homeless.