27 April 2019

A cooler planet needs cool heads


Earlier this week the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived in Parliament with a powerful warning.

Without drastic action we risk “the end of civilisation as we know it”, she told a rapt audience that included some of Britain’s most senior politicians.

This was just the latest instalment in an extraordinary journey that has seen the young Swede go from organising school ‘climate strikes’ in her native Stockholm to speaking in the European Parliament and an audience with the Pope.

Her sudden celebrity comes not so much from what she says as the way she seems to embody the angst of a generation who fear a much worse world than the one their parents knew.

Without doubt Thunberg is an impressive person – articulate, persuasive and with a gift for phrasemaking. Her millenarian message is perfectly tailored to the internet age: unambiguous, emotive and dramatic.

The same brand of doom-mongering also underpins the wave of protests by Extinction Rebellion, whose members continue to superglue themselves to various parts of the British capital, for reasons even they have probably forgotten.

But rhetoric and feelings – however sharply expressed – are not the same as facts. As Marian Tupy argued on CapX this week, too often the green movement seems to focus less on what’s happening to the natural world than on engaging in a quasi-religious anti-humanism – a creed based more on punishment than progress.

More to the point, much of what Thunberg says about climate change is both untrue and counter-productive.

For instance, she lambasts the UK for “absurd” policies, even though this country has substantially reduced its emissions since 1990, partly thanks to the demise of coal as a primary energy source.

Her assertion that “nothing is being done” is also simply false. After all, the last decade alone has seen a dramatic fall in the cost of both solar and wind power, with increased generation from bioenergy, geothermal and hydropower too. That is a result of both market mechanisms and governments investing in new technologies.

As Adnan Amin of the International Renewable Energy Agency notes: “Turning to renewables for new power generation is not simply an environmentally conscious decision, it is now – overwhelmingly – a smart economic one.”

Note too the long list of automakers phasing out diesel engines and turning their focus to electric cars. None of this means there is room for complacency, but nor is it “nothing”.

It is on the basis of these kind of facts that free marketeers can debate with the likes of Thunberg and her supporters – and certainly not through counter-productive attacks on her age, her mother’s occupation, or even the fact she is autistic.

After all, even those sceptical of Thunberg’s apocalyptic certainty can agree that we ought to be urgently preparing for a world with fewer fossil fuels.

As the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said on Thursday, one’s views about climate change do not change the fact that “it is sensible for everyone to use finite resources in a responsible way”.

While some accused Fox of denying climate science, his intervention was in fact a welcome attempt to show that everyone, sceptic or otherwise, can make common cause on reducing the use of hydrocarbons.

If we are to take anything from Thunberg’s appearance this week, it should be to focus ever more intently on what a world with less fossil fuels will look like.

But if we want a cooler planet, first we must make sure we have cool heads.

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John Ashmore is Deputy Editor of CapX