By Tom Switzer
The good thing about arguing with Naomi Klein, as I did on the ABC’s Q&A program this week, is that one is never left uncertain as to where she stands. A bestselling author and global superstar of the Left, she spells out her position clearly and in an intellectually honest manner.
Most climate-change activists, you see, are “watermelons”: they disguise their socialist agenda beneath their green skins. Not Klein. She sees climate mitigation as justification for abandoning capitalism in favour of a more interventionist and regulated state in the economic affairs of nations.
For one to find Klein’s latest thesis persuasive, then, it is necessary to find acceptable — and conceivable — her radical proposal that people would give up their freedom and prosperity to avoid catastrophic global warming. It’s bad politics and bad economics based on bad science.
For one thing, Klein’s agenda stands no chance of gaining widespread public support. She wants to increase the size and scope of the state substantially. But she offers no plausible ideas as to how debt-ridden governments would pay for a much larger state. The biggest obstacle to her plans is democratic consent.
From US public support for shale gas to European frustration with rising green energy costs to the developing world’s addiction to coal, voters have little stomach for more government redistribution and control of the economy in the name of decarbonising the planet. Take Australia. At the past two federal elections, both major parties opposed a carbon tax. In 2010, Julia Gillard even proposed an ill-fated citizens assembly to talk about climate science and she failed to even mention the subject in her pre-poll 5000-word keynote address at the Labor Party launch.
All the polls showed a changing political climate. So much so that Tony Abbott’s victory in 2013 was based primarily on his pledge to repeal the widely unpopular carbon tax legislation. Even if Labor wins the next election, its emissions-reductions plans fall well short of Klein’s ambitions.
Or take the developing world. Following Klein’s advice, Pope Francis recently attributed escalating carbon emissions to the growth and consumption among rich nations. In fact, it’s the non-OECD countries that account for about 58 per cent of global greenhouse emissions during the past five years; and that share will escalate in coming decades. It is not surprising why their leaders have different priorities: they want to expand their economies and reduce poverty; and the cheapest way of doing so, at least for the foreseeable future, is via emissions.
That is why the prospects for a legally binding, verifiable, enforceable and genuinely global deal at Paris remains unlikely. Look at this week’s US-led Global Leadership in the Arctic: Co-operation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) environmental conference. China, India and Russia abstained from signing a joint declaration calling for more global action to tackle climate change. Why? Because, according to Russian state-funded television network RT, “reducing emissions entails huge expenditure and loss of economic effectiveness”.
Klein openly admits that her object is to use global warming as a means of undermining and — she hopes — abandoning capitalism. If she were to succeed, this would not only be economically very damaging but — since history shows that capitalism is the best engine we know for lifting people out of poverty — it would entrench poverty, which many would rightly consider immoral and wicked. Decarbonising the economy is not magically cost-free.
The spread of capitalism has meant healthier and longer lives. It also holds the best hope of a greener planet. Take the US. Washington did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol yet its emissions have reduced in recent times. Why? Not because of any carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes, which even congressional Democrats oppose.
The answer has more to do with the free-market revolution known as fracking, which allows the US to extract gas and oil from shale reserves. Although we’ve long been aware of the huge reserves, it was not until recently that scientists found a way to extract them economically. Shale gas produces roughly half the emissions per kilowatt hour as coal does.
In response, Klein cites a recent report in the journal Nature that points to lower growth, not shale gas. Never mind that the economic downturn was both temporary and throughout the Western world. Moreover, the levelling off of carbon emissions and sharp decline in emissions per head is peculiar to the US. It is only in the US that there has been the dramatic shift in electricity generation from coal to gas, and this is entirely due to the shale revolution.
Climate enthusiasts warn that shale gas has dangerous ramifications for the environment. But the unanimous all-party report of the British House of Lords inquiry into shale last year showed that, provided elementary environmental and safety regulations were in place, there were no valid environmental objections to extracting gas or oil from shale.
Many climate enthusiasts invoke the authority of science to silence dissenting opinions. For her part, Klein says conservatives deny climate change because the science detonates their ideological agenda of low tax and light regulation. But one can recognise that the rise in carbon dioxide coincides with (moderate) warming and still be sceptical of the alarmists. Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models in the 1990s predicted huge increases in global temperatures would correspond with the 25 per cent rise in carbon emissions since 2000, there has been virtually a hiatus in warming in the past 15 or so years.
This is a widely held view among many distinguished climate scientists, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Richard Lindzen, Georgia Tech’s Judith Curry, Princeton’s William Happer and world acclaimed physicist Freeman Dyson. Others say the warming is hidden in the oceans, a claim that critics say they lack the evidence to prove.
We should, as former Thatcher chancellor Nigel Lawson suggests, do what we have always done: adapt to climate change. As nations grow richer, and with the advantages of modern technology, we will better handle any damage wrought by nature. Natural resources are limited, but ideas and innovation are not.
This article was originally published in The Australian