The Spectator editor can insist all he likes that his views on climate change are 'boringly orthodox', but there is nothing mainstream about belittling climate risks and no grand conspiracy to halt discussion of how best to decarbonize
And so it continues. Just a few days into 2016 and it is clear the Paris Agreement has had no impact on the small cottage industry of columnists who make a living attacking climate action in its various forms. If anything the howls of protest have got louder as the cabal of 'climate sceptics'/'lukewarmers'/'fossil fuel realists' privately accept their rear guard action is looking ever more shaky. If we could find a way to harness the power of confected outrage and patrician sneering we would solve the energy supply crunch overnight.
Business executives would do well to ignore this "debate" and its welter of half-truths, straw man arguments, ideology, and misinformation. As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in an angry response to the Wall Street Journal's casual dismissal of the Paris Agreement, media outlets that dismiss or downplay climate issues are "misleading" and "failing" their business readers. Savvy executives and investors would be best served getting their insight from the growing ranks of sources that take climate change seriously while focusing their time on the serious work of building a more resilient and prosperous economy.
However, as I argued earlier this week 2016 will be see a series of crucial policy decisions in the UK that could yet be shaped by the climate reckless world view of the Spectator Lunch and as such it is useful for businesses and investors to keep themselves abreast of the arguments that will be deployed to try and derail the country's ambitious and long-standing decarbonisation efforts.
Handily Spectator editor Fraser Nelson responded to the recent floods across much of the north of England by penning a useful precis of the false choices, casual dismissal of scientific consensus, and mischaracterization of green positions that will define attempts to water down the UK's climate strategy this year. The whole thing was presented using Nelson's trademark reasonable tone and claims to middle of the road convention, which artfully concealed counter proposals that are deeply radical in their downplaying of climate risks and dismissiveness towards the global push to slash emission as quickly as possible.
The article is worth unpacking, because it neatly encapsulates two increasingly prevalent climate sceptic tropes (both of which I've written about in the past): the idea critics of the "green consensus" are being silenced by a modern day McCarthyism and the suggestion we should deal with climate change by prioritizing adaptation.
Nelson's article starts by arguing Labour has given the Conservative's a "free pass" by failing to point out flood defence budgets were cut while ministers were "blowing huge amounts on green subsidies and overseas aid". He laments the way Labour's John McDonnell dismissed calls for money to be diverted from climate policies into flood protection, rejecting the Shadow Chancellor's suggestion such measures are "somehow tackling the flood problem "at source"." And he claims the only reason the government is not shifting cash from "green subsidies" to flood defence is because environmentalists have had parts of their brain surgically removed.
"Perhaps the worst thing about the green agenda is its lobotomising effect: the way that reason is thrown out of the window," Nelson writes. "I have boringly orthodox views on climate change. But I've never worked out why, if you accept the link between human activity and global warming, you are not allowed to ask about the efficacy of green measures."
To my lobotomised mind there are at least five major flaws in Nelson's analysis, several of which will no doubt be repeated over and again as his colleagues this year reject calls for the government to adopt ambitious science-based emissions targets for the 2030s through the fifth carbon budget.
Firstly, in suggesting "more of the cash [from green subsidies] could be spent on flood defences" Nelson skates over a thicket of policy detail.
Which "green subsidies" is he talking about? Does he want the money to come from the clean energy support contracts and energy efficiency programmes funded through a levy on energy bills? In which case, how would it be distributed? Would energy companies be obligated to build flood defences or would the government tax them and manage the money? What would happen to the argument that cutting green subsidies eases pressure on energy bills if the funds were simply being used for an alternative, and no less urgent, purpose? How would energy companies respond to this whole new approach to the 'polluter pays' principle?
Or does Nelson want flood defence budgets to be topped up with taxpayer-funded "green subsidies" such as the Renewable Heat Incentive, electric car grants, or the capacity market (which could just about be classified as "green" if it is reformed as promised to enable a coal-to-gas/smart grid shift)? Raiding these funding pots may be a simpler option, but what are the implications for energy security and air pollution? Equally, if the goal is to identify money wasted on subsidies that could be better spent on flood defences, why not look at the UK's generous system of fossil fuel tax breaks and the capacity market's current absurd support for diesel power plants?
Secondly, is Nelson justified in airily positioning his views on climate change as "boringly orthodox"? He does not explain what his conventional views are, but presumably he means he accepts mankind is a major driver of climate change. Fair enough, but there is nothing boring or orthodox about his later suggestion we should prioritise climate adaptation measures because efforts to use clean energy to cut greenhouse gas emissions "may or may not make a tiny difference in a hundred years' time".
What is boringly orthodox is the vast majority of climate scientists who maintain urgent action is needed to curb emissions as soon as possible to avoid the potentially catastrophic escalation of climate impacts. What is boringly orthodox is the 195 governments that have just pledged to take action to simultaneously bolster climate resilience and curb global greenhouse gas emissions. This orthodoxy has been established not because of some sinister conspiracy or the silencing of dissent, but through virtually every major government, research body, security service, and business looking at the evidence base and reaching the same conclusion: the global economy faces a serious long term climate threat that requires a comprehensive response.
Thirdly, there may be a green consensus on this issue, but Nelson's assertion it has a lobotomizing effect that prevents people from asking about the efficacy of green measures is utterly without foundation.
If there is a ban on people questioning the effectiveness of green policies it is clearly a singularly weak one, what with critiques of climate policy being a daily feature of most newspapers' output. I can't think of a single area of public policy where such rampant pluralism is both evident and encouraged. Amongst those who, in Nelson's words "accept the link between human activity and global warming", there is the widest possible spectrum of views on how best to respond to the climate crisis.
There are those who back a 100 per cent renewables mix, those who think nuclear or CCS is the best long term option, those who think biomass power should be banned, and those who want a mix of clean energy technologies - a mix which itself is subject to a long-running debate. There are those who think we should just stick a price on carbon and sit back and watch the market sort it out and those who want massive state intervention. There are those who think electric cars are the future and those who reckon hydrogen fuel cells are a better bet. There are those who want to move to a zero emission economy as soon as possible and those who favour a phased transition based on decades of reliance on gas power. There are those who want an end to rampant consumerism and those who think green growth is the answer. And, of course, there are those, a fair few of whom write for the Spectator, who reckon we should focus more on adaptation and hope clean tech R&D magically delivers a mechanism for cutting emissions at some unspecified point in the future.
The beauty of the Paris Agreement (and the UK Climate Change Act that provided a template for key parts of the deal) is that it allows successive national governments to make their own choices on what is the best approach for them based on their own circumstances. In this context, questioning the efficacy of green measures is extremely helpful. But any resulting decisions have to be based on evidence, not ideology, which means accepting that doing next to nothing to tackle emissions when other nations are taking bold steps to decarbonize is an extremely risky course of action both from a climate and economic perspective.
Fourth, Nelson's equating green subsidies to paying a man £100,000 to prop your house up with "golden matchsticks" because they do "not reduce UK flood risk in any meaningful way" bizarrely implies the only rationale for rapid and partially subsidised clean energy deployment is if it delivers a near immediate reduction in UK flood risk.
In reality, mobilising investment in clean technology not only makes it more likely flood risk will be reduced in a meaningful way in the long term as the global economy strives to keep temperature increases below 2C. It also helps tackle deadly air pollution, enhance energy security, create jobs, drive the creation of a modern high skilled economy, and deliver stable and eventually lower energy costs. There are some very impressive and increasingly cost effective "golden matchsticks" on offer from the world's clean tech pioneers.
Which brings us to the fifth and final flaw with Nelson's argument. "If you fear the worst for climate change then doesn't it make sense to protect those you believe to be exposed now," he asks, "rather than spend money on something that may or may not make a tiny difference in a hundred years' time?" To which the only logical answer has to be, "why do we have to choose"?
I know The Spectator takes a pretty dim view of the power of the state, but last time I checked Whitehall (and the wider UK economy) was capable of doing more than one thing at a time. Presenting green subsidies and flood protection as an either/or binary decision is the ultimate false choice and a further embodiment of Osbornomics' myopic short termism. It should be blindingly obvious (and thankfully it still is to many ministers), but to deliver long term security you need to both protect people from current climate impacts and take urgent steps to reduce the risk of escalating future climate risks.
Suggesting we should target resources at climate adaptation at the expense of attempts to cut emissions is akin to a doctor telling an overweight man to forget about dieting or exercise and invest in some bigger clothes and a stair lift. He might need the bigger clothes and a stair lift to remain relatively safe and comfortable in the short term, but it is also a good idea to try and take steps to improve his long term health.
No one can see into the future, but all the best evidence suggests a concerted effort to build a low carbon economy and cut global emissions as soon as possible will do much more than "make a tiny difference in hundred years' time". It will mitigate climate risks within the lifetime of billions of people and deliver a healthier and more productive economy in the process. That is why 195 countries signed up to delivering such an economy less than a month ago in the French capital.
Critics of climate action are not being prevented from speaking out, they are simply being ignored by the vast majority of political and business leaders because their analysis defies both the scientific evidence and basic principles of risk management. The green economy no doubt welcomes questions about the efficacy of environmental policies, but if the UK is to deliver a more effective climate strategy those questions have got to be a lot more insightful than those offered this week by The Spectator editor.