Energy & Environment

The Problem with the Climate Strike’s Leaders

Protesters march to the U.S. Capitol as part of the D.C. Climate Strike March, September 20, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
The movement opposes cutting emissions via technology, nuclear power, and market mechanisms — which makes it dangerous, not inspirational.

Just like the planet’s temperature, climate striking is so hot right now. Last Friday, thousands if not millions of people around the world took to the streets to protest the destruction of the environment. This week, in New York, teenage activist Greta Thunberg has weighed world leaders in her scale at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit — and found them wanting.

But what very few of those marchers appear to have dug into is exactly what they’re marching in the name of — what exactly the “something” is that their leaders are proposing when they insist that “something must be done.”

One of the key demands of the climate-strike movement is that people respect the science. But the manifesto for the climate-strike movement isn’t just unscientific; it’s actively anti-science, and hugely dangerous as a result.

If you go to the Global Climate Strike website and look under “What are we asking for?” you’ll find a demand that we “stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations, and climate justice at its heart.”

Already, then, this isn’t just about saving the planet. It’s about “climate justice,” including “reparations.” Presumably, this means that, for instance, since Britain invented the Industrial Revolution and has bumped X million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it should pay Y percent of the cost.

The phrase “climate justice” is the key to understanding their agenda. The website next leads you to the “People’s Demands,” the people in this case being a coalition of left-wing global-activist groups. Their demands are worth studying, because if the millions of people marching in climate strikes were told about them, I suspect they’d have a different opinion of the movement.

It’s not just that the organizers of the climate-strike movement want to ban fossil fuels or to decarbonise the economy by 2030 (some 20 years earlier than the target set by the government here in Britain, which it’s been suggested will already cost up to £1 trillion, or the equivalent of 1.5 percent of GDP per year).

It’s that they want this decarbonization to happen in a very specific way. The manifesto insists that we need to “reject false solutions,” including geoengineering, carbon capture and storage, “technofixes” more broadly, smart agriculture, “mega hydro,” nuclear power, carbon trading, and biofuels. You may agree or disagree with some of the items on the list. But taken together, they amount to a blunt rejection of market mechanisms, economics, or technology to cut carbon emissions.

Indeed, the manifesto is explicit that we should condemn corporations and embrace “non-market approaches,”such as “agro-ecology” and “food sovereignty.” Agro-ecology involves “an explicit focus on social and economic dimensions of [the] food system [and] a strong focus on the rights of women, youth and indigenous peoples.”

Food sovereignty, meanwhile, insists on “culturally appropriate” food markets, rather than using boring things like price signals, market mechanisms, and comparative advantage to ensure that we maximise output, including techniques that “avoid institutionalised prejudices that are inherent in society (such as gender, age, language, occupation).”

Their message is clear. The best way to save the planet is to “facilitate and support non-market approaches to climate action,” support “environmentally sound, socially acceptable, gender responsive and equitable climate technologies,” “respect and enable non-corporate, community-led climate solutions that recognise the traditional knowledge, practices, wisdom and resilience of indigenous peoples and local communities,” and “reject barriers to technology access and transfer such as intellectual property rights.” (Oh, and pay lots of extra money to poorer countries.)

I’ve covered the science and technology beat as a journalist. I devoted an entire chapter of my book, The Great Acceleration, to the impact that our fast-paced lives are having on the planet. I believe that climate change is a pressing and urgent problem. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher, the founder of the think tank I run, was among the first world leaders to draw attention to the issue, in a landmark speech in 1990.

But Thatcher also became “seriously concerned,” as she wrote, “about the anti-capitalist arguments which the campaigners against global warming were deploying.”

It’s impossible to read that climate-strike manifesto without concluding that the organizers of the movement are exemplary “watermelons”: green on the outside but red on the inside. Because of that, accomplishing the aims of their manifesto would actively make the situation worse. Their manifesto is not asking, “What is the most cost-effective way to prevent or protect against climate change?” or, “How do we grow the maximum amount of food, as cheaply as possible, with minimum emissions?”

It is instead telling us that market mechanisms like carbon taxes — by overwhelming consensus the mechanism favored by serious economists — have no place at all in fighting climate change. Nor do drought-resistant crops, plants engineered to withstand seawater, or zero-carbon technologies such as nuclear or large-scale hydro.

Nor do they believe that there is room for rewarding companies for low-carbon innovation or even investing in the fundamental technologies that could have a transformative impact. Nor, if worse comes to the worst, will we be able to use technology to mitigate the impacts of a warming planet, despite the fact that the United Nations climate predictions have an acceptance of limited geoengineering built into them.

The subsistence farmer in Africa will not be enabled to enrich himself by connecting to international markets or adopting the latest agricultural technology, but patted on the head and praised for his deep feminist wisdom.

In my book, I diagnosed what I called “utopian authoritarianism,” the idea that the only way to save the planet is for people on the left to command others, in the developed and developing world, to live poorer, meaner lives.

The reaction in France to even a modest increase in environmental taxes, in the form of the gilets jaunes movement, shows that while Western voters are increasingly concerned about climate change, they are also, as ever, concerned about the impact of government policies on their own pocket book.

Yet even if the developed world can be persuaded, or dragooned, into giving up their steaks and petrol engines, what about the developing world? What about the billions without heat or light or clean water? Or those slightly further up the income scale who aspire to the kind of lives we lead?

Ultimately, the best way to help nations mitigate against climate change is to make them richer. The best way to reduce carbon emissions is to incorporate that externality into the market’s functions, rather than declaring that growth is the enemy.

I admire the millions of people marching to save the planet, and I share their concern about it. But the ideas in their manifesto are fundamentally illiberal. They are fundamentally misguided. And they just won’t work.

If we’re going to save the planet, we do need to unite behind the science. But that includes the science of economics.

Robert Colvile is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank in the United Kingdom.

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