Looking at the vexed issue of climate change as a matter of ‘science’ alone is a mistake. Environmental policy has been constructed on an anti-capitalist basis which views the free market to be essentially destructive. This flawed perspective has had terrible consequences for both people and the environment.
The fashionable view has been that the world is getting much worse, and that the West is to blame. It follows that this is the fault of ‘Anglo-Saxon Capitalism’ and those dastardly ‘neoliberals’. Tragically, this mantra is often repeated, thriving on our tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive.
Apparently 55 per cent of those with university degrees now think the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has increased in the past 30 years, compared with only 12 per cent who think it has gone down. The truth is, according to all the most significant indicators, that the world is becoming a much better place. The number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than a billion since 1990, at an average of 137,000 every day, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project. As the world has become richer, literacy has improved, vaccination rates have gone up, child mortality has gone down, and the number of deaths from natural disasters has fallen dramatically.
But the extraordinary successes of free markets and open societies are so often overlooked, perhaps because some of the key insights of economics are so unintuitive. Instead, an emotional kind of politics is on the rise. A growing number of academics, willingly or otherwise, have lent intellectual credence to the Post Modern movement by attacking the idea of objective truth, promoting a moral relativism that has been accepted by many. The resulting lack of cultural self-confidence has made us more inward-looking and pessimistic, and the rise of identity politics must be seen in this context. Reason-based arguments are disappearing and being replaced by emotional and divisive rhetoric.
This helps to explain why legitimate concerns with current environmental policies are drowned out by a chorus of highly politicised climate activists, who shout ‘denier’ whenever decarbonisation policies are criticised. It can end up in a shouting match that is really just a performance by two players to two separate audiences. Rarely is there any shared recognition of objectives or values. This is the true denial, because ultimately all those engaged in this debate want what they think is best for the planet, for people, and for wildlife.
The field of climate science is almost unique in scientific inquiry in that so many of its members have become political spokespeople who think that the scientific knowledge they have allows them to dictate Government policies. Albeit, the symbiotic relationship between politicians and climate scientists means that their interests are often difficult to differentiate.
A shared position is that carbon dioxide is the prime environmental concern, but this means other important environmental and social interests are routinely ignored. This can be seen, for example, in worsening air pollution due to diesel vehicles, which were promoted and incentivised because they had lower CO2 emissions. So too in rushed efforts to improve energy efficiency, which in the case of Grenfell Tower tragically took precedence over the safety of those living in the flats. It is an obscenity that in Britain today the very rich receive vast subsidies to heat their homes with large biomass burners, while many poor people are forced to choose between cooking and eating.
The consequences of climate policies for those living in the developing world can be even more severe. More than a billion people across the world still lack access to cheap and reliable electricity, a basic requirement of a functioning economy. This scarcity means hundreds of millions are forced to burn wood to keep warm, thus further contributing to deforestation. In the process, they are breathing in harmful fumes. The World Bank has warned that the number relying on solid fuels to cook and heat their homes will remain unchanged until 2030. At the same time, the bank refuses to finance coal-fired power stations, which in many cases will be the cheapest and most effective way to reduce abject energy poverty. In the meantime, 4.3million people are dying prematurely every year from illnesses caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels for cooking.
The realisation that the world is nonetheless improving rapidly has led rational optimists to a very different response to climate change, and one that comes without these harmful consequences. Economic growth and its associated technological progress has been the primary determinant of better health, better protection from natural disasters, and happier lives. Real world evidence demonstrates that improving economic outcomes will have a far greater benefit than any from attempted temperature reductions.
A better response to climate change must consider that a country’s wealth largely determines its exposure to climate and weather-related risks. This is not about trying to ‘weaken’ efforts to tackle climate change, but precisely the opposite. It is about responding in a way that is fairer to people and the environment both now and in the future, and more effective at reducing those risks.
Harry Wilkinson is Researcher to the Global Warming Policy Forum