This is what a political movement looks like when it cannot recognize reality: it descends into ever more radical fantasies and rage, and gives its voice over to its most extreme elements.
Lay aside for now all of the arguments that can be made about the weaknesses of catastrophic climate change predictions. In fact, for purposes of discussion, let’s assume that the worst-case scenario is likely to come true. The paradox of climate change is exactly this: the more serious the problem, the more implausible are the remedies of the environmental community. That’s what ought to make the climate campaigners realize that last weekend’s mega-march in New York City represents the dead-end for their cause. Truly we can invoke that overused cliché that climate change has “jumped the shark.”
Here’s why: From the beginning 25 years ago the arguments over climate science have dominated the scene and distracted us away from the fundamental problem: the prescribed method for preventing climate change is essentially replacing nearly all hydrocarbon energy, in the space of less than two generations. Climate orthodoxy calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide, by the year 2050, which would take the United States back to a level of hydrocarbon energy use last seen more than 100 years ago. For the developing world, it means remaining poor for several more decades.
There has been very little recognition and less candor about the sheer fantasy of the emissions target. Energy transitions, as the energy scholar Vaclav Smil has explained in great detail, are long-term affairs, even if a new superior technology exists to displace a current technology. But affordable large-scale, low- or non-carbon energy capable of replacing our current energy infrastructure simply doesn’t exist at present, and there isn’t much on the horizon.
The developing world needs to triple its energy supply over the next generation if it is going to raise hundreds of millions out of abject poverty, and that means using abundant hydrocarbon energy, not expensive boutique energy popular with ever-preening rich Americans and Europeans. Just last week India’s new environmental minister, Prakash Javadekar, reiterated that India is not willing to discuss limitations on its rapidly growing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. “India’s first task is eradication of poverty,” Javadekar told the New York Times; “Twenty percent of our population doesn’t have access to electricity, and that’s our top priority. We will grow faster, and our emissions will rise.”
American and European climate change action advocates have ignored these realities, and have from the earliest engaged in relentless happy talk that a shift to renewable energy (chiefly solar, wind, and biofuels) would launch us down the golden road to a post-carbon energy future. The more economically illiterate among the climateers peddle the free-lunch argument that we’ll all get richer by mandating investment in more expensive, low-yield energy sources. The relatively modest amounts of low-carbon energy developed over the last two decades have required enormous government subsidies and have delivered negligible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. (In some cases, like biofuels from palm oil and corn, the full environmental tradeoff is likely negative.) The bitter irony for the climateers is that the most significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have been achieved by the production of newly abundant cheap natural gas through fracking, which has been displacing coal at a rapid rate.
The climate change community has reacted to this wreck of a policy not with second thoughts or openness to alternative frameworks, but with rage. The fact that global warming has slowed or stopped, and that an increasing number of peer reviewed studies conclude that climate sensitivity is overestimated (meaning that the problem is either over-predicted or will be much slower in developing) is greeted with denunciations, and a shockingly shallow new refrain that “97 percent of scientists believe in climate change,” which is like saying that “100 percent of scientists believe in gravity” in response to any query about the mysteries of how gravity actually works. When you point out the unreality of green energy dreams, you are met with foam-flecked denunciations of the Koch brothers. In fact the opposition to the climateers is tiny by comparison to the resources deployed by the environmental establishment, not to mention the massive sympathy they receive from an uncritical media. From the way people like Al Gore complain you’d think the climateers were up against the teachers union. […]
The last big march in New York City like this was the 1982 march in favor of a nuclear freeze. It drew more than twice as many people as last week’s climate march, and was equally irrelevant, if not in fact a hindrance, to genuine efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war. This is what a political movement looks like when it cannot recognize reality: it descends into ever more radical fantasies and rage, and gives its voice over to its most extreme elements. Like anti-nuclear activism 30 years ago, climate change activism has decayed into irresponsible advocacy, and deserves the increasing scorn of the public. And like the nuclear freeze movement of 30 years ago, if catastrophic climate change is a real prospect decades from now, these are the last people who should be put in charge of developing responses.