Not Supporting Environmentalism is as Bad as Supporting Slavery?

Nick Cohen of the observer writes Climate change deniers are as slippery as those who justified the slave trade. This reminds me of those who claimed that Trump was just as bad as Hitler. Hyperbolic insults say more about you than the ones your insulting. Does Cohen have any facts to back up this slur?

No one seems as defeated as the global warming “deniers” who dominated rightwing thinking a decade ago. Like late 18th-century opponents of abolishing the slave trade, Lord Lawson and the claque of Conservative cranks who filled the comment pages of the Tory press are remembered today as dangerous fools – assuming they are remembered at all.

Almost all politicians are dangerous fools.

The billions of dollars spent by the fossil fuel industry on propaganda and its acceptance by know-nothing elements on the right caused incalculable damage. They might have followed Margaret Thatcher, who warned in 1989 of C02 admissions leading to climate change “more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known”. The desire of business to protect profits and the vanity of politicians and pundits, who saw themselves as dissidents fighting the consensus rather than fanatics enabling destruction, helped to waste two decades of valuable time.

Of course the industry did what they could to prop up their product, much as the tobacco industry did when the evidence of the health risks of smoking were first made known. The politicians who were paid by them and funnelled huge subsidies from the people to these companies, which continue to this day, are the guilty ones.

Every argument they advanced has been disproved, as much by the experience of everyday life as science. Journalists are advised: “If someone says it is raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the window and find out which is true.” The world only had to look at the weather outside to know who was trying to fool it.

Weather and climate are not the same. For example, the scientific evidence for the link between climate change and the increase in hurricanes is recent and their correlation is small. Most of the climate science that global warming predictions are based on comes from theoretical models, not actual measurements. So until recently, looking at the weather outside did not tell the story, though now real evidence of climate change is becoming apparent.

To pick from the dozens of examples in Richard Black’s history of the conspiracy theory (Denied: The Rise and Fall of Climate Contrarianism) , global warming is not a “swindle”, as a Channel 4 documentary informed its viewers in 2007. Glaciers and ice sheets are shrinking and the seas are becoming more acidic. If there was swindling, it was at Channel 4, as Ofcom suggested when it found the station guilty of several breaches of the broadcasting rules. It is not “erroneous” to assume that humanity is driving the climate catastrophe, as the Spectator assured its readers as late as 2017. The pace of man-made climate change is faster than anything in the Earth’s history and all attempts to invent other explanations have failed.

Global warming is real, and the evidence is now undeniable that some part of it is caused by humans via emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The pace of change is indeed the most dangerous aspect of the current global warming.

Viscount Ridley, who presided over the collapse of Northern Rock, and now dismisses the collapse of the planet in the pages of the Times, said climate change was doing “more good than harm”. We should adapt to a warmer Earth and celebrate the reduction in deaths from the winter cold.

Ridley is not wrong. According to Moody’s Analytics, Canada and the UK will both see increases in GDP with warming, and the greater the warming, the greater the increases. Global warming will make very little difference to the US GDP. This is because the costs of adaptation are offset by reduced costs for heating and by increased agricultural productivity due to a longer growing season. We will have to adapt to a warmer Earth, and there will be a reductions in death from cold, which is worth celebrating.

But the seas and icecaps cannot adapt, nor can cities threatened with flooding and countries facing desertification. The lights did not go out as we switched to renewable energy, as so many pundits said they would. And energy bills have fallen rather than risen, despite the assertions of the noble Lawson to the contrary. Rightwing denialism appears buried so deep in the dustbin of history it can never be recycled.

The oceans can adapt, though acidification puts immense stress on coral and other shell building sea creatures. Renewable energy comprises 42% of the UK’s electricity. The amount of energy that can be generated by renewable sources is unpredictable. In 2020, wind power was responsible for 25% of total energy usage. However, this decreased in 2021 as there were less favourable conditions. Solar power made up just a few percent of the UK’s electricity in 2020. In some years, Biomass can be used to generate as much as 10-15% of UK electricity.

And yet there is nervousness among the impressively large number of Conservative politicians who are serious about pushing for net zero. They are pleading with their colleagues to understand the advantages to consumers and businesses that a determined remaking of the economy would bring. The Conservative Environmental Network is already in a fight with a small group of rightwing MPs, who claim “the poorest will pay the highest price for net-zero fantasies” (even though no measure is more likely to reduce fuel poverty than a government home-insulation drive). That battle will only intensify.

Home insulation is not going to do much toward reaching net-zero CO2 emissions. Increased cost for goods, transport, and fuel do directly effect everyone, and the poorest are affected most, because they have the least room in their budgets for non-essentials. The claim that the government has the ability to remake the economy without doing massive harm is a lot more ludicrous.

I put “denier” in quotes at the top of this piece because the enemies of science (and of us all) are endlessly malleable shapeshifters. Once they can no longer deny the existence of man-made global warming, they shift and keet on shifting so no one can ever pin them down. In this, they mirror the defenders of slavery 230 years ago, who created the modern world’s first corporate PR campaign and provided an example for all who have followed.

This false equivalence is no different than the right’s assertion that the Democrats in the US or Canada’s Liberals are somehow as bad as the Maoist government of China. Speaking of shifting, how about not continually coming up with new and scarier terms for global warming? What will it be next week? “Climate apocalypse”?

The comparison isn’t harsh. One day, the attack on climate science will be seen as shocking as the defence of human bondage. Indeed, that day should have long passed. They are overwhelmingly old men or, in the case of Lawson, a very old man. They grew up in a 20th century where the carbon economy was natural: the way the world was and would always be. Slavery was equally natural to the plantation owners and slave traders of Georgian Britain. It had always existed, everywhere on Earth.

Directly violating a person’s right to bodily autonomy and polluting the global environmental commons are in no way morally comparable. While I agree that future generations are likely to look back on our handling of the load humanity is putting on the earth and shake their heads, each new century looks back on the last in this way. I think they will hold the military industrial complex in much greater contempt than they will a few ignorant politicians.

[In] the 18th century… William Wilberforce was assailed by claims that if Britain abolished slavery, “our manufactures will droop in consequence, our land-tax will be raised, our marine destroyed, while France, our natural enemy and rival, will strengthen herself by our weakness”. Today, Nick Timothy, the man who destroyed Theresa May’s premiership, tells Telegraph readers the British will be forced into penury by “net-zero zealots” while other countries “break their promises” and profit from our naivety.

Slavery was indeed a factor in the end of the British empire, though it was America and not France who supplanted Britain and became for a time the global economic powerhouse. Climate zealots who advocate for immediately abandoning all use of fossil fuels would, if taken seriously, cause the deaths of millions. Other countries (i.e. China) are profiting from the west’s naivety. Since China was allowed to sign the Paris accord with no pledge to reduce or even slow their increases in emissions, they haven’t even had to break any promises.

It remains an open question as to whether Boris Johnson secretly shares a denialist intent. Conservative environmentalists look on him with approval as he prepares to host the Cop26 climate change conference in November. He says all the right things, but the investment and political will needed to electrify transport, reduce meat eating and refit the housing stock are nowhere to be seen. Denialism is a shapeshifter. Its latest form may be a bombastic prime minister who promises the Earth but does next to nothing to protect it.

No politician can solve these problems. Electrified transport is currently massively more expensive than diesel, due to the weight of the batteries required to power trucks. This would make all goods more expensive, and those costs would be passed on to everyone, most adversely affecting the poor. You cannot eliminate meat as a source of protein without creating a viable alternative. Today, plant substitutes like Beyond Meat (based on pea protein) are more expensive and have less protein than their animal equivalents. While the government can use taxpayers money to subsidize retrofitting houses with modern heating and cooling systems and insulation, this will lead to increased taxes, and will be a massive wealth transfer to the corporations doing the work.

The UK causes 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, Canada less than that. If we are to limit global warming, China, which contributes a whopping 25%, must be part of the solution. Yet today, China is building enormous new coal fired power plants. If cutting emissions here means shipping jobs there because they are allowed to emit as much as they please, don’t be surprised when people continue to tell you to take your environmentalism and stick it where no solar power can be generated.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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