As it happens, I shall be 65 on the day the Cop26 meeting opens in Glasgow. So I am old enough to remember during my adult life the genesis of the Cop (Conference of the Parties) process which sees itself as the way to save the planet. The occasion also makes me reflect on what causes the public to wake up to any issue.
Environmentalism is often seen as a Left-wing cause, but Margaret Thatcher was the first leading world statesman to address global warming. As our first scientist prime minister, she was excited by the theory, propounding it to the Royal Society in 1988. The following year, she argued that the problem could be dealt with only through a global UN framework, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The challenge, she said, was “as great as any disarmament treaty”. She made that comparison because disarmament is worse than useless unless all parties really do disarm.
The first Cop met in Berlin, six years later. The fact that there will very soon have been 26 of them suggests the task is not easy.
In one sense, the process has been brilliantly successful. No cause in the Western world has more excited the activist young, or been more passionately preached from pulpits, in schoolrooms and on television. Like medieval monarchs blessing the Crusades, our current heir to the throne, and his heir, exhort their future subjects to ever-greater sacrifices for the sake of the planet. “Net zero” is the name for the sacrificial ritual. No mainstream political party dares disagree.
Yet these Cops keep copping out. The same basic problem recurs. Nations which industrialised earlier are far readier to reduce carbon emissions than are developing nations, who fear being cheated of economic growth. Because the latter are growing so fast (China and India account for more than a third of all global carbon emissions), there will be no overall carbon reduction unless they “disarm”. They won’t.
Indeed, as these rising nations become richer and more assertive, Western persuasiveness weakens. Even Barack Obama failed to achieve consensus at Copenhagen’s Cop15 in 2009. Neither his former vice-president, Joe Biden, nor Boris Johnson, has as much chance in Glasgow next week as he had then. The environmental equivalent of global multilateral disarmament is not happening. The unilateral disarmament of the West is.
One person who never accepted the Thatcher remedy was her then chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson. Faced with a draft for her Royal Society speech proposing universal fuel levies and debt relief for developing countries in return for preserving their rainforests, he wrote, “These bizarre ideas are contrary to Government policy, and are political dynamite.” They were dropped from the speech, but never went away.
Twenty years on, the financial crash of 2008-9 gravely injured the West’s authority over how the world is run. Lawson’s short book on climate change, An Appeal to Reason, came out at that time. It tackled IPCC projections for 50 or 100 years hence. These could not have any degree of accuracy, he said: there were too many imponderables. Even on their own calculations, food production was set to rise and people to be several times better off than they were now. Why tighten our belts to help our richer successors?
Lawson also emphasised the clash of interests between the West and the rest. Shortly afterwards, Copenhagen exhibited this. The meeting produced vague promises of co-operation and “climate aid” to the developing world, but nothing legally enforceable. Carbon-based energy could not go away, said Lawson, because it was “far and away the cheapest source of energy … and is likely to remain so, not forever, but for the foreseeable future”.
These basic arguments have never been disproved. Even if global warming is a very serious problem, why attempt the economically and politically impossible? Why not consider methods of adaptation, rather than cry catastrophe? Lawson and others set up the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). Several years later, I joined its board, sitting with people much more expert than I.
Over the years, the GWPF has produced work consistently pointing to alternatives – foreshadowing, in 2010, the shale gas revolution, for example – and to problems, such as the danger of depending on emergency gas supplies from Russia (in 2018). The latter is beautifully illustrated by Vladimir Putin’s threat that if we want him in Glasgow, we must accept his gas price “offer”. This week, a new GWPF pamphlet by Gwythian Prins sets out six fallacies of “green growth” and warns of the security implications of letting China manipulate our obsession with net zero while not truly decarbonising.
When the GWPF board has met, we have discussed the repressive hostility from policy elites. Those elites have expended enormous energy arguing that we were “climate-change deniers” (a deliberately libellous term, echoing the Holocaust), none on considering what we were saying.
Since the problems of the Cop process were so obvious, we puzzled, why did our leaders not admit them? But perhaps the answer was not so hard to see. It is a natural human instinct to side with a virtuous intention; and so long as it remains abstract, its virtue will not be proved wrong. Who would not favour a cleaner, greener planet?
Rather than honestly confronting the growing practical difficulties, our leaders preferred to frighten the public with the idea of “emergency”. No emergency has been proved: if you want an example of a true emergency, think of Covid in March last year. A climate emergency, on the other hand, is a speculation.
On climate policy, we sceptics concluded, minds would change only because of cost. If people were forced to pay substantially more for the essentials of life, they would start asking why.
This is now happening, because the emergency’s artificial timetable is making change much more disruptive, expensive and frightening than it need be. People are worried about electric vehicle batteries and charging points, losing wood-burning stoves, being made to pay meat taxes or get rid of gas-fired boilers. In the case of heat pumps, customers face an unprecedented situation of being forced to pay more (through tax, if subsidised) for a technology which is slower and more cumbersome than the one it replaces. Only in recent months have the media in general latched on to what the GWPF and other sceptics have been saying for more than a decade.
As I write at home, I can hear men replacing our old gas boilers with new gas boilers. I am determined to install something that actually works before the law forbids it. In the name of a distant, uncertain benefit for mankind in general, we are about to take direct hits on our pockets, our convenience and our country’s prosperity. How can I feel warm towards a government which will make me colder and poorer?
Higher energy prices close in, and the public are trapped. A letter from our gas supplier this week announces a rise of 9 pence per litre (over 15 per cent) – but I still need a fuel I can trust. Our Government’s failure to recognise how much we need fossil fuels until such time as carbon-neutral, affordable, 24-hour alternative technologies can successfully operate, is driving up demand for those wicked old carbon-producers, and therefore their price.
The government is also trapped politically and diplomatically, seeking to show off, in Glasgow, a virtue that does not impress large parts of the global or, increasingly, the domestic audience. Our rising enemies in the world, if they attend Cop26 at all, will be laughing at us.