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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 24-04-2021 10:00

Going green will be anything but easy

Shutting down much of industry, replacing oil and coal with solar panels, wind turbines and devices that have yet to be invented may appeal to the wealthy, but the same cannot be said for those who will continue to depend on old-fashioned sources of energy.

The great war against the coronavirus has given a boost to doomsday thinking. Determined not to be outshone by those who give priority to the pandemic, people who say they find climate change far more alarming have taken to warning us that unless we take drastic action now, the world will soon plunge into a far worse crisis than the one being caused by the rampaging virus hordes, with cities like New York getting swallowed up by the sea, once flourishing regions turned into deserts and hundreds of millions of men, women and children fleeing from countries they could no longer live in.

In the view of those who see apocalypse rushing towards us, fossil fuels, belching bovines and the like will simply have to be phased out before it is too late and much of the world becomes uninhabitable Some enthusiasts, such as the well-known British broadcaster David Attenborough, go so far as to say that the planet we live on would be better off if humankind, a dirty species which makes an unholy mess of the natural order, simply called it a day. As birth rates are plunging almost everywhere, Attenborough’s dream of a world without the nasty creatures he berates for their folly could come about two or three centuries from now.

Would getting rid of people stop temperatures from rising? Perhaps it would, but few think it would be a price worth paying; if climate change is “the existential crisis of our times,” as Joe Biden says, it is not just because it threatens some animals and plants. In any event, politicians, who are professionally obliged to take a less misanthropic approach than those who think there are far too many people around, are happy to make out that, providing everyone obeys their orders, they could save the human race from getting incinerated by keeping temperatures down.

Most speak as though they were convinced that what they dutifully call “the Science” has handed them a global thermostat they can manipulate at will so temperatures do not increase by more than the 1.5 degrees Celsius allowed by the 2015 Paris climate accord. The billionaire Bill Gates tells them they could make sure the target is met by pumping huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere to dim the sunlight, as in fact happened in 1815, when the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora gave the world “the year without a summer” which, for most people living then was a thoroughgoing disaster.

For a long time, politicians brushed aside talk about the dangers posed by climate change, which they saw as a fringe issue, but now almost all of them, including some who were once derided as “denialists,” make out they are as green as they come. Their conversion to the cause is understandable; men and women who find it hard to solve relatively minor problems in the places they rule can now say that, given a free hand, they could make the world’s weather dance to their tune. So, taking advantage of a “virtual climate summit,” Biden and other “world leaders” – among them are our own Alberto Fernández – have proudly committed themselves to doing whatever activists demand of them. If many of their compatriots tell them they are useless, they can respond by saying they are bravely striving to save the planet from a terrible fate.

Would the measures the presumed experts in this very complicated matter have in mind do the trick? While some holdouts think climate change is a natural phenomenon and point out that, long before homo sapiens appeared on the scene, average temperatures rose and fell for a variety of reasons, including some they have been unable to identify. Not that long ago, the consensus was that a new ice age was about to overwhelm us; the current one is that human activities are driving temperatures up.

However, this does not mean there is a general agreement over what should be done to put matters right. Shutting down much of industry, replacing oil and coal with solar panels, wind turbines and devices that have yet to be invented may appeal to those who are wealthy enough to pay more to keep the lights on, stay warm in winter and cool in summer, but the same cannot be said of the many whose standard of living will continue to depend on old-fashioned sources of energy for a long time to come. And while nuclear power could provide an ecologically and economically satisfactory alternative, climate change activists in countries like Germany think it is even worse than all those carbon-spewing coal plants. 

Almost everything enthusiasts for clean energy have in mind would have a disproportionate impact, with poorer people being the hardest hit, as indeed they have been by the rapid changes which are being brought about by the headlong technological progress that is being driven by the ongoing digital revolution. Putting an end to fracking and then, no doubt, to the oil industry, as the allegedly progressive wing of the Democrat Party wants the Biden administration to do, has already left many workers unemployed and could soon mean higher petrol prices for people who rely on their cars to get from one place to another.

What is more, telling those on the losing end that lots of well-paid “green” jobs will soon be available – as Barack Obama did when in office and Biden is now doing – is no longer convincing. In the US and other fairly prosperous countries, the labour market is getting less and less friendly by the day towards people without impressive academic credentials. The measures being taken in the hope of slowing, and then reversing, climate change can only accelerate what for many millions has already proved to be a most unpleasant process. 

In the better-off countries, a growing gap between a comfortably -off elite at the top and the rest of the population down there below is behind much of the recent political turmoil. In the world as a whole, something similar is happening. Poorer countries insist it is grossly unfair to ask them to follow a radically different path to development than the one which was pioneered by the Europeans, North Americans and Japanese.

To get even, they want to be paid for doing without coal plants, oil wells, livestock industries, large-scale lumbering and anything else which according to the climate-change activists is responsible for making the world hotter. Alberto Fernández says he wants Argentina to go green but will need lots of money to do his bit for humanity. As for Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, who for many people is the world’s worst ecological villain, he wants the US to give him a billion dollars a year in exchange for a promise to slow the deforestation of the Amazon region. Who will end up paying the bill? That is a question politicians like Biden would rather not have to answer.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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