It takes a lot of courage to perform a public volte-face, and so the Daily Telegraph deserves much credit for its leading article this weekend on the heated matter of global warming.
But it is time to acknowledge that, for whatever combination of reasons, temperatures are rising. We do not know by how much they will rise in the next few years: that, in itself, is one of the worst problems. A 4°C rise could turn large parts of southern Europe into desert. European politicians have tied themselves to a 2°C target, but the scientists think this will be exceeded. One extremely worrying development is the fact that sea levels seem to be rising twice as fast as had been forecast by the United Nations only two years ago. Already, the Thames Barrier is being raised more often to protect London from flooding.
Conceding that global warming is a reality is quite a reversal for the Telegraph, so one would expect the editorial line to be one of contrition, to offer some sense of humility, to include a graceful acceptance that the newspaper has previously been wrong on this issue; no? Well, er, no. Not really.
The British instinctively mistrust zealotry, and the debate over climate change has for too long been dominated by self-righteous, finger-wagging puritans who present the challenge of rising temperatures as primarily a moral issue. Most scientists believe that the acceleration of the rate of rising temperatures can be explained only by economic activity; yet this consensus is obscured, not illuminated, by the way that the minority of scientists who believe that we are pulling naturally out of an Ice Age are shouted down as heretics.
Ah. So the blame for the Telegraph taking so long to see the light on climate change lies with those who have been right all along, because they cruelly pointed out that those who are wrong are wrong. I see. Now personally I could never say categorically that anthropomorphic global warming is a fact, because I am not a scientist; but for the very reason that I am not a scientist I have always felt it prudent to give credence to the overwhelming majority of scientific opinion on the matter, that man-made climate change is a genuine concern. The Daily Telegraph, on the other hand, seems to have instinctively taken against the messenger and so the message, as have many others. But while it is certainly true that some environmentalists can be too shrill in their propagandising, and indeed some may even be the watermelons of legend, you could easily say the same about any argument; that there will always exist some zealous, unreasonable clique who will be only too happy to denounce and demonise their opponents. This fact applies as equally to those who have criticised the concept of global warming and who have readily ridiculed and condemned its proponents; and many of those critics have found a comfortable home within the pages of the Daily Telegraph itself. After all, it is not exactly illuminating debate for the Telegraph to characterise environmentalists and mainstream climatologists as “self-righteous, finger-wagging puritans”, even as they have begun to accept their findings. As grown-ups, shouldn’t we all by now have learned to look at the substance of someone’s argument rather than to engage in ad-hominem dismissals of any uncomfortable theories?
Anyway, while now accepting the problem, the Telegraph is somewhat shakier on working out a solution.
For too long, issue of global warming has been hijacked by the bossiest people in society: politicians, lobbyists and clergy who are trying to micro-manage our behaviour. The idea that Western householders can contribute to the lowering of global temperatures by “buying food with less packaging” and “driving at a lower speed” (to quote two tips from the climate change fanatics at the BBC) is palpable nonsense.
Temperatures may respond to a drastic cut in carbon emissions from the major economies. We must pray that they do. How that cut can be achieved is one of the most difficult questions facing political leaders. There is no consensus, but one must be found:
Damn those politicians for trying to sort out the problem by telling us what to do. Instead they should…er…reach a consensus and sort out the problem, just like that! One problem the Telegraph has is that in having just arrived late – huffing and puffing – to the party, they are playing catch-up and trying to adjust to the new reality while still hanging on to their cherished beliefs. Perhaps they could take lessons from those who did an about-turn on global warming a wee while ago when they discovered that there was a delicious irony in the fact that nuclear power, many an environmentalist’s bete-noire, could be seen as a saviour in the battle against rising sea levels. For the Telegraph their world has been shifting as they have agreed that it is warming, and they need to cling to something; and in this case it is the belief that their beloved capitalism is ace and that governments are foolish. Ergo the title of the Telegraph’s leader, “Capitalism can lead the way on climate change”.
There is probably no alternative to an internationally co-ordinated effort to reduce carbon emissions. But that does not mean that the engine of change will be driven by civil servants. Capitalism accelerated the rise in global temperatures; capitalism should slow it down, by developing the energy-efficient technology that we are going to need in any case in order to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Now, there is much to agree with here; the world economy is, by and large, built on a capitalistic market model and so it makes sense to utilise it and the immense power inherent in it; but will it really happen without those dratted civil servants? For example, profit maximisation surely suggests using the cheapest method available for generating power, which in a truly free market often means burning coal, just about the most carbony fuel going. Only by governments taxing carbon or introducing a cap-and-trade system can cleaner technologies be made nominally cheaper and so more cost effective for companies and power generators to employ. Despite the Telegraph’s ire this demands effective government and skilled civil servants to set up a workable system that does not simply create damagingly skewed incentives and disastrous unforeseen consequences. For the very reason that the Telegraph lauds the easy workings of the free market and denounces the nightmare of a planned economy, so the job of those berated bureaucrats to create a system that disincentives the use of fossil fuels while still leaving a functioning and efficient market is a hellish tricky one. A bit of gratitude for those civil servants wouldn’t go amiss you would think, but then perhaps the Telegraph doesn’t know what the hell it is talking about. After all…
This is a time for innovation not nagging. Global warming is a challenge for governments, scientists and, above all, businesses. It is not the responsibility of householders, who should be able retire for the night leaving their televisions on standby with a clear conscience. Planet Earth will not notice.
As a proud defender of capitalism’s honour it would be nice to think the Daily Telegraph has even an inkling about how the system works, and why it can be such a boon. Capitalists will not overwhelmingly take the actions the Telegraph now wishes out of some sense of altruism or philanthropy, they will do so only if such actions make a profitable return. Capitalism works not because producers’ and consumers’ wants align, but when the fruits of the self-interest of the former happen to coincide with the desires of the latter, or as Adam Smith so famously said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. So, if households don’t try to play their part in reducing their own CO2 emissions, and in doing so request “green” electricity, low-energy fridges and – yes – televisions with a more efficient standby button (or preferably even an off switch), then where is the demand going to come from for these potentially planet-saving products? And if there is no demand for such low-carbon goods and services, why the hell will those noble capitalists waste their time and money on producing them?
The Shorter Daily Telegraph leading article then reads as follows: we need to acknowledge that global warming is a reality while somehow maintaining our ideological stance; but while we’ve changed our tune we still don’t have a fucking clue.