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Turning down the temperature on climate change
The need for a new, more sustainable politics of climate
Last Saturday, the COP26 global climate summit drew to a close in Glasgow. Though the usual suspects declared it a failure even before it finished, the conclave of world leaders and officials did yield some incremental progress on climate change, including pledges to help South Africa transition away from coal, a U.S.-China joint declaration on climate in which Beijing committed to “phase down coal consumption” by the end of the decade, and the formal launch of initiatives like the U.S.-EU Global Methane Pledge and the U.S.- and UAE-led Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate. There were some failures as well, most notably successful Chinese and Indian efforts to water down a global commitment to end coal use.
Ironically enough, the summit occurred in the midst of a global energy crunch that illustrates the limits inherent in contemporary climate politics. It’s a crisis that’s apparent in Europe, where a tight global natural gas market and the limitations of intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar have caused energy prices to spike in recent weeks and months. Here in the United States, average gasoline prices have soared well above their both their pre-pandemic and 2020 levels – to the point where a gallon of gas in October 2021 cost more than a dollar more than in October 2020. With winter coming in both the United States and Europe, moreover, higher natural gas prices will mean higher heating costs for average Americans and Europeans.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we’re seeing the shortcomings of our current climate politics and policies play out in real time with dreadful consequences for ordinary citizens. Spurred on by warnings of an inevitable climate apocalypse, over the past decade the United States and European nations embarked on energy transitions that weren’t fully thought through and, as a result, remain incomplete and inadequate to their energy needs. What’s more, these transitions have enhanced the geopolitical leverage of fossil fuel producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia – witness European fears about Russian gas diversion and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent attempt to cajole Riyadh into increasing oil production.
In other words, today’s climate politics have become unsustainable. Climate activists and advocacy groups promise to exchange short-term hardship in the form of higher energy costs today for potential climate gains so far in the future they may as well be meaningless. President Biden has attempted to square this circle by arguing that renewable energy sources will make for a pain-free transition away from fossil fuels and create jobs. But there’s little evidence that renewables can shoulder this immense burden, as events over the past decade in Europe – such as Germany’s dramatic energy price increases and Britain’s more recent struggles with intermittent wind power – have demonstrated.
It’s true that public opinion surveys show abstract concern about climate change, especially among Democrats. But according to one poll conducted for progressive advocacy groups, even a majority of Democrats didn’t see fit to include climate change as one of their four top policy priorities. Moreover, the annual survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that the public sees climate change as an important but second-tier foreign policy priority when compared with issues like cyberattacks, nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism, and pandemic prevention. In Gallup’s monthly poll of national priorities, just three percent of the public listed climate change as the country’s most important problem – well below a panoply of economic problems, the COVID-19 pandemic, and immigration.
But it becomes hard to ask people for immediate sacrifices to combat a threat decades in the future when they face real economic hardships thanks to spiking energy prices amidst an ongoing pandemic and cold winter weather, especially when those spikes are in part the result of incomplete and inadequate attempts to address climate change itself. Without public support, moreover, energy transitions and net-zero emissions pledges will come to naught. The United States and its European allies are running up to the limits of climate politics as they stand today – potentially leading to disastrous political and policy consequences if they choose to stay their current course.
In short, the United States and Europe desperately need a new politics of climate change that can sustain the transitions away from fossil fuels. Here are three main suggestions as to what a new climate politics might look like:
Be realistic and honest about energy transitions. Right now, climate politics and policies rest on heroic assumptions about the ability of renewable energy sources like wind and solar to meet the lion’s share of our energy needs. Despite the claims of many climate activists and advocacy groups, these intermittent sources can’t do so without help from coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy that can generate “baseload power” that keeps the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. That also means recognizing that we’ll still need sources of oil and gas during this transition period if we’re to avoid future energy crunches of the sort we’re seeing now. Careful planning will be required to phase out oil and gas over time without imposing unnecessary hardships on citizens and economies that currently depend upon them – hardships that could politically threaten these transitions. Realism and honesty about energy transitions doesn’t entail catastrophism; on the contrary, they’re indispensable to the sort of rational optimism needed to make progress against climate change.
Go nuclear. It’s hard to see how the United States, Europe, and other industrial nations can maintain their standards of living without a substantial increase in the use of carbon-free nuclear energy. At minimum, that means keeping existing nuclear power plants like California’s Diablo Canyon up and running – not shutting them down. It also means building new nuclear reactors, either to replace existing ones as in the UK or to make good on national commitments to carbon neutrality as in France. Here in the United States, there will need to be significant regulatory reforms to reduce the cost of nuclear construction and allow research and development of new, more advanced nuclear technology to proceed more efficiently. But there’s no politically sustainable path to net zero carbon emissions without more nuclear power capacity, most likely in combination with renewable energy sources like wind and solar as well as geothermal power and carbon capture systems.
Turn down the rhetorical heat. There’s no doubt that climate change is a serious problem, but extreme rhetoric doesn’t convince anyone – even those of us concerned about climate change. Though most current and former elected officials who take climate change seriously don’t indulge in the catastrophism put forward by many climate activists and advocacy groups, they still speak of a “rapidly closing window” (in President Biden’s words) to meet unrealistic and fairly arbitrary global temperature targets like 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But the world won’t spontaneously combust if that target isn’t hit, and too many progressives use the imagined prospect of an imminent climate apocalypse to advance largely unrelated ideological wishlists like the Green New Deal. Instead, President Biden and other political leaders should much more strongly emphasize U.S. commitments to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 – and note that other countries like China, India, and Saudi Arabia have made similar net zero pledges as well. It’s an altogether easier and more concrete way to measure progress toward an achievable objective and hold countries to their commitments.
In the end, climate change is a problem that’s too important to be left to activists and advocacy groups. We can’t afford to bungle the transition away from fossil fuels, but the track records of the United States and European nations don’t inspire much confidence thus far. If our energy transitions falter politically, our nations and the world will be worse off in innumerable ways. The public won’t accept an energy transition that imposes economic hardships or lowers standards of living, and that entails a more gradual and thought-through approach to oil and gas than currently contemplated. Nor can renewables like wind and solar save us, at least not on their own and without increased investments in nuclear energy, geothermal power, and other new technologies.
Along with much of the rest of the world, the United States has committed to net zero carbon emissions by a date certain – 2050 in our case. The task before us now is to cut a practical and above all politically sustainable path from where we stand now to that goal, one that maintains or even enhances our own standard of living along the way.