As COP28 ended in historic triumph, fizzled out or delivered a predictable curtain call, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot wrote in Canada’s National Post that “Taking place in one of the world’s fossil-fuel hubs, a city sultanate so prodigal in its energy use that it boasts indoor ski slopes in the desert furnace, the just-concluded climate jamboree in Dubai could hardly avoid a note of climate realism.” To which we’re tempted to jeer “Wanna bet?” The human capacity for error, rather than deceit, is one of our most developed faculties. But improbably he has a point. Improbably especially because a key quotation is from Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, calling for precisely the sort of demonstration project the Manhattan Contrarian has so often urged, saying if any political leader really believes in the “phase down” or “phase out” of fossil fuels, “Let them do that themselves. And we will see how much they can deliver.” And at COP 29 or 39 or 109 or however long it takes we can do a Stocktake.
Obviously Saudi Arabia has a dog in the fight. Possibly geography would allow it to become a solar superpower if such things exist, but right now it’s oil that keeps it and its pretensions afloat. But a jewel remains a jewel no matter where it is found, and it’s important to listen to what the minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, actually said, even if you think being the fourth son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz is a bit of a squalid qualification for responsible public office.
The king himself, now 87, is evidently the 25th son of the founding monarch, Abdulaziz, and it may bring some comfort, when wondering how you got whatever prime minister or president you’re currently contemplating with dismay, that their system is even worse. But never mind what John Locke would say about it. The point is that Abbot also quoted the minister on phasing out fossil fuels that “I assure you that not a single person – I’m talking about governments – believes in that.”
We wish all the governments going to COP28 to demand a phase-out were just faking it. But we don’t believe it. Justin Trudeau really thinks we can get rid of oil, gas and coal and be better off. So does Joe Biden.
Of course they aren’t exactly climate scientists, engineers or even historians. But a lack of knowledge has never been a barrier to enthusiasm; indeed it often helps. (Thus the Canadian government keeps making promises not to keep raising the carbon tax, then denying it ever made them as circumstances once again overwhelm its lack of plan.) Likewise the many poor-country politicians demanding that everyone get rid of workable energy, and that formerly rich countries somehow bail them out of their current misery and the resulting disaster with the aid of magic beans, do mean what they say.
On the other hand, the Prince is right that none of these people, not a single one, has a workable plan or anything that could reasonably be mistaken for one. They do not “believe in” a phase-down or phase-out in the sense of being ready, willing or able to carry one out locally. The problem is that if you spend any time listening to politicians you realize they are forever sincerely advocating things that they haven’t the slightest idea how to implement, don’t know have been tried repeatedly and can’t explain why they always failed. As Joseph Conrad once put it, “It is not the clear-sighted who rule the world. Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm mental fog.”
For instance, Abbot notes, COP president Sultan Al Jaber’s earlier problematic blurt about there being no roadmap to a phaseout that wouldn’t have us all living in caves came “in a tetchy debate with the former Irish president and United Nations climate envoy, Mary Robinson, who’d earlier observed that, ‘We’re in an absolute crisis that is hurting women and children more than anyone … and it’s because we have not yet committed to phasing out fossil fuel.’”
Robinson’s statement might be daffy and dangerous at the same time. But it doesn’t make it deceptive in the sense that she doesn’t mean it. Even if it is deceptive in the sense that she says it as though she had some well-thought-out plan for doing it, when in fact she couldn’t begin to stammer out an actual detailed proposal.
As Abbot rightly adds, after some pointed remarks about “the bizarre contention that a commitment to ending coal, oil and gas power will somehow ease whatever hurts are being uniquely suffered by women and girls” and “any issues with climate’s ‘settled science,’” what’s illuminating here is that “this exchange crystallized the tension between climate evangelism and climate realism.”
Indeed. But it’s not unique to climate. As Thomas Sowell so masterfully discusses in A Conflict of Visions, the tension between those who rely on will and those who rely on method permeates public policy. And advocates of what we realists often scorn as unicorn power are just as sincere, and just as wrong, as those who think appeasement brings peace.
The debate is endless and often frustrating. But it’s not totally futile, because reality does have a way of intervening with increasing sharpness as folly gets hold of the tiller. And on this file, as Abbot also argues:
“For several decades, climate activists got away with claiming that countries could reduce emissions without any real pain-in-the-pocket because wind and solar power were virtually free.”
But it’s getting harder and harder to believe the harder and harder they try, “[e]specially since the green phobia for fossil fuels normally extends, for different reasons, to nuclear power, too.”
So here’s a demonstration project that actually was carried out:
“Across much of the developed world, there’s now enough renewable energy to badly damage the reliability and affordability of power supplies; but not enough to substantially dent the world’s reliance on fossil fuels – still about 80 per of total global energy.”
This state of affairs wasn’t just unforeseen by the zealots, and unwanted by them. It was dismissed as impossible. And yet it came all the same.
People on what Sowell calls the “unconstrained” side of all manner of public issues get into this sort of difficulty all the time, and an important reason why is that they don’t really believe in practical difficulties and the tradeoffs they necessarily require. Including Abbot’s point that in addition to the “astronomical cost” and inherent impossibility of the current Australian government’s ambition for “82 per cent renewables by 2030” that “will require the installation of 20,000 new solar panels every single day, and 40 wind turbines every single month, for the next seven years, plus the construction of at least 10,000 kilometres of new transmission lines”, there’s also the obstacle of:
“genuine conservationist fears about the impact of onshore and offshore wind farms on bird life and whale migration, plus the desecration of farm land and national parks.”
So where does it all end? With something Prince This and Sultan That don’t have to think about:
“Contrary to the climate zealots, the real ‘tipping point’ is less likely to arrive when barely perceptible global warming becomes unstoppable but when fed-up electorates revolt against policies that don’t seem to be helping the climate but are badly hurting voters’ cost of living.”
And if not, well, “the obsessive focus on emissions and the anti-fossil fuel fixation has become a Trojan horse dangerously sapping the West’s prosperity and security.” And our visionary politicians would never persist in policies dangerous to our prosperity and security, now would they? Would they? Have they ever?