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Climate purity

17 Apr 2024 | OP ED Watch

In a justly famous TED talk in February 2008 popular and academic psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that a crucial difference between liberals and conservatives is that while both take morality seriously, liberals are primarily concerned about two aspects, “harm/care” and “Fairness/reciprocity”, while conservatives focus on those two but also three others: “Ingroup/loyalty”, “Authority/respect” and “Purity/sanctity”. But surely the climate-obsessed liberals also focus on ingroup loyalty and appeals to authority, not to mention their powerful, even compulsive fixation on ritual purity. Carbon is “dirty” and nuclear is haram while EVs and solar panels are “clean”. As further evidence we see articles like “More demand, more gas: Inside the Southeast’s dirty power push/ Southeastern utilities want to build fossil gas power plants to meet surging demand. Critics say clean energy, batteries and grid-responsive data centers can do the job.” They can’t, but the laws of purity require them to say otherwise.

One reason Haidt’s talk is so good is that he has a kind of fair-minded, occasionally sardonic perspective on himself and his largely liberal audience that far too few seem to have especially today. (For instance he comments that once you understand that liberals tend to like new experiences and conservatives familiar ones you will understand why someone might eat at Applebees “but not anybody that you know”. And his audience, overwhelmingly self-identified as liberal, had the good grace to laugh.) And there are fair-minded people on all sides, as well as some very nasty people.

Life is tricky. But here’s the thing. The Canadian government refuses to deal with foreigners who keep coming to us to try to buy Liquified Natural Gas (and yes, in a previous item we misstated LNG as being Liquid Natural Gas) even though, from a practical point of view, if they burn methane instead of coal a lot less of the forbidden carbon is released per unit of energy.

Actually here we would suggest that another major difference in political philosophy, if not directly of morality, is awareness of trade-offs, including the massive footprint of wind and solar. We would also say that self-righteously refusing to consider what will really happen is not moral, but let us not get too far afield.

Just think of the sneering curl of the lip when someone like Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks of “carbon pollution”. Touch it and you are defiled. Or the Canadian government sending $100 million to an American firm to “decarbonize” buildings across Canada including a military base. It feels a lot like sprinkling them with holy water to get rid of evil spirits. Or the email from Heatmap Daily rapturing that:

“It’s difficult to communicate the historic nature of the $20 billion the Biden administration awarded today to stand up a national network of green banks. It’s not like I can tell you definitively what projects this money will back or exactly how much it will help the U.S. cut emissions – although the Environmental Protection Agency did provide an estimate of 40 million metric tons per year, about the same as taking 9 million cars off the road.”

See it’s not about what works. It’s about a moment of visionary bliss, the spirit descending in anticipation of the beatific vision that shall one day be.

Or think of the supposed dichotomy in the headline we started with, from Canary Media. It contrasts “dirty” fossil fuels with “cleaner” alternatives. It also insists that these fabled “alternatives” are “cheaper”, something of an attempt to meet their policy adversaries half-way. As the latter try to meet them half-way by demonstrating that the mining and production of wind turbines, solar panels and the large number of batteries necessary to store the power they produce at less-than-ideal times is actually “dirty”. (Which it is.)

You actually have to drill a long way down into the Canary Media article to discover what they’re talking about. And no, it’s not coal. Instead:

“The Southeast utilities’ current plans, if approved, could have a disastrous climate impact. These utilities are also planning to add gigawatts of solar power, batteries and other carbon-free resources and to close down gigawatts of coal-fired power plants. But taken together, the carbon impacts of a large gas expansion would eclipse the gains of these projects, according to an analysis from the Southern Environmental Law Center.”

Which is who they would ask, naturally, it being an analogue to the Southern Poverty Law Center which originated as a litigator against white supremacist groups in the 1960s and has become an outfit that reliably labels any right-wing people or outfits a “hate group” and thus, yes, once again, ritually impure and to be shunned lest they contaminate us.

They are not arguing that on balance a natural gas plant would do more environmental harm than a wind farm, once you weigh everything from the initial extraction of the resource to its footprint while operating and ultimate sometimes problematic disposal. They are rending their garments in the presence of fossil fuels.

It doesn’t matter if gas is replacing coal. If two foods are not kosher, neither is better than the other. And note also that they are indignant at arguments that we need the power, because not letting the populace suffer from an energy shortage is an “Ingroup/loyalty” argument they find alien rather than merely unpersuasive. We must set an example. Think of the Third World. We have no right to prioritize our own well-being.

It should also be said that, at least on the climate file, it is the alarmists who insist upon “Hierarchy/respect” with their endless excommunication of anyone who is “not a climate scientist” unless it’s, say, Greta Thunberg, Al Gore or anyone else they consider pure. Indeed, more broadly, the “experts say” meme in journalism is used to bolster liberal theories on everything from harm reduction to educational philosophy to gender radicalism, so arguably the reason liberals think conservatives are obsessed with it is that conservatives listen to different experts, preferring those with proven practical experience to those with the right kind of certificate ordaining them as a priest of the true faith. Just as the woke have an obsession with who’s “in” and who’s “out” that would have embarrassed the chief priest of the First Temple.

If it seems to be something of a moral maze, we’re going to put forward a simple proposition, at least simple to people like us. When making policy to deal with a threat, it is more important to make a sensible assessment of the threat and a practical judgement about effective responses than it is to shun that which is taboo. We are not saying all taboos are wrong; for instance we believe that the prohibition on eating human flesh rightly overrides questions of nutritional content. And if it were necessary to eliminate much of the human population of the world to protect ecosystems, we would insist that it is unacceptable even if the alternative would be an ecological tragedy. But we also insist that there comes a point at which an obsession with cleanliness is a neurosis not good physical or moral hygiene.

If you don’t agree, let’s at least be clear that you do not, and then we can talk about why and what will happen if we do not, in fact, go with what works.

One comment on “Climate purity”

  1. "Rending their garments in the presence of fossil fuels" is not just an apt turn of phrase. (Although that it certainly is - reminds me of H. L. Mencken. ). It's a precise metaphor for too much of what passes for thinking around climate and energy policy.
    In his book The Grip of Culture, Andy West uses the tools of social science to document the rise of an ersatz climate religion . Explains much observed behavior that otherwise makes no sense at all.

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