RDN at a climate change conference
In April 2012 I attended a climate change conference and want just to nail some of the arguments aired, as I see them. (It was held under Chatham House, “no names, no pack-drill” rules.)
Most of the arguments, much of the tone and many of the actual participants were largely unchanged from hundreds of other climate change gigs held over the past 20-odd years.
Of course some things are different. Over the years, it may be that more of the world’s educated people have come to believe in the climate catastrophe theory. What is striking is that the powers-that-be seem to accept that (having tested the proposition) there is a real but quite slight will to act on the matter amongt their peoples. Arguably, command and control polities will be able and willing to act more decisively than the democracies. In the past 20 years, I hazard, politicians have been chastened by their voters’ reluctance to care much. In short, when push comes to shove, climate concern is, as it always was, an elite concern.
The other big thing which has happened is that, at least in the UK, nuclear power has become less unattractive to elite (and some green), and even mass, opinion. Fukushima may have dented this shift a little for now, but its effect may be quite short-lived.
So far as we know, nega-watts (conservation) and low-carbon mega-watts are less attractive or more expensive than fossil fuels at least for now. Working out which will work best will take some time, and had better be done as cheaply and conveniently as possible if the public is to support the adventure. As a right-winger and a pragmatist, I reluctantly accept the solutions will necessarily be mandated by government, but should involve as little government intervention, and as much market implementation, as possible.
Nuclear is the obvious odd man out. Right now, it could do a huge amount of heavy-lifting, whilst alternatives really get sifted and effective. We might have what one might call the French option: a large-scale technology which delivers lots of low-carbon electricity, probably at greater expense than its fans suppose but fairly safely, barring accidents. I have no idea how the public will balance the near-certainty of the occasional nuclear catastrophe against their reading of the horrors of climate change. So far, they seem to face both with some equanimity. My assumption is that – rationally and fairly – the more one takes climate change seriously, the more one has to accept that the occasional Fukushima is worth enduring.
It is tempting to suppose that a small population of nukes is useful and poses a statistically smaller risk of catastrophe. But one might argue that several issues – both technological and managerial – might tempt one toward doing a lot of nukes effectively rather than a few ineffectually.
One curiosity. I noticed that several participants felt that if the public didn’t “get” climate change or the horrors of nuclear or the need to conserve energy, or more spending on cleaner energy, then that was a failure of communication. Maybe. I prefer to suppose that the public has understood a fair amount and just doesn’t care much. More communication might make them care even less.
Another curiosity. A couple of people said that the next wave of persuasion ought to be amongst women, as though females were less persuaded than men but might become better activists for the cause once they were. I said, good luck with that. It seems to me that women are, on the whole, rather less inclined than men to get engaged in rather abstract issues such as climate change and insofar as they do, consider it quite narrowly from the point of view of their own families. And, oh, I added jauntily, modern mothers seemed more inclined to argue (within the family) for a bigger Chelsea Tractor to keep their little ones safe than (out there on the hustings) for more bike lanes.
But I want to be clear. My un-PC remarks about women were what they were. A bad joke, say. My scepticism about climate change enthusiasm, however, does not flow (I think) from my politics (or sense of humour) but from my reading of the politics of my fellow citizens. That’s why I think it bears repeating: climate change policy must be as cheap and convenient (and as useful on many counts) as possible. That sort of policy may not work very well, but nothing else stands a chance of happening at all. That I am, as a right-winger, drawn to such a point of view should not blind people to its chance of being an accurate account of reality.