Joakim Book

Freelance writer and globetrotter with an unhealthy addiction to financial history and all things money. #future #optimism #monpol #climate

Oct. 22, 2020
Published on: AIER
12 min read

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Like many of us, I had an iconic and charismatic high school teacher who left a lasting impression. He used to say something memorable about asking for forgiveness: “Apologize if you’re in the wrong,” he said, “but double down if you’re not.”

As the pro-lockdown media poured its anger over the Great Barrington Declaration and other voices for human freedom and dignity have been silenced or viciously attacked, allow me to heed my high school teacher’s great advice ‒ and double down.

Much of the outrage over AIER’s sponsoring and hosting of the Declaration had nothing to do with what the scientists in it said, or even the topic of societal disagreement that it captures. Conspiratorial writers from Byline Times to The Guardian as well as editors at Wikipedia attacked AIER for a minor, inconsequential connection to the “evil” Koch Foundation, damning the Institute’s efforts in a laughable attempt of guilt-by-association.

As a carte blanche ‒ the ultimate “gotcha” in these unenlightened and confused times ‒ many of these outlets attacked AIER for “downplay[ing] the threats of the environmental crisis,” and linked specifically to a number of my climate change articles.

I don’t see how I have anything to apologize for regarding what’s in those articles ‒ so instead I’ll double down.

How to do environmentalism, and how not to do environmentalism

A tragic dissonance has emerged in most popular climate arguments: a childlike refusal of accepting the lesser of two evils, of trading off one goal for another. The more ardently you push climate policies, it seems, the more strongly you hold romantic and unrealistic beliefs about how we can repent for our environmentalist sins. In impossibly short times, it is believed, we can effortlessly transition to 100% renewable energy; overhaul society completely, but at no cost whatsoever; and our restrictive climate policies will even boost our economies and create jobs!

You must presume that the world is a pretty sinister place if greedy capitalists, supposedly in it for the money, are all leaving these “obvious” opportunities on the table.

Never mind that renewables ‒ or more aptly called “unreliables” ‒ can’t power a modern civilization, that their intermittency problem is light years behind where its proponents assume it to be, that they’re not energy-dense enough to provide us with the energy and electricity we want. Without the amazing help of fossil fuels we couldn’t do half the things we’re currently doing ‒ living, eating, flourishing, helping, traveling (well…), producing.

None of that matters; we need to fix the climate, activists say, and quell CO2 emissions urgently. But while we’re at it we must also ensure equal gender representation on corporate boards, and shut down tax havens, and confiscate the rich’s productive assets. And naturally, end racial inequality, and most certainly regulate who may use a public bathroom carrying this or that gendered sign on it.

A cynic, perhaps reaching for a tin foil hat or the closest religious text to understand how this could possibly make sense, would conclude that catastrophists are not really addressing the problem they say they are. Alternatively, climate change can’t be that bad if the same Green New Deal bill that saves humanity is littered with minimum wage laws and paid maternity leave and a range of other social policies that just happen to align with what the hard-left has long wanted.

But we don’t have to be cynics to derive this conclusion: its proponents freely and openly say so. The British organization ‘Extinction Rebellion,’ whose infamous promoters chain themselves to trains and block London roads for media attention (or sling fake blood at buildings), happily confess that they do things that feel right rather than what would have material impact for their cause.

For years, people like Naomi Klein, the author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, have said that their goal is to destroy capitalism ‒ and climate change just happens to be the best tool and best argument she has found. Simon Hannah for OpenDemocracy describes capitalism as having a “’parasitoid’ relationship to the Earth.” Capitalism, he writes, “is simply incompatible with social justice” and the climate change issue offers a vivid illustration of this.

If you’re concerned about these other societal problems ‒ which you could be as they are serious concerns in their own right ‒ then you’re also unavoidably telling me that you don’t think the climate crisis is existential or even that bad. After all, if you think climate change will kill millions or billions of people, why would you bother, for instance, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at a coronavirus the mortality of which is a rounding error compared to the apocalyptic climate future you see? (When faced with claims of mass death, always ask how exactly that’s supposed to happen as we’re safer, richer, better fed, and better protected against the powers of nature than ever before).

The worse and more unavoidable the damages from a changing planet are, the more acute does a rapid transition to nuclear power look, and the greater the merits of geoengineering ‒ for instance, artificially spewing out sulfur into the high atmosphere, mimicking large volcano eruptions of the past.

Michael Shellenberger, a pro-nuclear environmentalist, writes

The problem posed by the existence of nuclear energy was that it proved we didn’t need to radically reorganize society to solve environmental problems. We just needed to build nuclear plants instead of coal-burning ones. And so the New Left environmentalists attacked nuclear energy as somehow bad for the environment.

[S]olar farms require hundreds of times more land, an order of magnitude more mining for materials, and create hundreds of times more waste, than do nuclear plants. And wind farms kill hundreds of thousands of threatened and endangered birds, may make the hoary bat go extinct, and kill more people than nuclear plants.

Nuclear energy should be the environmentalist’s greatest gift: in one fell swoop we could make a serious dent in CO2 emissions. But of course, the more ardent an environmentalist you are, the more fiercely you oppose nuclear, going nuts from just voicing the option (“Nuclear is awful, filthy, unclean, dangerous, and unsafe!”).

It’s like all the previous arguments about how devastating human civilization is for the planet, how desperately urgent it is for us to take action, that we “listen to the scientists” as Greta Thunberg urges us, just go out the window. Well, not those scientists, explaining how modern nuclear plants can safely power our societies. Or how unreliables give us higher electricity prices and more CO2 emissions in our electricity mix. Or how modern engineering can tame the sea. Or how modern information technology, large-scale supply chains, and construction of storm shelters have reduced Bangladeshi deaths from cyclones by 99% in a generation, even though Bangladesh has a much larger population today.

We should deal with the threats of climate change, but we should do so sensibly and in conjunction with other threats. Because one thing is dangerous and potentially harmful, every other dangerous and harmful thing doesn’t just go away. Do things like the World Health Organization recommends here, things that help against the baseline danger of nature as well as the increased risk from climate change:

The development of a 500 metre coastal mangrove forest zone will further reduce the vulnerability to cyclones, which is especially important given the likelihood of a rise in sea level and an increase in tropical storm frequency and strength due to climate change.

In a special climate issue of the Scientific American from last year, climate scientist Jennifer Francis was accounting for recent extreme weather events. After several long paragraphs outlining how bad the record-setting heat waves of the 2018 summer had been in the U.S., Japan, Scandinavia, and in the Arctic, she wrote, “Worldwide, thousands of people without air-conditioning died.” (emphasis added)

Yes, exactly! Scorching heat waves are bad for people, with or without climate change. A sensible, effective, and direct way to fix that… is ensuring that people have access to air-conditioning! Instead of aiming for some elaborate government-mandated degrowth platform, circular economies, carbon tax, or subsidies for solar and wind ‒ how about just giving people cash for air conditioners? That should be much more effective in preventing deaths from inhospitable elements, even if climate change makes nature a little bit less safe for humans.

Most changes to the climate can’t be rolled back

What’s scary about the climate impact of the CO2 we’ve already emitted into the atmosphere is that it lingers there for hundreds of years. Unless we find a way to remove it from the skies, much of what will happen to the planet over the next century or so is already “baked in.”

That also means that we must prepare for those changes rather than muck about with blunt tools like carbon taxes or symbolic bans on plastic bags.

So let’s abandon fanciful and fleetingly ineffective climate policies. Let’s rapidly transition to the cleanest and most reliable electricity source we have (nuclear). Let’s build protective dams along vulnerable coastlines, and experiment with ways to raise and reclaim land from the sea. Most importantly ‒ and globally just ‒ let’s make sure the poorest of the poor can enrich themselves enough so that they too stand a chance against the inevitable changes that we know will come. Let’s stop torturing ourselves with totalitarian policies against a virus we can’t control. Let’s stop injuring poor countries with our obstacles to their goods and services, and their migrating people.

Those are climate policies that a sensible, pro-human environmentalist could get behind. Blunt and small-impact carbon taxes, Paris Agreements with next-to-no effect, or symbolic gestures like recycling ‒ not so much.

How’s that for doubling down?