Luxury Beliefs And Energy Policy: The Fatal Conceit from “Watts Up With That”? – 16.04.23
From Forbes by Tilak Doshi Contributor who analyzes energy economics and related public policy issues.
In a remarkable interview on Wednesday with anchor Laura Ingraham of Fox News, Norman Fenton, Professor Emeritus of Risk at Queen Mary University of London, spelt out just what the “net zero” economy really means. Net zero, to remind ourselves, is the rallying policy battle cry of all major governments in the West and intergovernmental agencies such as the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the UK context, Prof. Fenton points out that all airports except Heathrow, Belfast & Glasgow will close by 2030.
No one will be flying at all by 2050. There will be no new gasoline or diesel cars by 2030 and by 2050 road use will be restricted to 60% of today’s level. Food, heating and energy will be restricted to 60% of today’s levels by 2050. Beef and lamb will be off the menu by 2050.
Many of the restrictions on mobility and social activity will be achieved by “15-minute cities”. These are, Wikipedia informs us, where daily necessities and services, such as work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure “can be easily reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in the city.”
Prof. Fenton put out his observations in a twitter thread that scored an astonishing number of views — some 3.3 million — which was then followed by the Fox News interview. These consequences of net zero for the UK — and by extension, the rest of the collective West — are not mere conjectures by him. They are derived from a detailed document issued by UK FIRES, a research program funded by the government.
The program informs the government’s policy strategy to achieve the “net zero by 2050” goals of the 2019 Climate Change Act amendment. The Act was enthusiastically supported by every political party without public consultation and astonishingly without a debate over the costs and benefits of the legislation.
Matt Ridley put it to his peers in the House of Lords as follows: “I am genuinely shocked by the casual way in which ‘the other place’ [presumably the House of Commons] nodded through this statutory instrument [the 2019 Climate Change Act amendment] on Monday committing future generations to vast expenditure to achieve a goal that we’ve no idea how to reach technologically without ruining the British economy and the British landscape.”
How did a leading economy like Great Britain come to have governments (from both sides of the aisle) that promise their people penury and a future without the basic freedoms Westerners have taken for granted for over two centuries? This, it should be noted, is in the land that boasts the 1215 Magna Carta, the first document to put into writing the principle that the king and his government were not above the law.
How does the scare of an alleged “climate emergency” impel a ruling elite of whatever ideological persuasion to impose draconian energy policies that promise their people a return to pre-industrial standards of living?
Good Intentions and Luxury Beliefs
Predicated on unfalsifiable climate models and a hockey-stick global warming chart of suspect provenance, Western policy makers assure us that “the end is nigh.” We are told that this is the “scientific consensus”, an established truth which the BBC, for example, holds such that it sees no need to allow contrarian views on any of its programs. Michael Crichton was emphatically wrong, in this view, when he said:
“I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.
Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics… The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”
What have luxury beliefs to do with the proclaimed “scientific consensus” on climate change? Rob Henderson who coined the term defined them as “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” This was an update on the sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s century-old theory of conspicuous consumption.
Veblen wryly portrayed a shallow, materialistic “leisure class” obsessed by clothes, cars, consumer goods and climbing the social ladder. But today, Henderson argues, “because material goods have become a noisier signal of one’s social position and economic resources, the affluent have decoupled social status from goods, and re-attached it to beliefs.”
With rapid economic growth on the back of modern capitalism, material goods have become relatively cheaper with affluence afforded to a much broader mass of the population. Consequently, virtue signaling and luxury beliefs now play dominate elite behavior while conspicuous consumption of status goods and services plays a lesser role or is even frowned upon.
The moral worth of a person today is related to his luxury beliefs, of which the “fight against climate change” is the crowning achievement. While the rich may drive their “clean” Teslas, ordinary people can bike or take public transit in this most virtuous of all possible worlds.
Children of the upper bourgeoisie — steeped in learning the tenets of the new left — are unsurprisingly the moral shock troops of the climate alarmism. Convinced of their cause, they throw tomato soup onto art masterpieces and glue themselves to block traffic and inconvenience the general population from going about their daily lives of work and paying the bills.
They do this without the slightest compunction, even “gleefully” blocking ambulances from ferrying the injured or sick to hospital. The larger cause of “saving the planet” overrides all, including the needs of the general populace for heat, mobility and affordable food (dependent on cheap fertilizers). Indeed, the net zero economy threatens the very basis of modern civilization.
Politicians of all stripes find it easy to attach themselves to the great moral crusade to save the planet and win office. Tending to the most vociferous rather than serving the material interests of the majority seems to be the winning ticket. If the great essayist H. L. Mencken was correct in his view of practical politics as the means “to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”, there is a corollary: if a particular hobgoblin, that is the “climate emergency”, has already been fully conjured up over decades of mass media repetition, its easiest to build on it so that the “clamor for safety” results in good ballot box performance. The so-called conservative parties try to even outdo the liberal ones – as in Britain – to fight for the cause.
The In-built Obsolescence of Luxury Beliefs
Luxury beliefs come with an in-built obsolescence because of their, well, luxuriousness. The cost of radical climate policies are increasingly becoming apparent, “even to Europeans”. The massive policy push for electric vehicles across the West offers an enlightening example of luxury beliefs and their costs on the average consumer.
As ideological green policies – Germany’s reigning luxury belief — are decimating the country’s economy, warnings of a social and economic disaster by local observers have multiplied in recent years. In an interview on Tuesday, long-time head of the CDU Economic Council and former Audi and Daimler board member Professor Kurt Lauk accused Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck (a Greens party leader) of technology hostility. “The anti-technology emanating from the Ministry of Commerce is unbearable.
Wherever we are or were world market leaders, we have set about abolishing it. For several years now, hard work has been done to destroy this competitive advantage of German industry or to hand it over to other nations. The technological advantage of German carmakers through 150 years of experience with the combustion engine, transmissions etc. is being recklessly abandoned.” Pointing to the unaffordability of electric vehicles, he said “We are running into a huge social conflict with this idiotic, singular policy to drive on electric batteries.”
The recent decision by the EU to allow the sale of internal combustion cars using “e-fuels” technology (itself unproven at scale and very expensive) after 2035, rather than the suggested outright ban by then, signals an important retreat. Last minute objections by the German, Polish and Italian governments suggest that the impending suicidal destruction of Europe’s industrial base is coming increasingly into focus despite the luxury beliefs of the past few decades.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Verge reports of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to announce tough new emission standards to force the phase out gasoline-powered cars while boosting the sale of electric vehicles to fulfil the Biden Administration’s climate policy goals.
“Up to two thirds” of cars sold are mandated to be EV by 2032. Despite the relentless push for EVs, the working class has little interest. In a recent Gallup poll reported on Wednesday, just 2 percent of non-college respondents say they currently own an electric vehicle and a mere 9 percent say they are “seriously considering” purchasing one.
The results are not much better for the population as a whole: just 4 percent own one and 12 percent say they are seriously considering one.
The University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute in collaboration with AP-NORC conducts an annual survey on climate attitudes. This year’s survey finds less, not more, urgency around climate change. The share of those who attribute climate change to humans, as opposed to natural changes in the environment, has fallen from 60 percent in 2018 to 49 percent. And where it matters most, putting one’s money where the mouth is, “the share of respondents who would be willing to spend their own money on tackling climate threats has also nosedived” according to the survey results.
It would shock today’s privileged luxury believers that just 38 percent of Americans would support a carbon fee of just $1 on their energy bills each month. And that is 14 percentage points less than when they were asked the same question two years ago.
It is no surprise that Prof. Norman Fenton’s twitter thread got over 3 million views and that one of America’s most popular news anchors interviewed him. Today’s luxury belief of choice, net zero and the climate crusade, seems to be coming apart in front of our very eyes.
I have worked in the oil and gas sector as an economist in both private industry and in think tanks, in Asia, the Middle East and the US over the past 25 years. I focus on global energy developments from the perspective of Asian countries that remain large markets for oil, gas and coal.
I have written extensively on the areas of economic development, environment and energy economics. My publications include “Singapore in a Post-Kyoto World: Energy, Environment and the Economy” published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2015). I won the 1984 Robert S. McNamara Research Fellow award of the World Bank and received my Ph.D. in Economics in 1992.