Criticisms of Environment Minister John Baird for the vagueness of the moves announced this week to force oilsands to sequester CO2, and prevent construction of “dirty” coal plants reflects the Alice in Wonderland quality of the climate change non-debate. Opposition parties brayed that he had not been “tough” enough. Media headlines suggested that big emitters had “won.”
But nowhere in either the policy or the attacks would you find any suggestion that any measures, whether tough or not, would have the slightest impact on the global climate. How did we get to this ridiculous mess? It is all inextricably tied to the remarkable job that the Left has done in the past 20 years to rescue itself from the brink of extinction by exploiting environmental concerns.
That revival started in 1987 with the report of the UN-based Brundtland Commission. Brundtland was packed with representatives of the old left — defined as those who seek state control over capitalist enterprise on the basis that it is both morally suspect and practically unstable. The commission played into widespread misconceptions: that the world was “running out” of resources; and that the capitalist rich had achieved their wealth at the expense of “the poor.” However, its most important new weapon was that of the alleged despoliation of the environment by industrial society.
From Brundtland emerged the concept of “sustainable development,” or SD, that was to be managed so as not to adversely affect future generations. Practically, the notion that the enormous range of private economic activities upon which growth depends could be beneficially monitored and vetted was ridiculous. SD nevertheless maintained that markets’ “externalities” justified central co-ordination and control. What gave SD its great boost was the theory of catastrophic man-made climate change.
The old/new Left was quick to seize upon the potential of climate change at the huge Brundtland follow-up at Rio in 1992. Rio was organized by Brundtland commissioner Maurice Strong, a long-time committed Canadian socialist who was the strategic mastermind of the new environmental Left. From Rio emerged the processes that led to the Kyoto accord.
Why would governments support the theory of potentially disastrous man-made climate change? It was a combination of the success of the environmental Left — in particular activist non-governmental organizations — in stoking the concerns of the electorate, and of the desire of bureaucrats and policy-makers to stay relevant, busy and in power. This in turn gave them an interest in supporting the NGOs’ radical message, which was amplified by government funding, and by allowing them into the policy-making process. The policy process became self-feeding.
This orientation helps explain why the abject failure of Kyoto was not taken as an indication that such processes were fatally flawed. Rather it was seen as a justification for “redoubling efforts,” and for having bigger conferences in more exotic locales.
NGOs were critical in closing down any scientific debate, both by developing close relationships with a generally sympathetic media and by constantly intoning the mantra that the science of climate change was “settled.” They were also important in impugning the motives of skeptics, who were dubbed “deniers” and claimed to be in the pay of Big Energy.
The environmental movement has also been astonishingly successful in co-opting education systems, and highly skillful at exploiting universal psychological tendencies to social conformity and deference to “authority.” The suggestion that climate change is primarily a “moral” problem has been a masterstroke, of which the masterstroker is Al Gore.
Invoking morality is a powerful weapon in shutting off debate. It employs the so-called “psychology of taboo” to place some claims — for example, that climate change may be natural, beneficial, or practically unstoppable — beyond the pale. Those who promote such notions must therefore be evil, or psychologically unbalanced, or in the pay of powerful corporations.
Invoking the authority of science and the democratic value of “consensus” are again both designed to cut off rational analysis. This leads to the strange phenomenon of the discussion of policy alternatives becoming delinked from likely results, as with the responses to Mr. Baird’s announcement this week. Thus the finer points of carbon taxation and/or cap-and-trade systems are debated with little or no concern about the fact that they will achieve little or nothing in terms of changing the global climate.
The new environmental Left claims to have recognized the power and efficiency of markets. However, markets allegedly have to be “designed,” and then based on the “right” prices. The perverse results of government price-setting and subsidies is readily apparent in the current biofuel disaster.
The Third World supports Kyoto-ism because it offers to provide further wealth transfers via boondoggles such as the Clean Development Mechanism. Third World despots, meanwhile, remain supportive of the notion that the benighted state of the countries they misrule is due not to their own corruption and incompetence but to the fact that the rich West has “exploited” them, and now threatens their very extinction via its selfishness.
The new Left that emerged via Brundtland, Rio, and Kyoto has thus co-opted a huge coalition of self-interested or naive supporters, who are attracted by the prospect of preening as saviours of the planet. Together they are threatening to carry the globe down a new road to serfdom.