Editorial: Crying wolf [NGW Magazine]
It is human nature to take false alarms less and less seriously until eventually they pass unnoticed. Versions of the cautionary tale of the boy who cried wolf probably exist in many cultures, such a common failing does it illustrate.
The November floods that swamped Venice have been cited as just the latest in a series of warnings of impending, irreversible climate change. The city, built on oak piles, has been submerged briefly since before mass industrialisation. There was worse flooding in 1966. It would indeed be strange to have a city built virtually at sea level that was not flooded from time to time. Another and more recent contributory factor is that Venice is very gradually sinking. Surely the marvel is not the floods but the city’s longevity.
There have also been proposals to ease the problem that have not for one reason or another been implemented. Nevertheless, the city’s mayor has blamed climate change for St Mark’s Square being under water.
If, though, people believe that the flooding is just a normal event then they may ignore other alleged consequences of global warming too. Climate change fatigue might have set in by then, so it is a threat to be sparingly used.
There is no hope of hiking energy prices -- let alone persuading people to do without their bulbous SUVs, holidays abroad and a laptop and phone always on the charger – if consumers associate warnings about Venice with populism or a deflection of attention from neglect or other problems of civic administration. They might even start to recall “Climategate,” question the global warming notion itself and the validity of the data used in the modelling. Maybe the hurricanes and so on are the result of solar activity after all. That certainly would ease their consciences as they continue their own ‘business as usual’ approach to life and its necessary enjoyments.
But the process of facing up to the size of the financial and technological tasks ahead has barely started in Europe, at the individual level: the green taxes seen so far in household bills for the sporadic output of windfarms and solar panels are nothing compared with what will be needed to finance the network of carbon capture and storage facilities, kick-start the hydrogen economy and manage the socially acceptable sourcing, treatment and eventual disposal of toxic minerals used in batteries -- all the while maintaining a relatively comfortable lifestyle in which energy is dependable.
Ahead lies a huge and uniquely retrograde step, as we prepare to replace voluntarily what is known to work reasonably well and affordably with something much more expensive and uncertain. Unsurprisingly, the picture that the International Energy Agency paints in its latest World Energy Outlook could hardly be bleaker. The gap between what has to be done and what is being done is widening all the time, it says, leaving less and less time to catch up. Almost nobody is doing anything on the scale needed, except by chance – for example the phase-out of coal in the US was only enabled by shale gas and human ingenuity, while the debit side is rocketing. Can we count on similarly giant strokes of luck forever?
The IEA’s call for co-ordinated government action is also timely but it needs to be proportionate. In the UK, for example, the Labour Party manifesto launched November 21 talks of huge increases in solar and wind power generation, while onshoring steel production. It also wants to impose a ‘windfall’ tax on the upstream as punishment for past pollution. But if the upstream in protest were to down tools even for a short period, there would be legitimate questions in parliament. Over a longer period of time, if producers left, imported energy and emissions would simply rise.
Besides, many producers have already defensively introduced stern cost-cutting measures. Oil and gas prices are likely to remain under heavy and sustained pressure for some years. And the international oil companies are spending a lot on their own emissions reductions as well as reducing the carbon intensity of their conventional output sold to customers. This should be welcomed as the steel output surge that Labour is planning in the event of its victory in December will be very energy-intensive.
Alongside government action, a big part of the solution lies with the individual, family, school, or business taking responsibility for its own consumption as far as possible. Efficiency gains can only bring so much: making appliances work more efficiently means they can do more for the same input and so they are made differently. Thus the industrial output of ever-larger fridges, cars and so on. Can that trend be reversed? The digital age implies a lot more electricity will be needed as well.
Sacrifices on the scale that the experts say are necessary cannot but hurt the wallet, and so they will need public buy-in – something missing from the French experiment with taxes. Europe and the rest of the world must also all pull in the same direction.
It is necessary on public health grounds to take unabated coal and lignite capacity out of the power mix, even though that risks provoking social unrest and lowering the competitiveness of Europe’s heavy industry. But there is little doubt that other countries will continue to build it, risking further economic conflict and negating the sacrifice at home.
And the successful implementation of the planned EU border tax on carbon will be key to reducing offshoring and instead manufacturing goods to rigorously enforced high standards of health and safety.