The Climate Conundrum

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All political philosophies are rational according to their own logic. Even reprehensible and morally repugnant ideologies can appear logical if you accept the fundamental premises on which they are built. What distinguishes ideology from common sense, though, is that ideologues believe they know the answer to every question — even questions that have not been imagined. The problem with ideologues is that the less they know, the more they think they understand. Life is a nail and they have a hammer. The script, though, is always the same — they’re morally and intellectually superior to the rest of us, so keep quiet and follow orders. What ideologues have in common is extremism. They promise heaven or warn of the apocalypse.

What separates decent politics from extremism is what distinguishes the man and woman in the street from true believers. Most people have a live-and-let-live attitude. Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. Normal people understand that for civilisation to survive, criminals must be punished, tyrants must be contained and problems must be managed as best as they can within the limits of what’s possible. These truths are based on epistemic humility. You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand these principles. They’re obvious truths. And they’re based on what works and not on a blueprint devised by our betters. This attitude to truth goes further, though. In science, we recognise what we don’t know; and in politics, we don’t give credence to paranoid delusions. We believe the obvious answer to a question is usually the correct one. And until we find a better answer to a problem we stick with the answer with the most explanatory power. The problem is that every destructive ideology of the last two-hundred years has rejected this simple attitude to truth.

Environmentalism is the latest philosophy that arrogantly claims it understands the complexity of the world and which has created a demonology of the saved and the damned. In other words, environmentalists are extremists. And like all extremists, environmentalists have a veneer of rationalism, which makes them appear sensible, but their core ideas are a cover for a philosophy similar to a millenarian cult. Cleaning up litter, removing plastic from the oceans and making products safe for humans, animals and the environment is common sense. Reordering the economic structure of the world, though, is not rational, especially when everything which creates civilisation relies on the economic system environmentalists are trying to destroy.

Two attitudes of the environmental movement exemplify this irrationalism: environmentalists’ attitude to nuclear power and their belief that only a revolutionary reordering of society will solve the problem of climate change — specifically their belief that global warming will be so severe that no human intervention, other than a whole-scale reorganisation of the economy, will mitigate the coming apocalypse.

For environmentalists, managing the effects of environmental change is not enough, even though that’s how human beings have always survived. Drastic action, which would throw millions of people into poverty and ensure that billions more never rise above a bare-knuckle existence, is seen as the only solution to the problem. It’s either/or thinking at its most destructive. The unseen effects on the economy — what would happen without intervention — are not taken into account. And the fact that even the best predictions are usually inaccurate and are contingent on factors beyond human cognition are ignored. This type of thinking also ignores the constraints we live under.

Throughout our lives we are forced to accept less than perfect options because the alternative is worse. We force children to attend school, even though it makes the majority of them miserable, because we know that in the long run it increases their chances of a successful life. In other words, we can’t have everything, or, in the language of economics, we are forced to trade-off one good for another because resources are scarce. Economics is not a zero-sum game, but, in the immortal words of Milton Friedman: ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. The environment is no different in this regard to other areas of life. If we elevate the environment above other concerns, then we naturally lower our ability to solve other issues, including human well-being.

There is a solution to the most dire predictions of environmentalists, but it highlights the irrationalism of the environmental movement. Nuclear power is the obvious answer to climate change. Environmentalists’ attitude to nuclear power is like a dying man who refuses the medicine that will cure him because it has side effects. Or a woman who takes essential oils to cure cancer. It’s the logic of the person you inch away from on the train. They may have good intentions, they may be decent, but you know they’re playing in a different key to the rest of the band.

Imagine the worst-case scenario of climate-change doom. Now imagine, as an alternative, the dreadful scenario, at least that depicted by decades of environmental activism, of dozens of Fukushimas around the world. In other words, compare the relative awfulness of the two extreme cases of environmental disaster. In one scenario we all die from the effects of climate change.

In the other scenario, human beings die from radiation. These are the alternatives that environmental propaganda would have us believe are facing humankind unless we magically return to a prelapsarian Eden before industrialisation. But it is a false choice. Nuclear power is safe. Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster of all time, was caused by what is now obsolete technology. Comparing current nuclear technology with Chernobyl is like comparing a Spitfire to a stealth bomber. They’re both airplanes but there the comparison ends.

If we are serious about climate change, and if there is a tipping point at which it is too late to reverse the terrible putative effects of global warming, then it is imperative that we build as many nuclear power stations around the world as possible — and in the shortest time frame. Warning of the apocalypse but rejecting the one approach that will mitigate its dreadful effects is the quintessence of irrationalism. It’s also a perfect description of sadomasochism.

Either the threat of global warming is of monumental proportions or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways.

The Spectator Australia