The curse of our age is the fact that public debate is driven by what people ‘feel’ rather than rational argument and facts. There are many examples, from Brexit, to Trump where the result has been driven by an emotional ‘feeling’ rather than a rational analysis of the facts on both sides of the arguments. While there are many examples of this, the one I would like to focus on is the contemporary political response to climate change. In this, I am influenced by the work of the political scientist Bjorn Lomborg and the Copenhagen Consensus project. Amongst people of my generation, climate change is often cited as one of the most important challenges facing mankind. The work of Lomborg and his colleagues looks at a range of challenges facing the world like poverty, famine, disease and climate change and takes a cost/benefit approach to analyse different policy responses. In terms of return on investment, measures to tackle climate change come at the bottom of the list. One dollar spent on subsidising renewable energy will bring rewards of three cents. Compared to this, one dollar spend tackling communicable deceases in the developing world will will bring eleven dollars of benefit.
People in the developed world, do not face a significant risk from communicable diseases but climate change strikes people like us as a potentially catastrophic threat. Most scientists agree however, that while man-made climate change is real, the net effect of climate change will be positive for at least the next 50 years before the effects become negative overall. Despite this, there is an overwhelming desire in developed countries that “something must be done”. The only short term policy solution offered is to subsidise renewable energy and tax fossil fuels and once these policies are implemented, voters get the psychological income of feeling that they are making a difference. They feel ‘good’ about themselves. They feel like virtuous, responsible people who are doing something for the world and future generations. As the amount spent subsidising renewable energy has gone up, the amount spent on aid to developing countries to address problems like poverty, disease and lack of education have been cut in half in real terms since the 1970s. From a rational perspective, the money spent as a result of political choices in developed countries is spent in a way that makes voters feel good about themselves rather than actually making the biggest difference to the lives of the greatest number of people.
Levies on fuel bills to subsidise inefficient renewable energy cause increased deaths among older, lower income people in the developed world but this fact has done little to dampen enthusiasm for the current approach. Even if one isolates the issue of climate change, investing in lowering the cost of renewable energy is much more efficient than subsidising inefficient current technologies but this would not make voter ‘feel’ as ‘good’. Lomborg points out that the problem of too much horse manure in cities at the end of the 19th century was not solved by taxing horses and subsidising walking. It was solved by the development of the motor car. The problem of smog in cities like LA in the 1970s and 1980s was not solved by taxing cars but by the development of the catalytic converter. As is always the case, the solution to the problems humans face is technology. Once renewable energy is cheaper than conventional non-renewable energy, coal, gas and oil-fired power stations will be shutdown as quickly as safely possible. The biggest current technical challenge is to develop cheap ways to store energy produced from renewable sources. Wind, wave and tidal power don’t always produce power when it is needed so as well as being more expensive than conventional sources, the electricity companies need to keep these conventional sources online to fill the gaps when the wind is not blowing or the tide is slack. These are all solvable problems but they need substantial investment.
Growing swathes of subsidised wind turbines and solar panels are visible badges that voters can point to as evidence that ‘something is being done’. The fact that there are many more effective uses for public funds and even in addressing climate change, the current approach is inefficient shows that the public discourse is more about emotional victory rather than practical progress. The polling company YouGov conducted a series of interviews where they asked residents of Brighton what they thought of the giant Rampion offshore wind farm off the Sussex coast. In case you haven’t seen it, this wind farm is 250 meters high and on a clear day, can be seen from the hills above Portsmouth. The following answers were pretty typical:
“Clean, renewable energy that doesn't harm the planet. I don't understand why anyone wouldn't want them. Because they look bad? They look better than coal factories or nuclear power plants (although I do support nuclear energy)" Dani, Oxford
"I don't understand why people say they ruin the landscape, whenever I see them in the countryside I am filled with pride that we are moving in the right direction"Jon, Dorset
So, basically, they like it because it looks good and makes them feel we are doing something. But at what cost? Due to the intermittency of the wind, this wind farm will produce 10% of the electricity of a new gas-fired power station that costs half as much and it is not being built out of generosity by the giant utility company that is building it. E.on will receive £325m a year but £220m will come from green taxes added on to our electricity bills. That is a lot of money and could be put to much better use.
This is not an argument about denying climate science or saying the future of the planet isn’t our concern. It is a plea for a rational cost/benefit approach to political decision making. What are the big problems we face? How much are we willing to spend addressing those problems? What policy choices will give us the best return in terms of those objectives? Unfortunately, we are stuck in a world where people tend to go for expensive, symbolic policies like the Rampion wind farm. A very expensive, symbolic piece of offshore sculpture.
If you are concerned about the future of the planet there are two simple policies you could adopt in your life that would make a huge difference. Stop eating beef and stop buying single-use plastic drink bottles. You won’t get the same psychic Income that you get when you drive past a wind turbine but you will actually be doing something that will make a difference.
If ‘something must be done!’, let’s make sure it’s something that will actually work.