Published on:

Why environmentalists defend the wealthy against the poor

My Times column:

A confession: I voted for the Green Party in 1979 – one of less than 40,000 people in the whole country who did so. It was then called the Ecology Party and I knew the local candidate in Oxford, which is some excuse. But mainly I wanted to save the planet, and thought the greater good should trump self interest. I was definitely on the moral high ground. Or was I? Hold that thought.

The latest opinion polls show that the Green Party is doing to the Liberal Democrats what UKIP is doing to the Conservatives, and could even relegate the LibDems to fifth place in next year’s general election in terms of vote share. Peter Kellner of Yougov has analysed today’s typical Green voter and found that she is almost a mirror image of the UKIP voter. Where UKIP voters are older, maler, more working class, less educated and more religious than the average voter, Green voters are younger, femaler, posher, much better educated and less religious than the average voter.

In Downton Abbey terms, Greens are a lady upstairs in the dining room, kippers are a footman downstairs in the scullery. Indeed, my experience of fanatical greens at conferences and anti-fracking demos is that many are often very grand indeed, disproportionately hailing (when male) from Eton, Stowe and Westminster, shopping (especially when female) at the most expensive of organic shops, and speaking (when of either sex) in the countiest of accents. (A bit like me, in fact.)

Despite these social and economic advantages, eco-toffs put their self interest to one side and campaign selflessly for the greater Gaian good, worry about the effect that climate change will have on future generations and yearn for a more holistic version economic growth.

But is greenery really quite so selfless? Take climate change. The “synthesis report” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warns of an increased “likelihood” of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts if emissions continue. But when you cut through the spin, what the IPCC is actually saying is that there is a range of possibilities, from no net harm at all (scenario RCP2.6) through two middling scenarios to one where gathering harm from mid century culminates in potentially dire consequences by 2100 (scenario RCP8.5).

This latter scenario makes wildly unrealistic assumptions about coal use, trade, methane emissions and other things; RCP2.6 is equally unrealistic in the other direction. So let’s focus on the two middle scenarios, known as RCP4.5 and RCP6. In these more realistic projections, if you use the latest and best estimates of the climate’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide (somewhat lower than the out-of-date ones still used by the IPCC), the most probable outcome is that world will be respectively just 0.8 and 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than today by the last two decades of this century.

Here is David Rutledge on the RCP8.5:

In the IPCC’s business-as-usual scenario, Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5, coal accounts for half of future carbon-dioxide emissions through 2100, and two-thirds of the emissions through 2500. The IPCC’s coal burn is enormous, twice the world reserves by 2100, and seven times reserves by 2500. Coal so dominates that it is not an exaggeration to say that the IPCC and climate-change research programs depend on this massive coal burn for their existence. Without the threat of coal, the IPCC could close up shop and the research program funding would drop to a small fraction of what is spent on research in weather forecasting.

Coal and the IPCC

Most of that warming will be at night, in winter and in northern latitudes, so tropical daytime warming will be less. Again, on the best evidence available, it is unlikely that this amount of warming, especially if it is slow, will have done more harm than good. The chances are, therefore, that climate change will not cause significant harm in the lives of our children and grandchildren.

The OECD’s economic models behind the two scenarios project that the average person alive in 2100 will be earning an astonishing four to seven times as much money – corrected for inflation – as she does today. That’s a 300-600% increase in real pay. This should enable posterity to buy quite a bit of protection for itself and the planet against any climate change that does show up. So we are being asked to make sacrifices today to prevent the possibility of what may turn out to be pretty small harms to very wealthy people in the future.

By contrast, the cost of climate policies is already falling most heavily on today’s poor. Subsidies for renewable energy have raised costs of heating and transport disproportionately for the poor. Subsidies for biofuels have raised food prices by diverting food into fuel, tipping millions into malnutrition and killing about 190,000 people a year.

Many Green organisations now oppose biofuels made from crops, but they were instrumental in lobbying for those fuels ten years ago. Here is Greenpeace’s view in 2004:

Greenpeace is asking the Government to send a clear signal that the price of oil-based petrol and diesel will increase steadily, and to make plant-based biodiesels and road fuel gas much more widely available on the forecourts.

The refusal of many rich countries to fund aid for coal-fired electricity in Africa and Asia rather than renewable projects (and in passing I declare a financial interest in coal mining) leaves more than a billion people without access to electricity and contributes to 3.5 million deaths a year from indoor air pollution caused by cooking over open fires of wood and dung.

Greens think these harms are a price worth paying to stop the warming. They want (other) people to bear such sacrifices today so that the people of 2100, who will be up to seven times as rich, do not have to face the prospect of living in a world that is perhaps 0.8 – 1.2 degrees warmer. And this is the moral high ground?

It is not just climate change. The opposition to genetically modified food is mostly a middle and upper class obsession, but the people who would benefit from such foods are often poor people. Golden rice, for example, could prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people a year from vitamin A deficiency, but has been stymied for 15 years by opposition organized by western green groups, especially Greenpeace. They are entitled to think that this philanthropic project is a bad idea, but they are buying their reassurance at the expense of the poor’s health.

Other examples are organic farming and renewable energy, both of which require more land than the conventional alternatives. Most conservationists now recognize that “sustainable intensification” is a key ingredient of environmental protection – that is, using as little land as possible to grow crops and make energy, so as to spare more land for nature. Fortunately, this plan also means cheaper food and cheaper energy so it helps the poor. By all means go organic and use wind power if you insist, but don’t pretend there is anything morally superior about it.

Just as UKIP’s rise could deliver some Conservative seats to Labour, so the rise of the Green party could possibly deliver a few LibDem and Labour seats to the Tories. That may be the most selfless thing about it.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times