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For some reason, the environment is a trigger idea for right-wingers. The problem is that, as I have stated a number of times, the right takes free-market economics very seriously, but free-market economics cannot arbitrate for negative externalities.

Negative Externalities

What this means is that, if a company wants to make widgets, they have costs that they have to bear. These get recouped by the consumer in the cost of the good. Power, rent, machines, salaries and employment costs, and so on. These are immediate and/or obvious costs to the company. But there are often other costs. Perhaps the widget production pollutes a river, or adds CO2 into the air to contribute to climate change, or causes lung disease in local residents, or whatever. For these sorts of costs, the costs are external to the company and not borne out by them or the consumer. Instead, someone external entity has to bear the brunt of these problems and, invariably, costs. Most often, this is the government, with costs ultimately being passed onto the taxpayer. In other words, taxpayers (often in a different country) have to pick up the tab for the production and consumption of a good that they didn’t buy. Moreover, they are effectively subsidising the profits of the company management teams.

In certain places around the world, and certainly in history, this also includes or has included treating workforces terribly in order to maximise profits.

Because there is no effective free-market Chimney Sweep Act, or similar. The activity can come in many forms: creating legislation (including workers’ rights); fining the companies who break legislation; cleaning things up; producing health care systems to deal with these problems. And because governments step in, right-wing free marketeers get all uppity, as they did in Victorian times when coal companies and factories employed children. Not that this doesn’t still happen around the world.

Perhaps this, to some extent at least, underwrites some of the reason why the environment is seen as a leftist consideration. The right see the world and the environment as a natural resource to plunder and exploit to drive up and maintain profits.

The Environment and Cognitive Dissonance

It seems that environmentalism has become another arm of the culture wars narrative.

No one, no matter where they sit on any political spectrum, wants to get lung disease, to live in a cesspit, to have the river at the end of their garden polluted by coal slag or eutrophication. No one wants to see biodiversity destroyed, and oil slicks clog oceans. No one wants to dive into a sea full of plastic or live next to a coal plant billowing out dangerous fumes.

But individualism is a hard nut to crack, especially when it is a reaction to the propaganda set against any form of collectivism or even society at large. Especially when there is money involved. Expeically when it happens to someone else, somewhere else.

It is why, I have always said, green policies have to work on an economic basis. We don’t change behaviour out of moral duty; we change behaviour when it is financially beneficial to do so. And when you consider the sheer volume of fossil fuel government subsidisations – and when you account for the cost of negative externalities – green movements really do make economic sense. Have a read of the Forbes article: “United States Spend Ten Times More On Fossil Fuel Subsidies Than Education”. This is what you find out when you factor for negative externalities.

That said, people really do want their children to live in a decent enough world.

But the way that right-wingers deal with this is as a result of cognitive dissonance (when you have two opposing/contradicting ideas in your head – the free market and the environment – what your brain does to solve the mental disharmony).

There are several options – all of which are embraced by different people in different forms:

  1. Deny the evidence that the environment is being harmed (Creationism, anyone?).
  2. Don’t outright deny but claim the evidence or arguments are not as bad as portrayed.
  3. Claim that the harm will actually be a benefit – warmer climate: yey!
  4. Don’t deny it, but it’s not a problem because the free market and technology will solve it.
  5. Who cares, it’s only the environment.
  6. Deny the evidence in order to buy some time to make extra profits.

Nationalism and the Environment

With regard to the EU referendum, I was an ardent Remainer, and one of the biggest arguments for me was that only global solutions will solve global problems. When issues have no concern for borders, or when so many countries are participating in a given problem, retreating into nationalism will not be the solution. Collectively working together is the only way to solve these problems (as it is for such things as tax avoidance, that the EU is also looking to tackle).

Thankfully, Biden’s administration in the US is seeking to reverse the “America First” nationalism to work collaboratively with other nations and international organisations to right the wrongs of the previous government in terms of the environment.

Obama had it right: the US should have wholly embraced green technologies to become the world leader, thus spearheading the economic argument for protecting the environment.

We only have one world, and evolution has taken millions upon millions of years to stack it with wonder, all so intricately balanced. Quite why the GOP and Republicans, and other movers and shakers around the world, want to screw it all up is beyond me. Well, it’s not: follow the money.

Who Gains, Who Loses?

Something to really consider is the diamond question: who gains and who loses in terms of climate change and climate change denial?

Fossil fuel industries and corporations, and all of the vast vested interests are obviously gainers from exploiting the environment and working hard to deny climate change.

Let’s break that down a bit. China, for example, is a huge net importer of coal because:

Decades of rapid economic growth have dramatically expanded China’s energy needs. China is now the world’s largest consumer of energy, the largest producer and consumer of coal, and the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Over the last half century, China’s large manufacturing-based economy has primarily been fueled by coal. From 1990 to 2019, China’a coal consumption nearly quadrupled from 527 metric tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) to 1,951 Mtoe. In 2019, coal made up 57.7 percent of China’s energy use. Since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world combined. China’s industrial sector is by far the largest consumer of coal. In 2018, the industrial sector accounted for around two thirds of China’s total energy consumption and consumed more than 95 percent of the country’s coal.

It is also the world’s largest oil and gas importer.

China has really good reasons, from both an economic and a security point of view, to ditch fossil fuels and properly embrace alternatives. Their footprint is changing, but don’t think that this is for moral and environmental reasons as primary motivation.

Shell Oil, for example, have announced that they have reached Peak Oil:

Shell says oil is on its way out.

In a Thursday statement, the fossil fuel giant said its “oil production peaked in 2019,” and that we can now expect it to decline gradually by 1 or 2% per year. Shell also said its total carbon emissions peaked in 2018 at 1.7 gigatonnes.

The statement doesn’t come as a total surprise. The oil market has been in decline for years, and since the covid-19 pandemic began last year, fuel prices went from bad to catastrophically bad. Last Fall, the International Energy Agency predicted a “treacherous” path ahead for the industry. And in September, fellow energy giant BP said the world may have already reached peak oil. Shell’s own CFO hinted at the announcement in May when she told investors the company has experienced “major demand destruction that we don’t even know will come back,” and soon after, Shell wrote down $22 billion on its balance sheets. But still, this is the first time it’s made an outright announcement of this kind.

The Middle East doesn’t have much in terms of natural resources other than oil. They look to lose big time. And they know this. They are trying to diversify – tourism being one of the few options – and (as is the case with Morrocco), they have a lot of sun. Solar power, in its different guises, is going places.

This analysis is useful to do for every country in the world. Take Russia – they might think that climate change is a really good thing. Those frozen plains, those huge swathes of redundant land, could end up making Russia the breadbasket of the world:

A great transformation is underway in the eastern half of Russia. For centuries the vast majority of the land has been impossible to farm; only the southernmost stretches along the Chinese and Mongolian borders, including around Dimitrovo, have been temperate enough to offer workable soil. But as the climate has begun to warm, the land — and the prospect for cultivating it — has begun to improve. Twenty years ago, Dima says, the spring thaw came in May, but now the ground is bare by April; rainstorms now come stronger and wetter. Across Eastern Russia, wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into orderly grids of soybeans, corn and wheat. It’s a process that is likely to accelerate: Russia hopes to seize on the warming temperatures and longer growing seasons brought by climate change to refashion itself as one of the planet’s largest producers of food.

Although, in-depth analyses show this to be a complicated affair as climate change can give with one hand but take with the other.

The point is that, in general, climate science deniers and Republican fossil fuel acolytes are idiots. Stupid. This is both in terms of science and knowledge, as well as economics. Some of them know this and it has been decades-long disinformation as a way of delaying matters long enough to make some extra wads of cash (see [6] above). There are cabals and oligopolies of power that have fought to maintain that power and that money. And they’ve done a very good job of it. Dark money pays dividends.

The sad part is that in becoming part of the culture wars narrative, to the point that the recent energy catastrophe in Texas was not blamed on energy deregulation, poor planning and over-reliance on fossil fuels (in an entirely GOP-run state), but was blamed on the non-existent Green New Deal and renewable energy, the general public are ill-informed on these topics. The general public doesn’t greatly benefit from the movement of dark money, and the power structures of these cabals. The environment becomes a political football kicked about the society; but it’s not a game. And if it were, the losers are not just humanity but the world as a whole.

The GOP seem to consistently win the disinformation and culture wars, frightening people into believing utter hogwash. But anyone with half a brain can really see what is going on and should be arguing for a huge push by their respective governments to wholly embrace renewables. It is not only morally requisite, but economically so.

Georgia has recognised this, and the free market has actually obliged: “How Georgia Became A Surprising Bright Spot In The U.S. Solar Industry“.

I’ve got to the point now where I see climate change denial on a par with Creationism: we shouldn’t give such ideas the time of day. They are stupid from multiple angles. The issue is that we are forced to give them the time of day because idiot politicians, or greedy, money-grabbing, power-hungry politicians, are in power and enacting legislation to stymy such obvious contrary true belief and resultant sensible action.

I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, but we really need to act fast. Recycling your wine bottles isn’t going to do it. This is a time for massive action on a global level from every government on the planet.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...