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Energy transition no grounds for ‘culture war’

The challenge of re-engineering the global energy system to meet or exceed Paris Agreement commitments is too important and too complex to be reduced to Right-Left squabbling

Joe Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination, allowed a campaign adviser earlier in the year to tentatively suggest that the environmental policies on which he would run would aim for a “middle ground” and not the so-called Green New Deal that has been championed by the left of the Democratic party.

Cue a torrent of negative social media heat and Biden eventually releasing his Clean Energy Revolution plan. Biden’s campaign website now says he “believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face” and includes “environmental justice” within the headline on its climate section.

Biden’s main challenger, and current short-odds favourite, at least in UK markets, Elizabeth Warren, has avoided a flagship energy and climate policy—but has instead woven commitments to a lower-carbon, fossil fuel-hostile agenda across as many as six different policy areas.

Green New Deal

The Green New Deal has many admirable aims, including upgrading the US’ ageing energy infrastructure, energy efficiency, smart grids, thermally efficient buildings, electrification, upgrades to clean the transport sector and investments in cleaner manufacturing and agricultural sectors. All will help the US towards meeting its lapsed commitments under the Paris accord to which doubtless any Democratic winner—or perhaps any victorious Republican other than the White House’s currently embattled incumbent—will sign post-election.

All should also be good for the US economy, encouraging capital investment in fit-for-21st century technologies that should more than pay for themselves. This is important in attracting the requisite capital, and also in making the energy transition as affordable as possible to the consumers that will ultimately pay for it.

It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those attacking teenage Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg on social media—often in a disgracefully vitriolic manner—are of the Right

These economic benefits should be seen as a means-to-an-end; an end of reducing the carbon intensity of producing energy in the US, and indeed globally. By contrast, the Green New Deal, as set out in February’s resolution by Democratic senator Edward Markey and representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ties cleaner energy very explicitly to political aims including job security and benefits, healthcare, housing and other economic issues—all of which lean very strongly to the US political Left.

A January letter to all members of the US Congress signed by hundreds of organisations urging support for a Green New Deal also had a very leftist hue, with opposition to certain carbon-neutral energy technologies, to carbon capture and storage (CCS) and to carbon trading. A number of previously supportive organisations refused to sign and the absolutist position on technological and market mechanism-based innovations drew strong criticism from climate science experts.

A case for the Right

The American Conservation Coalition (ACC) is a rare example of a conservative group that is making the argument that there is nothing inherently left-wing in advocating for a lower carbon future. The non-profit organisation complains that “other environmental groups have disenfranchised those who are right-of-centre”.

To some extent, the American Right has only itself to blame—its politicians have eagerly hoovered up the oil industry’s lobbying cash that has increasingly flowed only to its side of the political divide and, seemingly in return, have voted ever more vehemently against environmental legislation.

Even the ACC, while its arguments that the Right has as much of an interest in a viable energy transition as the Left are inherently sensible, makes said points in language so imbued in the language of US social and political conservatism as to verge on the ludicrous to the outside observer. Just as an example, the first of its five principles of conservative environmentalism stress the important of, among other things, “promoting sportsmen’s rights”. Hardly the most important environmental issue.

Global polarisation

The US is not alone in falsely collating pro/anti-environmentalism with the Left/Right divide. In the UK, for example, the country’s electorally small Green Party spent more than a decade barely mentioning the environment prior to it becoming a hot-button electoral issue in the last couple of years. Instead, it concentrated on trying to outmanoeuvre the larger left-leaning Labour and Liberal Democrat parties on which could advocate the most Hard-Left economic agenda.

Similarly, while the Extinction Rebellion protests that have caused serious disruption in London in recent months contain some relatively apolitical centrists with genuine environmental concerns, there is a view among large swathes of UK society that there is a core of Hard-Left serial agitators at the heart of the movement.

This does no favours to a lower carbon future, not only in terms of hardening sentiment, but also in practical terms. In France, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ movement managed to link specific concerns over increased fuel costs for vehicle users without a practical alternative to a narrative of resentment about the liberal elite ‘imposing’ its conceits—including a climate change legislative agenda—on a section of the populace resistant to said agenda and on which said elite look down.

The result? A climbdown by President Macron’s government, which will mean more CO2 emitted by the French transport sector than if the legislation had proceeded. And a blow to France’s leadership on a lower carbon future globally and particularly in the EU.

The Green New Deal… ties cleaner energy very explicitly to political aims including job security and benefits, healthcare, housing and other economic issues—all of which lean very strongly to the US political Left

With a tarnished Macron and the potential exit of the UK—long the EU’s most vocal champion of practical solutions such as cap-and-trade carbon markets—a left-wing dominance of the European political sphere’s dialogue on climate change is hugely unhelpful.

Other than in Austria, where a right-wing populist movement has embraced tackling climate change, Europe’s growing nationalist parties tend more towards climate change denial than solutions. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those attacking teenage Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg on social media—often in a disgracefully vitriolic manner—are of the Right. This author is dismayed to report that such attacks are not solely the preserve of anonymous Twitter users, but originate also from readily identifiable energy industry employees on the LinkedIn platform. They should stop; they are doing no-one any favours.

Industry voice

Equally, though, those that seek to ‘de-platform’ energy companies from forums where the low carbon future is discussed should step back and reflect.

Senator Warren’s self-declared war on lobbying cash is perhaps no bad thing. Indeed, oil and gas producers should, as part of the growing realisation that their ‘licence to operate’ may be under existential threat, could and perhaps should make a proactive move to put their houses in order—admitting and apologising for any past efforts to pay politicians and scientists to either minimise or act in defiance of evidence of their products’ impact on the environment, and making binding commitments not to do so in the future. Not least because it would put the focus, both in the US and globally, much more strongly on worse offenders such as the coal industry.

But it would also help in the process of making firms’ ever-increasing commitment to cleaner energy more tangible and, hopefully, more believable to its sceptics. This author has heard the CEOs of BP, Shell, Total and Norway’s Equinor talk with growing passion over recent years to their enthusiasm for being part of a cleaner energy future, as well as its past and present and providing a gas bridge to a net-zero carbon future.

While acknowledging that some of their arguments—the advantages of gas, leveraging balance sheet strength to give renewables projects a better return on capital—are not entirely altruistic, only a fantasist would expect a shareholder-owned enterprise to behave thus. I see no evidence that they are not genuine, or that their crucial role in both the debate and practicalities of our energy future should be marginalised.

The global Right needs to recognise that there is nothing conservative in denying science and frying the planet. But the global Left—by seeking to unnecessarily politicise the debate, to exclude key actors and to risk the centre-Right losing patience—also needs to up its game if it wants to achieve the best climate outcomes.

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