The recent EU elections, so close to our own, have prompted me to write about the climate-change business from a different perspective, and I have drawn on a piece by Ben Pile, who is not a warmist at all, and writes at Spiked. What he points to in his essay is the sheer confusion around the energy issue, with all sorts of claims being made. Much of it is relevant to us in Australia.
These EU elections, not much reported here, showed a continuing rejection of the major parties that we have been witnessing in our own country. Who were the winners? The Greens picked up support, and won nearly eleven per cent of the vote, much the same as in Australia. Why? One British MEP (Member of the European Parliament) explained to The Guardianthat this surge was due to ‘the accelerating climate crisis’. Exactly what such a crisis might be, and how it is shown to be accelerating was not made clear, but readers might note that one of the new terms with which activists describe global warming is indeed ‘climate crisis’. I guess it sounds more alarming.
The Greens’ gains were more than matched by the gains made by groups on the other side of politics, leaving the major party groups, the centre-left and the centre-right, with less than fifty percent of the vote. Not only that, the Greens’ share of the vote was markedly different across Europe. They lost votes and seats in Sweden, Spain and Austria, and lost all the seats they had in Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Estonia. Where they gained seats was in northwest Europe — the UK, Germany and France. As in our own country, the Greens seem to do well in metropolitan wealthy constituencies, where rising energy costs can still be absorbed into household budgets without much fuss. Elsewhere, the ordinary voters are by and large unconvinced by Green arguments.
And some EU countries, Poland and Hungary are two, want to hang on to coal-fired electricity generation. One reason is that they have coal, plenty of it, and another is that without that coal they would be dependent on Russian oil and gas, a prospect that worries their leaders. The call for complete replacement of fossil fuels by wind and solar by unlikely dates such as 2030 has no attraction there. In every country there are rival calls for a slowdown in this transfer, and for a re-examination of the whole issue. Some 340,000 German households are no longer connected to the electricity grid because the residents have not paid their electricity bills. Exactly how they cope I don’t know. Those who live in apartment buildings get central heating as part of their rent, so they are not sitting around shivering under blankets. Still, the great transfer to alternative sources, the so-calledEnergiewende, meaning ‘energy transition’, has not been a success at all, and while its supporters ask for patience, its detractors call for a return to sanity. (You can read much more than you want to by searching just for ‘Energiewende’ on your computer.)
Altogether there is the same sort of puzzlement in Europe as I think there has been in Australia about the direction of politics. In Britain, of course, there is the additional issue of Brexit, and perhaps there will be some certainty as to what direction Britain will take on that vexed question once the new Prime Minister is known and able to make decisions. In Europe there is the paradox of Germany’s closing down nuclear power plants while next-door France obtains more than 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy, which Germany buys when it needs to. There are calls for an accelerated transition to alternatives, at the same time as a reduction in subsidies to make their use more attractive.
What is the cause, or what are the causes? It seems to me that increasing wealth in Europe, as here, has caused activists of all kinds to put forward noble ideas that are neither well-backed by the evidence nor easy to implement. In our country ‘climate action’, the NBN, and the NDIS are all good examples. In Europe there was Angela Merkel’s welcome to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and her subsequent discovery that other members of the EU had no great wish to join her. In Britain growing irritation at the numbers of East European migrants taking jobs in Britain certainly fuelled the Brexit feeling. Walls are being built in some countries to keep refugees out, an action that is in flat contradiction to EU rules..
What began as a noble idea to prevent wars between European countries ever occurring again seems to have become a great bureaucracy in Brussels issuing directives to all member countries, and without accountability to the European Parliament. The notion of a common currency was attractive, especially when it was seen as the way in to large loans for infrastructure, or even, as in the case of Greece, for maintaining what could seem over-generous welfare payments. When the bills came in, however, there was great reluctance to pay. The prospect of a country’s defaulting is so worrying to the EU’s finance system that loans have been forgiven, or even quietly forgotten about.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU is no less worrying. If it can do so without much pain, then other disgruntled countries will most likely wonder why they can’t do the same. Therein lies the prospect of the break-up of the noble experiment. Of course the best and brightest want it all to succeed. So do all those who have global jobs, or jobs with global reach: it is so much easier to walk past the immigration barriers than it is to have to (as once long ago) queue with other tired people.
I’ve written before about the ‘nation-state’, and my feeling is that it remains the best mechanism for ensuring a good life for a large population. The EU is a challenge to that concept, at least in part. The nation-state requires a common language, or at least a common pair of languages that nearly everyone understands, a well-understood national history that everyone learns at school, and a decently shared sense of and pride in ‘us’, and what makes us special. We are only at the beginning of the global business of turning nation states into a federation, so that what might be done communally, for the good of the whole of humanity, is done in a slow and steady way. I speak as an incrementalist. Those characteristics of the nation-state tend to mean that people want to hang on [not ‘handgun’ as first appeared, thanks, alert readers!] to their cultures, not submerge them in a vague ‘other’.
The energy debates within Europe and Australia show us that top-down instructions from political leaders are not the best mechanism. We need long periods of public discussion. There is no ‘climate crisis’ of which I am aware, or at least there is no evidence that there is one, even one that might be here by 2030. We need to look carefully and publicly at all claims that something radical must be done about X, so that the world and ourselves are not endangered. Yes, governments have to make the final decisions. That is what they are for. But the EU elections tell us, once again, that political elites have too much confidence in their own intelligence.