Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Let us imagine that it had been incontrovertibly discovered in 1973 that fossil fuels were responsible for a degree of climate change which would, within fifty years, provoke the catastrophic consequences predicted at COP27.
And let us further imagine that as a result, and unlike now, Edward Heath’s government decided to do what is demanded of Rishi Sunak today and banned all new fossil fuel developments.
Although for some it is heretical to say so, it would have been the wrong decision. To forego the advantages proffered by oil and gas over the past fifty years would have made this country much poorer and less able to confront issues such as global hunger, disease and deprivation – not to mention climate change itself.
Most in the Green movement would probably disagree with this conclusion. And in fairness, it’s no more than a debating point because, of course, Heath and his ministers were unaware of what we know now.
But this does not protect them and their predecessors from condemnation from today’s Green activists. Indeed, they go further and demand from the guilty countries reparations for the wealth created on the back of fossil fuels.
The guilt syndrome is now constantly invoked by the green movement, stretching from respectable politicians such as Ed Miliband to the eco-terrorists who block motorways. All Western countries are expected to plead guilty as charged for wrecking the climate, and the assumption behind it is that somehow everything is our fault.
There is, of course, a problem with all this. The reason, for example, why oil and gas companies took such risks to develop North Sea oil and gas – and without anything like the subsidies given to renewables – was because it was a superior source of energy supply, and reduced our dependence on one of the dirtiest sources of energy imaginable: coal.
The developmental history of energy down the ages has been the substitution of one source of fuel for another, and that is what happened when governments of all political colours in the late 1960s and 1970s attracted the wrath of the National Union of Mineworkers for moving away from dirty and high-emitting Durham coal.
During this period, the greatest political anxiety was that the world would run out of oil. This was why many thought a practical alternative might be nuclear, but this again the so-called greens bitterly opposed. Despite the economic and political drawbacks to nuclear, at the time it presented the only reliable method of enhancing energy security – and, as we now know, it would also have helped to reduce CO2 emissions significantly while keeping the lights on.
Even though this was then not the prime reason for supporting nuclear, if anyone is to feel guilty for the past, it should perhaps be the opponents of nuclear power who helped kill off this option.
But the popular tendency to parcel out guilt leads to a great deal of unfairness, and no more so than in the energy sector. Many today seek to compare the international oil industry with tobacco, with the implication that all should feel ashamed for having anything to do with them.
But unlike tobacco, cheap and secure supplies of fossil fuels provide a truly “essential public service.” There is no way that instantly giving them up would have beneficial consequences today, any more than they would have had in the 1970s.
As we have discovered in the past through strikes and industrial disruption – and as the Russians are now attempting in Ukraine through warfare – the quickest way to bring a country to a standstill is to deny a country power and the means of transport. Banning the development of new oil and gas, whether now or in the 1970s, threatens to increase global levels of poverty, disease and famine.
It will be argued that a comparison between now and 1973 is false because, unlike then, we now have the scientific and engineering knowledge to end our dependence on fossil fuels.
But do we? We still don’t know how to overcome the problem of intermittency. Battery technology has a very long way to go before it allows us to store adequate amounts of power to avoid blackouts. Nuclear fusion remains a distant dream. And there is hardly any alternative to fossil fuels that doesn’t pose its own risks and dangers.
Nuclear, for example, has always carried the risk of nuclear proliferation, and a single nuclear accident could be one too many. Or, as Dominic Lawson argued so cogently in a recent article, there are adverse social implications in mining for cobalt, which is essential for the batteries that power most electric vehicles. Nothing in energy policy is straightforward.
And while the nature of the threat posed by climate change is far better understood now than in the past, it is still arguable whether climate change should be afforded the highest priority at this moment. Unfortunately there are always conflicting priorities.
There is no doubt, for example, that the war in Ukraine is very bad for the climate – war per se is one of the worst causes of CO2 emissions. So, if climate change were the overriding concern, presumably we should have encouraged the Ukrainians to put up less resistance to Russian aggression, so that the war could be brought to a hasty conclusion. The continuance of the war is yet another reason why CO2 targets in Europe are threatened.
But most would argue that passive resistance to Russian aggression is a greater danger.
The mention of war is a reminder of the pacifist streak within the green movement, along with its general hostility to economic growth. Those blocking motorways today would, had they been alive, been blocking Greenham Common in the 1980s and marching to Aldermaston in the 1960s.
That doesn’t mean they were wrong then or now, but it is indicative of where they are coming from, and in economic terms it means especially that they will reject any response to climate change which employs market mechanisms to confront the problem. They are of the left, not of the right, and always have been.
So, if it’s a choice between control and banning on the one hand, and incentives and tax on the other, they will always choose the former. For most of them, when it comes to climate change, adaptation is a dirty word. It’s in their political DNA, and it is why so many Conservatives are suspicious of their agenda.
The world would be much better served if energy policy was subject to economic and scientific rigour, rather than the emotional indulgence and blame games favoured by the green movement.