Let climate sceptics have their moment – it will not last

Comment: President-elect Donald Trump heralds a new age of climate doubters, but can this army backed by fossil fuel companies hold off reality in 2017?

President elect Donald Trump and UK MEP Nigel Farage (Pic: Twitter/@Nigel_Farage)


Christmas came early for the world’s greying tribe of climate sceptics.

They’re on the cusp of the best and perhaps last chance they will get to comprehensively wreck efforts to limit temperature rises.

The first presents arrived in the early hours of 24 June, when it became clear the UK had voted to leave the European Union, splitting what has been a powerful force for climate change ambition.

The second batch fell down the chimney on 9 November with the election of a man as US president who once said climate change was a “hoax” and has named a coterie of advisors and cabinet picks that look like a Heartland Institute calendar shoot.

Donald Trump’s win has emboldened a legion of right-wing think tanks, conspiracy theorists and keyboard warriors who might have thought their goose was cooked in Paris last year.

From the cheers as 195 countries agreed to support a new – if legally loose – plan to address greenhouse gas emissions, now listen to the groans from green groups.

Expect these to grow louder as the sceptics grow in confidence. The expected and predicted dip in global temperatures through 2017 has resurrected the old canard of the warming ‘pause’.

Expect a slew of reports through 2017 claiming climate policies are ruinously expensive, harm the poor and do little to deliver carbon cuts.

Two British MPs have already tried their best this month. Peter Lilley, an advisor to the climate sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) said the UK climate act would cost consumers £300 billion by 2030.

His report was enthusiastically covered in the Times by (Lord) Matt Ridley, another GWPF advisor.

Grant Shapps – not previously known for his energy expertise – predicted the lights will go out through Christmas 2017 unless the country reverses its carbon-cutting measures.

Both studies are produced by organisations that do not disclose their backers. Both have since been called out for their maths by the Carbon Brief website and leading energy experts.

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This is just the start. As the UK’s links to Brussels fray, as Trump’s team of oil barons and climate sceptics take charge in Washington DC, two major poles of climate ambition will weaken.

The wind is in their sails, the rhetoric of winning is drowning any level of sensible debate on social media, the cult of the nation-state swamping calls for a multilateral approach to global issues.

They’re the battered village cricket team with a bowling attack of chancers that finds itself on a surprising hat-trick. The blood is up. The crowd are baying. One more wicket and they’re convinced the tail will collapse.

But forget Paris. Forget the EU. Forget the US. Just look at the smoggy skies in Beijing and Delhi. Look at the Arctic’s steadily declining ice sheet. Look at drought across Africa.

Look at the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and ask yourself how you can achieve any of them by 2030 without respecting the environment.

It’s easy for a journalist in London to get wrapped into thinking just Brussels and Washington matter. Billions don’t have that luxury.

Developing countries have to clean up their energy systems or their capitals will choke to death. India announced last week it won’t build new coal plants beyond 2022.

This week Narendra Modi’s government released plans to double its wind and solar capacity by 2027, far exceeding its pledges to the Paris climate agreement.

The costs of solar will continue to plummet. It’s so cheap in Chile they gave power generated by solar away for free in June. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia plans a new investment drive in 2017.

In November, governments of 47 poor countries committed to going 100% renewable as soon as possible, days after the Trump victory.

As we pointed out after the announcement, many of these countries still use coal as their main source of power but the political message was clear: low carbon is the future.

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It’s hard to take a long view on climate change. That’s because the need to act now is a scientific imperative. Cumulative atmospheric carbon emissions count.

And as studies sparked by the UN’s desire for a thorough investigation into the impacts 1.5C above pre-industrial levels of warming will likely prove – serious impacts are not far away.

But perspective will be needed through 2017 and beyond. Climate change is framed by many as a battle between left and right, good and evil, rich and poor.

Those binary assumptions make for easy labels and pithy tweets, but are fundamentally flawed. At its heart this is a question of risk, and it’s one leading banks are starting to get their heads around.

That’s why the G20 and Financial Stability Board made such a big push for greater transparency on how businesses see their development in a warmer world.

“The right information will allow optimists and pessimists, sceptics and evangelists, to back their convictions with their capital,” said Bank of England governor Mark Carney recently, unveiling a set of FSB-backed recommendations on this subject.

Forget the rhetoric. Let’s see who’s willing to put their money into new coal plants and expensive fossil fuel infrastructure through 2017.

My bet is throughout the year we’ll see climate policies and science take a pasting in the media, and investments in clean technologies continue their remarkable rise.

The US will likely ditch the Paris deal, but Trump will struggle to save the coal industry. Rex Tillerson will offer solace to fossil fuel nuts, but the economics of oil will remain challenging.

As the world pivots towards China, so its desire to make trillions from selling the world its green technologies will dominate.

Not that any of this will dent the newfound vigour of climate sceptics, boosted by the little blue pills of Brexit and Trump. They have the ball. Now we’ll see what they can deliver.

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