Religion, Morality and the Politics of Climate and Energy

WindLog, 6 May 2015 

As if we needed to be reminded, energy policy seems to be becoming almost as much of a political football as climate change. Besides the well-known attack on the Renewable Energy Target by the Abbott government in Australia, we now have a British election campaign where the Tories have pledged to stop onshore wind development as part of their campaign platform, and even the Liberals seem to want to go along. More serious, however, is the partisan-inspired effort to chop the Texas wind industry off at the knees by the Republican controlled state Senate, despite the massive economic investment in the state, 17,000 jobs, and the added benefit of cheaper electricity. Talk about cutting off ones’ nose to spite ones’ face! Just how polarizing the ideological divide has become in US politics is shown very clearly in this graphic.

On the other side of the ideological divide, we have Pope Francis’ pending encyclical on climate change, injecting not only a moral but a religious element to the debate. This has the climate sceptics sufficiently worried so that they dispatched a team of the usual suspects to the Vatican to try to talk him out of it; and they are right to be worried if this recent poll of UK Catholics is any indication. Needless to say they didn’t succeed in doing anything other than making themselves look foolish.

Perhaps of equal significance is the growing fossil-fuel divestment movement, which is also making the climate/energy nexus into a moral issue. The argument goes something like, ‘climate impacts affect the world’s poorest worst and first, and places an unfair burden on future generations, all for the benefit of the rich who control most fossil fuel resources’. It may evolve into something equally powerful on the secular side to complement the Pope’s initiative; and of course there would probably be significant overlaps.

Their point, which is not without merit, is that the ‘technocratic’ approach has failed, and while we know so much more about the climate threat and the unsustainability of our current energy policy than we did 30 years ago, nothing has fundamentally changed, and we’re running out of time.

I suppose I, like most of the technocratically inclined, are somewhat uncomfortable with all this; although frankly we need all the help we can get. I can imagine that the moral and religious arguments will only intensify over the next few months in the run up to Paris, and will no doubt continue beyond.

However, for those of us who remain (at least professionally) in the technocrat camp, I strongly recommend looking at the material from the IEA’s new Energy Technology Perspectives, which is the strongest statement from the IEA yet on how little time we have to make the fundamental changes to our energy system necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. This will only feed the fires of both the Pope’s initiative and that of the divestment movement; and that’s a role I, for one, feel comfortable with.