Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
“We were the first to knit the deadly tea cosy of CO2 that is now driving climate change.”
The Prime Minister’s speech at the 2021 Global Investment Summit at the Science Museum back in October was initially a zinging endorsement of the free-market capitalism which had delivered the Covid vaccine.
Conservative cheers could well have turned to bafflement when the PM warned that Britain must atone for being a world-leading scientific and engineering pioneer more than two centuries ago. As the first nation to industrialise, sending up plumes of smoke from the Midlands, “We have a responsibility to set an example – and we are.”
Two weeks later at COP26, that gathering of private jets on Clydeside, Boris Johnson was at it again. The Industrial Revolution, one of the most seminal shifts in human history, was painted as a historic eco-crime for which Britain must make reparation. It is “one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock” of climate change. That clock had begun to tick 250 years ago in Glasgow where “James Watt came up with a machine that was powered by steam that was produced by burning coal”. Consequently, nations like Britain have a “duty” and “special responsibility” to divvy up $100 billion a year to support developing countries finance green alternatives.
The Prime Minister is not alone trying to establish a narrative that the apparent threat of looming ecocide demands that today’s Britain must pay for yesterday’s wrongs. In February 2020 Michael Gove told the Green Alliance that, as the first country in the world to industrialise, the UK must acknowledge “our debt to the planet and our debt to others”. As the earliest adopter we now have a “moral responsibility” to lead a green revolution – and to make Britain’s voters pay through the nose.
The agenda-setting Committee for Climate Change (CCC) might well have encouraged the Government into following this line of argument. Back in May 2019, it stated Britain should “bear more of the costs of transition to a low-carbon economy”, not least as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Apparently, in the past we have made a “large” per person contribution to man-made global warming. (p.106 of Net Zero: The UK’s Contribution to Stopping Global Warming, should interest be, er, ignited).
How large is large? It seems that since the start of the 19th century, a whopping two to three per cent of global warming attributable to greenhouse gas emissions has come from the UK, according to the CCC, whose members don’t seem too troubled by that other large 97-98 per cent coming from elsewhere. This of course raises the question of whether, over the past 200 years, we in Britain have indeed knitted a deadly tea cosy, or even crocheted a lethal egg-warmer.
Preoccupied in the last decade or so by the impact of a global financial crash, Brexit, a pandemic and matters woke, we have all been in a comparative slumber as the new green orthodoxy embedded itself in public policy, spurred on by the 2008 Climate Change Act. Hands up if you were paying much attention in June 2019 – during the Conservative leadership contest – when the Act was amended by Statutory Instrument, ushering in the target of Carbon Net Zero by 2050.
Created by the 2008 Act, the CCC wields the sort of influence enjoyed by SAGE, whose previously off-the-radar members have been gracing the airwaves seemingly non-stop for the past two years. Like SAGE, the CCC includes a behavioural scientist. (Why?) Unlike SAGE’s pandemic priesthood, an economist sits on the CCC. This is just as well, because like a drowsy giant, the public is beginning to awaken to the impact of green taxes and Net Zero on their pockets.
Rainforests of paper can be sacrificed by government agencies and quangos in an effort to push their pet policies, but nothing cuts through like hitting taxpayers where it hurts. In November, The Financial Times reported that getting to Net Zero by 2050 will cost £1.4 trillion – or the equivalent of £1,700 per average household per year.
Green taxes are now on the media agenda, with reports this week that they might account for a quarter of the cost of rocketing fuel bills. Poll tax, anyone? One MP has recognised the thin political ice. On Wednesday, the Education Committee chairman Robert Halfon called for the suspension of green levies.
Just as SAGE seems to lack any lockdown-sceptical scientist, it must be wondered whether the CCC has ever included a member who might not sign up to its doomsday world view. Perhaps Lord Deben’s successor as Committee Chairman could be self-styled sceptical environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg. He argues that trillions of dollars set to be allocated to the impact of climate change could be better spent. Think of it as levelling up, just on a global scale.
The rural poverty in the developing world today was last seen in Britain in the pre-industrial era. If late 18th and early 19th century life in Britain was indeed an Eden of artisan produce, hipster beards and charming cottage industry, why did so many flee to the new manufacturing towns?
The Industrial Revolution was precisely that, a revolution. A seismic, shattering upheaval. It wrought enormous change, enriching the country and its people. It was a force for global good and thank goodness for it. Life for one day today without electricity, piped water and a mobile phone is a glimpse of yesterday’s Hobbesian nightmare.
The United Kingdom is currently responsible for generating about one per cent of global greenhouse gases. However, that is too large according to our Net Zero-fixated government, which is deploying the past to justify present and future public policy.
By invoking a two centuries-old deadly tea cosy the Prime Minister unwittingly raised questions about collective moral responsibility, usually best left to theologians and lawyers. How far should any of us be punished for historic actions of others? What about considerations of intent and agency? Didn’t the prophet Ezekiel have something to say about children not being punished for the sins of their parents?
The Industrial Revolution-reparation narrative just won’t (green)wash: as an attempt to explain away ripping out 30 million gas boilers and justifying a surge in fuel poverty, it’s a tea cosy short of some stitches.
Like SAGE, the CCC needs far greater scrutiny over the quality of its advice to government. And Conservative ministers and MPs should be mindful that, like civil servants, quangocrats are never voted out.