When it comes to debates over energy policy and climate change, environmental activists have long enjoyed one massive advantage. It’s not any moral, economic, or political argument that weighs in their favor — it’s an unchallenged assumption, accepted even by many of their opponents. Much like the supervillain Thanos in the comic book movie Avengers: Endgame, climate activists have convinced much of the world that they are inevitable.
It’s only a matter of time, we are frequently lectured, until the climate campaigners sweep the political field, and heavy judgement will fall on all the reactionaries who were foolish enough to question their enlightened policies. Those of us who are skeptical of abandoning hydrocarbon energy, air conditioning, and the internal combustion engine are in for difficult times, as the future triumvirate of Al Gore, Greta Thunberg, and Klaus Schwab inaugurate a new, green era. Some campaigners have even suggested that climate skeptics should be rounded up and subjected to prosecutions designed, in some grotesque way, to be reminiscent of the Nuremberg trials. Meanwhile, others are working to get “ecocide” treated as a new category of international crime, similar to genocide.
The ostensible inevitability of decarbonization, however, has always been more bluster than substance, allowing the climate-change alarmists to survive levels of unpopularity and dysfunction that would have ended any other activist campaign years ago. Yet its proponents’ ability to hide its failures and costs enabled the activism to thrive, along with its intimidating reputation. Recent events around the world, however, are conspiring to stop the movement in its tracks.
This will no doubt come as a shock to many casual observers, as surface-level appearances would suggest the climate movement is still quite strong. According to researchers at Yale University, 72 percent of Americans tell pollsters that carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant, while 77 percent believe that the government should fund further renewable-energy research and provide tax rebates for solar panels. But when you ask people about bearing the costs of such policies themselves, things change. A 2021 poll commissioned by my colleagues at the Competitive Enterprise Institute found that 35 percent of registered voters in the U.S. said they wouldn’t be willing to spend even $1 a month to reduce the impacts of climate change.
This asymmetry is evident across the world, even in places where climate activism appears to be popular: High approval rates for feel-good rhetoric and low tolerance for the hard costs of implementing policy. As I wrote recently, the appetite for environmental purity in general is high only when its true costs are hidden — or when such costs are supposedly going to be borne by greedy billionaires, foreign despots, or some other exogenous bogeyman.
This effect has been at work for decades in the case of subsidies for renewable energy projects. This taxpayer-financed funding is, from the perspective of the average American, buried in their overall tax burden. Subsidies have artificially lowered the visible “market” price for intermittent power sources, serving as misleading validation of the notion that wind and solar can be expected to replace oil and gas without any major economic pain being necessary.
But according to Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, this is a case of promoters getting high on their own supply. He explained in a recent deep dive for Foreign Policy that “[climate advocates] have confused the subsidy-driven growth of renewable energy with evidence that the world is ready to rapidly transition off fossil fuels.” Promoters of the fuels that natural-gas industry CEO Karen Buchwald Wright calls “unreliables” have temporarily lowered the costs of solar and wind with the American people’s own money, then claimed to have delivered a bargain. This escalating game of robbing Peter to pay Paul is not quite the environmentally friendly “circular economy” we were promised.
Political and economic circumstances are causing people to wake up. Nordhaus argues that the fuel disruptions triggered by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine alone mean “the end of climate policy as we know it.” Political discontent in the developed world over high energy prices is not transitory, either. At home, the Biden administration is caught in a vise. It is unwilling to budge from announced decarbonization goals but is getting killed at the polls for skyrocketing fuel prices. The administration’s attempts to deal with the toxic decline in public confidence consist of attempting to publicly harangue oil and gas companies into ignoring market realities, as well as begging the Saudi royal family to expand production (no luck so far).
Many Tories in the U.K. — who are about to select their new party leader and Prime Minister — are also having second thoughts about the current government’s “net zero by 2050” greenhouse-gas target. Former finance minister Rishi Sunak has attempted to spin this goal in a more patriotic direction, pledging (as reported by Reuters) to “make Britain energy independent by 2045 to insulate it from supply shocks like the one caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” But even this modest pivot has the opposition accusing the Tories of plotting an about-turn abandonment. Labour MP (and former Labour leader) Ed Miliband recently accused the prime minister candidates of “running away” from the net-zero pledge. Tory politicians feel like they can’t let go, but the costs of holding on are mounting by the day. Public opinion polling on the topic is clear, as memorably encapsulated in a summary published by Ipsos last October: “Public support majority of net zero policies . . . unless there is a personal cost.”
There is also growing populist opposition across Europe to the expansion of renewable energy and other climate mitigation efforts. Dutch farmers have been engaging in public protests and civil disobedience for weeks in response to proposed policies that would force farmers to reduce their livestock herds — or stop farming entirely. Farmers in Northern Ireland voiced similar complaints earlier this year. The discontent in rural communities is spreading, with similar recent protests in Germany, Poland, Spain, and Italy. With high energy costs being a major part of the problem, the most recent protests bring to mind the “yellow vest” demonstrations that began in France in 2018. While climate-change protestors in places such as London and Washington, D.C., have become known for enraging commuters by blocking weekday traffic, the gilets jaunes’ rage at high fuel costs has arguably created the most influential social movement in France since the events of May 1968.
None of this bodes well for the climate industrial complex and the effort to force unreliable, high-cost energy on people around the world. The increasing inability of green utopians to hide the sacrifices demanded by their policies may be one of the best developments in decades. Even before these most recent problems, embracing climate activism was “political poison” for center-right parties and movements, as my colleague Marlo Lewis memorably argued in 2017. But even leaders on the other side of the aisle now need to tread lightly. It’ll always be fashionable to beat up on Exxon and Koch Industries, but telling people that their utility bills need to double so that the average global temperature will be, say, 0.17 degrees cooler in 2100 is another matter entirely. Even people who love Gaia still need to commute to work and keep the lights on.