Maybe you heard that climate activist Greta Thunberg testified before Congress on Earth Day. In her prepared remarks she said “We have to end fossil fuel subsidies, stop new exploration and extraction, completely divest from fossil fuels and keep the carbon in the ground.” But she was pessimistic as always and said that because so many people are ignorant lawmakers would continue to “contribute to the destruction of present and future living conditions.”
Of course Greta herself is arguably relying on people’s ignorance. In 2020, about 60% of our electricity generation came from fossil fuels and nearly another 20% from nuclear power. That leaves just under 20% from renewable sources. So if we voted to “keep it in the ground” today, we’re still heavily depended on oil and gas. A sudden and sharp decline in production would necessarily result in a sudden and sharp increase in prices. Meanwhile, it could take a decade or more to replace that 60% of our electricity generation with renewable power. In short, what Thunberg is recommending here would be catastrophic for energy consumers and the U.S. economy. So when she talks about present living conditions, she really ought to tell people exactly the kind of present she’s recommending.
But the real hitch in Thunberg’s plan for the world, as I’ve mentioned before, is that most of the increase in fossil fuel usage is coming from China and, to a lesser degree, India. Nearly 90% of the increase over the last decade came from those two countries.
China’s plan is to deal with this sometimes later, maybe a decade from now after it has had more time to develop economically. And how does Greta Thunberg feel about this? She was asked that question by Rep. Ralph Norman who pointed out that any efforts the U.S. could make would be offset by emissions from these other countries, leaving the world in about the same place it is now. Pay close attention to Thunberg’s response. I’m quoting this at length so I’m not accused of cherry-picking.
“Well, if we just thought like that it would be very convenient, wouldn’t it?” Thunberg said. She continued, “Rather we need to see the holistic perspective. How can we…? If we take for example India, how could we expect India to take action when the developed countries who have actually promised to lead the way won’t do that?
“If we take into account the global aspect of equity I mean there are many, many people around the world who need to be able to raise their standard of living and if we who live in high-income countries aren’t able to take a few steps back in order to let other people raise their living standards then that just doesn’t make any sense.
“And of course those countries definitely need to take their responsibility as well. And that’s why we need global cooperation. Countries won’t take action when there is no global cooperation. If the U.S. for example, which is the biggest emitter in history, won’t take action then how can we expect other countries to do that? Taking action ourselves is also a guarantee that…I mean, it would be a snowball effect most likely. If one country does something then other countries will follow. If no country does something then no one will follow.”
I see at least four problems in this brief response, each of them quite serious.
- Taking a “holistic perspective” can’t mean ignoring the overall emissions for the entire planet. Thunberg says we need to get holistic but the argument Rep. Norman is raising is holistic. It looks at the big picture instead of just what a handful of western democracies are doing. And the result is that there’s little chance our sacrifice will produce any holistic improvement simply because other countries are not pursuing the same goals.
- We who live in high-income countries should be willing to step back to let other people improve their standard of living. This is interesting because Thunberg effectively admits there is no global upside to the U.S. and other countries stepping back in terms of emissions. Instead she’s now arguing we should be willing to do it for the sake of equity. We have to step back so China and India can grow without making things any worse overall. But what if we don’t want the world’s leading communist tyranny to grow, literally, at our expense? Thunberg doesn’t seem to spare a thought for the idea that empowering the CCP could be a bad idea.
- Those countries need to take responsibility as well and that takes global cooperation. Part of the issue here is that Thunberg is a naive 18-year-old (as we all were at one time). Even so, this one shouldn’t be that tough to understand. The idea that China is interested in global cooperation is somewhat delusional at this moment in time. The entire free world is in the midst of condemning China’s cultural genocide in Xinjiang and China’s response thus far has been threats and propaganda. They have no interest in cooperation. In fact, what they have said they want to do is be seen as the equal of the U.S. and in fact, the world’s leader. And that leads to the last point.
- The snowball effect. Thunberg is assuming, again, that if we lead they will follow. She literally says taking action will “guarantee” and then stops herself as even she realizes it would guarantee nothing. Instead she says it would “most likely” create a snowball effect. But what if it doesn’t? What if China sits back and calculates that by allowing the west to move to renewables at great economic cost while China keeps growing on cheap fossil fuels, that in another decade it will have even more economic weight to throw around. And that weight will be used as it is now, i.e. to defend their tyranny from criticism abroad and to silence critics at home.
The worst part is that I don’t think Thunberg is actually ignorant of all of this. In fact, last September, Thunberg criticized China when it arrested a 17-year-old climate striker who had been directly inspired by Thunberg’s example:
“We just went on the global climate strike day, with four people, advocates, on Nanjing Road which is a very symbolic place in Shanghai, and we are just arrested and interrogated for about two hours and I just came out of the police station,” she said in a video after her release.
In the Twitter post on Sunday she said she was forced to write a “self-criticism letter”, a forced admission of guilt frequently used by Chinese police to intimidate activists…
Activist Greta Thunberg, who started the campaign, spoke out in support of Hongyi.
“Activism is not a crime. Peacefully standing up for the future survival of the living planet should never be illegal. Solidarity and gratitude to our friends in China, Uganda, Russia and everywhere else #FridaysForFuture activists are being arrested,” Greta said on her Twitter account.
So again, I think Thunberg is aware that you can’t be Greta Thunberg if you live under a dictatorship. But she doesn’t seem willing to recognize what that means for the chances of global cooperation or a snowball effect of positive behavior. And that unwillingness is especially noteworthy coming from someone whose entire brand is telling western leaders they are failures and hypocrites. And, hey, in many cases they are failures and hypocrites but at least they are elected failures and hypocrites.
She’s still a young person so my goal here is not to berate an 18-year-old it’s just to try to make a point about why this kind of western activism on global issues rings a bit hollow. Until Thunberg and people who share her views make room in their plans for the world’s tyrants, those who aren’t interested in cooperation but domination, until they recognize that asking the west to make serious sacrifices for the CCP’s benefit strikes many as a terrible idea, it’s hard to take their views seriously.
There’s more to her answer about China in the clip. She eventually just says, “All I can do is just try to advocate for global change.” Um, okay but what about the very significant portions of the planet that are hostile to your activism and not ready to listen to your message? I don’t think “I tried” is going to be a great answer when China is the most powerful country in the world and all of our renewable energy efforts turn out to have done nothing but help them get there more quickly.