Originally published in The National Post

Taking place in one of the world’s fossil-fuel hubs, a city sultanate so prodigal in its energy use that it boasts indoor ski slopes in the desert furnace, the just-concluded climate jamboree in Dubai could hardly avoid a note of climate realism.

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, in refusing to allow the Conference of the Parties to endorse any prescriptive language about the “phase down” or “phase out” of fossil fuels, declared: “I assure you that not a single person — I’m talking about governments — believes in that.… I would like to put that challenge to all of those who … comes out publicly saying we have to (phase down.) Ask them how they are gonna do that. If they believe that this is the highest moral ground issue, fantastic. Let them do that themselves. And we will see how much they can deliver.”

Earlier, in a pre-conference exchange, the COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber, declared: “Show me the roadmap for a phase out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.” The Emirati prince, who is also chief executive of the state-owned oil company, was in a tetchy debate with the former Irish president and United Nations climate envoy, Mary Robinson, who’d earlier observed that, “We’re in an absolute crisis that is hurting women and children more than anyone … and it’s because we have not yet committed to phasing out fossil fuel.”

The conference’s eventual call for “transitioning away from fossil fuels … in a just, orderly and equitable manner” could be called a “historic achievement” by Al Jaber precisely because it was so heavily qualified; a commitment to do nothing specific any time soon.

Leaving aside the bizarre contention that a commitment to ending coal, oil and gas power will somehow ease whatever hurts are being uniquely suffered by women and girls, and ignoring for a moment any issues with climate’s “settled science,” this exchange crystallized the tension between climate evangelism and climate realism. It’s fair enough wanting to reduce emissions, to rest as lightly as possible on the only planet we have, but to what extent should we burden economies, and change people’s lifestyles, in order to do so? This is an especially acute question for Canada, that’s one of the world’s main fossil fuel exporters, like Australia, and now with a cost of living crisis exacerbated by climate policy.

In Canada, a rapidly escalating carbon tax is already estimated to be costing families upwards of $700 a year, and is legislated to rise fast, on top of soaring expenses for housing and food. And unlike most other price rises, this one is wholly and solely the doing of the federal government. In Australia, the only time retail power prices have fallen in more than a decade was by nine per cent in 2014, when our domestic carbon tax was abolished. But other climate policies, especially the new Labor government’s 82 per cent renewable energy mandate by 2030, have contributed to driving up power prices by 20 per cent in the past year alone. And the planned closure of the country’s biggest coal-fired power station in about 18 months time, producing almost 10 per cent of Australia’s electricity, is certain to lead to widespread blackouts or power rationing.

For several decades, climate activists got away with claiming that countries could reduce emissions without any real pain-in-the-pocket because wind and solar power were virtually free. What was always glossed over was the need to “firm” intermittent, renewable power because modern life requires power 24/7, not just when the wind blows and the sun shines. Again, this was relatively easy when renewable power was under about 15 per cent of total electricity generation because hydro-electric or gas-fired “peaker” plants could scale up or down, almost instantaneously, when the wind dropped or dusk fell. But at greater levels of renewable penetration, that’s become much harder because coal-fired generation takes much longer to power up or down. The changed economics of part-time coal-fired power, plus green restrictions on new coal and gas fields, and also shareholder activist campaigns against any fossil fuel investment, mean that many countries are now on the threshold of an energy crisis. Especially since the green phobia for fossil fuels normally extends, for different reasons, to nuclear power, too.

Across much of the developed world, there’s now enough renewable energy to badly damage the reliability and affordability of power supplies; but not enough to substantially dent the world’s reliance on fossil fuels — still about 80 per of total global energy. This is the dilemma we now face. We can have the abundant affordable energy on which almost every aspect of modern life depends. Think transport, housing, heating, cooling, transactions, mobile phones and even greenhouse farming. Or we can have lower emissions.

Then there’s the quite literally astronomical cost. Even the current Australian government, that’s legislated for 82 per cent renewables by 2030, admits that this will require the installation of 20,000 new solar panels every single day, and 40 wind turbines every single month, for the next seven years, plus the construction of at least 10,000 kilometres of new transmission lines. Quite apart from the need for “firming.” This is simply not going to happen given genuine conservationist fears about the impact of onshore and offshore wind farms on bird life and whale migration, plus the desecration of farm land and national parks.

In Australia, a tri-university study headed by our former chief scientist has estimated that the cost of reaching net zero will be AU$1.5 trillion (C$1.3 trillion) by 2030 (or about 60 per cent of annual GDP) and up to AU$9 trillion by 2060. As Bjorn Lomborg has just reported, a new study puts the annual global cost of achieving net zero at between four and 18 per cent of global GDP. A recent British study by Royal Society fellow Prof. Michael Kelly puts the cost of achieving net zero for the United Kingdom at over 3 trillion pounds (C$5 trillion), or 180,000 pounds per household, with, he said, a “command economy” on a “war footing.” And even if the physics and the economics of “green hydrogen” could be made to work, the aesthetics of much of the globe carpeted and forested with solar panels and wind turbines would be a modern version of William Blake’s “satanic mills.”

Contrary to the climate zealots, the real “tipping point” is less likely to arrive when barely perceptible global warming becomes unstoppable but when fed-up electorates revolt against policies that don’t seem to be helping the climate but are badly hurting voters’ cost of living. So far, the strong green element in centre-left parties and the strong duty-to-the-planet element in centre-right parties has prevented any wholesale abandonment of the emissions-reduction imperative or much-shaken the narrative that climate change is our greatest challenge. But in the long run, facts always trump theory and reality always mugs ideology.

Perhaps this has now started with at least some of the COP attendees pledging to triple nuclear power by 2050. The U.K. government has recently extended the time frame for compelling people to stop installing gas boilers and to stop buying petrol- and diesel-powered cars. And the European countries, like Germany, that had been green virtue-signalling with their shift to renewables, suddenly discovered their vulnerability when they had to do without the Russian gas needed to make their power grids work. When the German chancellor recently pleaded with the Canadian government to increase its supplies of gas, was it really a “lack of a business case” or more green fundamentalism that caused Canada to decline?

While voters have been happy to support “more climate action” when it doesn’t cost them anything, it’s a different matter when they are given a clear choice between saving the planet, maybe, in a few decades time, and having their power bills skyrocket now. In Australia, three recent elections — 2010, 2013 and 2019 — have largely been fought over climate and energy policy. In every case, the party that made it a hip-pocket issue rather than a moral one did best. In 2013, my government won a thumping majority promising to abolish a carbon tax that I said was socialism masquerading as environmentalism. There might be a message here for Canadian politics, too.

It’s all very well wanting to save a planet, that’s been considerably colder and warmer in the past without any human contribution, by limiting mankind’s carbon dioxide emissions. But what about the morality or otherwise of putting massive additional pressure on family budgets; and what about the morality of economically weakening the western democracies against Russia, China and Iran that urge “climate action” on us while doing nothing about it themselves? Of course China wants western countries to transition to renewables because nearly all the solar panels, wind turbines and EV batteries are made there. Far from being “the right thing to do,” the obsessive focus on emissions and the anti-fossil fuel fixation has become a Trojan horse dangerously sapping the West’s prosperity and security.