This winter, the UK is likely to carry out a cumbersome experiment to find out just how deep people’s commitment to environmentalism is. My guess is that this commitment isn’t too deep.
There is a lot of talk about the possibility of an energy crisis if the winter is severe. It is possible that there is blackouts, that factories close and that there is a lack of hot water and heating in homes. A population unaccustomed to such ordeals may express their discontent in a way that is not exactly peaceful or constitutional.
Of course, this crisis may not happen. The climate is perhaps milder and the country may not suffer the worst consequences of the incompetence and irresponsibility of the ruling class regarding energy policies. But these policies, in a mix of sentimentality, corruption and politically motivated appeasement by the environmental lobby, could still result in an economic, social and political catastrophe.
The UK generates more than a third of its electricity using natural gas, but has gas stocks equivalent to just three days of consumption. The government closed its biggest storage facility to save money and now counts only on immediate supplies to countries like the Netherlands and other nations with huge storage facilities. But gas remains scarce and the price has risen dramatically. In the event of a real shortage, which Vladimir Putin will not be willing to alleviate, countries that supply gas to the UK will favor their own consumption, leaving the UK to go cold. No one in government seems to have thought of a strategy.
Not so long ago, as a way of helping to save the planet, the Scottish government promised not to look for more fossil fuel reserves in the North Sea. Coal, the most polluting way to generate electricity, was completely abandoned (in 2012, it still accounted for 25% of the electricity generated in the country) and nuclear plants were closed due to pressure from environmentalists. The UK is the world leader in wind energy, and so-called renewable energy supplies up to half the country’s electricity in a few days, but the government doesn’t control the wind any more than Canuto II controlled the waves. The arrogance of politicians is not capable of moving a single turbine propeller.
At the same time, the government established a price cap to be charged to consumers. This can lead to bankruptcy or bailouts of energy companies with taxpayer money. Tariff increases, of course, were never popular with voters, so the government, with its unerring instinct to do the wrong thing, opted for the cowardly alternative.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson feels impelled to preach to the world about energy. He speaks as if he has a responsibility to the biosphere, not his country. He wants to ensure that all cars are electric, although he cannot guarantee electricity to keep the lights on. As a result, the poor will suffer and the resulting pollution will be transferred to Africa or China. About the fortunes that will be born out of this, it’s best to keep quiet. Johnson’s luck is that opposition to him is very bad.
Theodore Dalrymple is a contributing editor of the City Journal, a member of the Manhattan Institute, and the author of several books.