Elite Hypocrisy in Environmentalism
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
Climate change is among the top issues for many voters across the western world, even more so in urban middle-class communities. The mainstream consensus is that climate change poses a serious existential threat to the survival of humanity. The victims of climate change are most likely to live in countries that are near sea level, with poor infrastructure, and high water/food insecurity. In other words: the poor. Yet, the middle and upper classes have dominated the climate change narrative through non-profits and government policy. Obviously, elites hold a disproportionate amount of power in most areas of politics, but this essay makes the argument for why environmental idealism is seriously endangering the communities most vulnerable to climate change.
Environmentalism is such a widely accepted topic that for some people it has entered a “post-debate” era. The definitive “the science is settled” approach has led to an environmental movement that cares little for affordability or practicality and only for virtue signaling and grand “targets”. The movement has always been middle class and increasingly is becoming more left-wing. To a certain extent, environmentalists are those with the privilege to worry about issues down the road as opposed to how to feed their kids after work. The environmental movement needs to be called out for being hypocritical and unpragmatic, serving the virtues of the privileged over the needs of the most vulnerable.
To illustrate my point, let’s start with private planes. It was reported that 118 private planes flew in leaders and staff to the COP26 environmental summit in Glasgow. How necessary was this? A Transport and Environment study found private jets to be between 5 and 14 times more carbon-intensive (per passenger) than normal airliners. A four-hour private jet flight emits more pollution than the average American in one year. Even though private jets are only around 4% of total aviation emissions, is travelling to an environmental summit really justification for emitting more CO2 in 4 hours than the amount one American emits in 365 days? Surely our politicians and diplomats can suffer in the first class of a typical Airliner. At a baseline, we should demand that elites make basic sacrifices if they expect the masses to follow their pleas for a “green revolution”.
Private plains are a minuscule part of a larger problem, but they are indicative of an excessive and unnecessary source of CO2. Generally speaking, as incomes rise so do carbon emissions. Starting with the elite, the richest 10% of humans were responsible for 52% of emissions between 1990 and 2015. Select for the top 1% of incomes and that accounts for 15% of emissions. When looking at the middle class, (households over $100,000 in income) 22.3% of the population is responsible for one-third of CO2 output. Looking at this chart from Environmental International, there is a direct relationship between income and emissions.
The upper classes like to feel virtuous for their Tesla cars and various other symbols of the environmental movement, but in reality, consuming less is simply better than consuming green. Middle-class urbanites like to sit on their various environmental soapboxes, but between the extra plane rides, uber orders, and amazon packages, the wealthy have the purchasing power to obfuscate their carbon footprint while consuming much more in products and services. All while maintaining the smug notion that their “green purchases” are making a difference.
What is the foundation for my class-based angst? The environmental policies being enacted across many western democracies are extremely detrimental to the working class and poor when it comes to affordability. American government subsidizes up to $7,500 for every electric car purchased (proposed to increase to $12,500), these subsidies only help those rich enough to be purchasing a new car. Various subsidies on solar panels and other environmental products all fall into the category of being minor carbon improvements for those who have the liquid capital to afford them. These are ineffective yet costly policies that have no direct benefit for those most vulnerable to climate change. Meanwhile, taxes are no better. The inverse of environmental subsidies are taxes, most often in the form of a carbon tax. Even though taxes are often applied universally, those with the money to do so can simply pollute and pay the fee while the lower classes experience a bump in the cost of living.
Above subsidies and taxes, the main focus of the environmental movement and COP26 is the phasing out of non-renewable resources. Clean electricity is a necessary part of our future, but our current strategy is being controlled by idealists who have zero regards for affordability or practicality. The rising cost of energy prices is becoming a major concern, especially in conjunction with post-COVID inflation. Currently, non-renewable forms of electricity are by far the cheapest (specifically coal and natural gas). The only renewable source of energy that comes close is hydroelectric (which is highly dependent on accommodating geography). The two golden children of renewable resources, solar and wind, are not only expensive they are highly unreliable as well.
With the exception of hydroelectric, renewable resources are unable to match the ebbs and flows of everyday electrical consumption. You can always put more coal in the furnace but we can’t simply ask the wind to blow harder or the sun to shine brighter. The work of Michael Shellenberger has also found that as dependency on solar and wind increases so does the cost. The value of wind energy reduces by 40% when it becomes 30% of an electrical grid, while solar retains only half its value when it becomes 15% of total electricity creation. We are still a long way away from creating the batteries necessary to support the inconsistency of renewable resources. So why is the environmental movement so obsessed with an expensive and inconsistent solution to phasing out non-renewables?
This all gets extra puzzling when we consider the aversion to nuclear power. Not only is nuclear one of the cheaper methods of generating electricity, but it is also CO2-free and provides the consistency of coal and natural gas. Yet, many western countries are shying away from Nuclear power. Germany and California have pledged to become Nuclear-free, while countries like Canada have halted nuclear expansion during environment-friendly governments. Why are nations simply walking away from one of the major solutions to climate change? A large part of it is misconceptions about the safety of nuclear energy. If you ask people about their preferred method of producing electricity, nuclear often lands near the bottom of the list.
First of all, the safety of nuclear plants has increased immensely since the time of Chernobyl. The total amount of deaths in the history of nuclear energy does not surpass 200 to date (with a possible 100 more coming in the form of cancer). This includes Chernobyl, which might be the worst possible nuclear disaster ever imaginable, due to the type of reactor in question and USSR incompetence. Even if you totaled all the potential cancer deaths to come from radiation, nuclear would still be one of the safest forms of energy production. Former nuclear critic, James Hansen, has since rescinded his skepticism and estimated that nuclear power has saved almost 2 million lives. This estimate is calculated from the approximate 7 million people who die every year from pollution and the part nuclear has done to reduce CO2 emissions over time.
Germany has had numerous issues since it banned Coal and began phasing out Nuclear. The price of electricity skyrocketed and they had to backtrack all the way to importing more Russian energy. Electricity costs in California have risen five times faster than the national average due to its reduction in coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Meanwhile, nuclear power averages half the price of renewable energies in the United States. As for the nuclear waste? The entire Swiss nuclear program’s uranium output can fit in the average classroom. When it comes to mining harm, both solar and wind require much larger amounts of minerals and resources compared to the uranium required to power nuclear plants. Any way you look at it, nuclear power outperforms every comparable (if CO2, price, and reliability are the metrics). The only thing holding it back is public education and cold war era hysteria.
The environmental movement risks mass defection if its policies impact the affordability of everyday people. If the price of electricity becomes unaffordable or rolling blackouts leave many cold at home during a hard Canadian winter, sympathy for the polar bears will inevitably go down. Jurisdictions that have rolled out non-renewables have seen massive increases in people’s electricity bills. In a cold place like Canada, when energy prices go up, people find cheaper solutions like burning wood to stay warm. Switching out medium-level pollutants for resources with extremely high emissions.
So why is nuclear being ignored when wind and solar have been ineffective and expensive in practice. To return to the theme of this essay: it is the idealism and ignorance of a privileged environmental movement. In a perfect world, we generate electricity from the light breeze of a sunny afternoon and we have the luxury to leave coal and uranium in the ground. But the pure decadence and blind idealism to reject a cheap and clean solution like Nuclear power shows that environmentalism has been blinded to the consequences of expensive energy. Sure there are some sensitivities to the word nuclear, but should those sensitivities override part of the solution to what so many call a world-ending danger? How can climate change both be incredibly dire, but we also have the luxury to opt for more expensive and unreliable alternatives to Nuclear?
The upper classes are pushing for an unrealistic and unaffordable future in which they simply pay the cost of admission for environmentalism and sneer at those who seek the more affordable but dirty forms of energy. As energy skyrockets in price, the sympathetic ears to environmentalism will decline and the doomsday rhetoric will become tired. Environmentalism should be wary of becoming the new Marxism. A movement in the name of “the people” but theorized and led by a privileged intelligentsia that knows nothing of a hammer or a sickle and completely willing to let the peasants and workers suffer for the creation of a “greater good”.
It is about time that we target the excessive luxuries of urban life. Heavy taxation on private jets, urban taxes on oversized vehicles and SUVs, and shipping taxes on luxury imported goods. Obviously, this would be in conjunction with the macro policies targeting CO2 emission, but at the same time, the middle and upper classes should pay for the economic consequences of expensive energy while also sacrificing some of the luxuries that make them environmental hypocrites. The environmental movement claims to be “post-debate” because it is an eco-chamber of like-minded people who are averse to new or contradictory information. The consequence? Every day people are paying more for energy during a time of high inflation and mass unemployment caused by COVID. To add insult to injury, our policies of energy idealism have actually set us back on our CO2 targets. The leader of the environmental movement, Germany, has increased CO2 emissions from electricity production while phasing out coal and nuclear, alternatively France has nearly 90% clean energy due to its nuclear plants and hydroelectric. If climate change is the main issue of our time, let us be remembered for what we did, not what we pretended to do while owning the latest Tesla.