Richard North, 21/10/2021  

To a considerable group of people, the advocacy of anthropomorphic climate change seems to have more in common with a cult than it does the pursuit of science. But, whatever might be an individual's standing in the debate – such that it is – some parties need to be reminded that, notionally, the UK is a democracy.

Although that status is increasingly being exposed as a hollow fiction, there nevertheless exists a residual belief in the principle that we should be governed by consent. In that context, as Philip Johnston writes in the Telegraph of prime minister Johnson's latest policy announcement on "net zero":
An absolute essential for any government pursuing a policy carrying such enormous costs and implications is that it has to bring the country along with it. That requires a compelling argument to be made for its achievement, a realistic timetable for doing so and widespread acceptance that it will make a difference and is not just being done for show or bragging rights at a summit.
Even those who accept some of the basic assertions relating to climate change might then also accept that there are different policy responses which might be made to the perceived problems. It might further be accepted that the actual direction we take as a nation might be influenced as much by the politics as the science of the issue.

For my own part, given that – at the very least - there is room for policy diversity, I certainly reject any idea that we should be railroaded into a single policy corral by a scientifically illiterate prime minister, who has clearly not thought through the implications of his proposals.

With that, if we explore the range of policy options available to us, there are probably three anchor points which could set the parameters for discussion. The first might be the "do nothing" option; the second might be the "minimum necessary", and the third might take us into Johnson territory where we cast ourselves as leaders, doing far more than strictly necessary, as an example to the rest of the world.

Depending on where one stands in the climate change debate, one of those points might define a reasonable starting point, on which to base a series of practical initiatives (or not, in the event of the first option), which might then be rolled out as a consequence of the initial policy stance.

The point here, though, is that whatever policy line which is to be chosen, the choice is not one that should be made unilaterally by the government or its leader. For a matter of such importance, there should be a very clear electoral mandate.

Yet here we have a situation not dissimilar to that which pertained to our membership of the European Union, where all three main parties supported the status quo. For the electorate, there was no meaningful way in which a preference could be expressed in a general election.

The only way to resolve the "consent" issue, allowing the electorate to decide on EU membership, was by arranging a referendum. Similarly, it would seem, the only way we, the people, could give our wholehearted (or majority) consent to a particular climate change policy would be via the mechanism of a referendum.

This is a device, the greater use of which we have long advocated through The Harrogate Agenda and now the need is greater than ever. Without a referendum, the current climate change policy lacks the explicit consent of the people and exposes a massive democratic deficit in our system of government.

There are some, however – like George Monbiot - who argue that the climate change issue is so important and the need for action so pressing, that we should mobilise society's resources on a wartime footing, leading people to accept the requirement for radical changes in their behaviour (and reductions in wealth).

Others, like Ambrose Evans-Pritchard asserts that, far from being a burden, "net zero" would deliver an economic windfall, based on "unstoppable leaps and bounds in known technology".

The net gain, he writes, is $26 trillion (£19 trillion), or $14 trillion under cautious assumptions, and the faster it happens, the bigger the benefit. It can be achieved in 25 years, beating the global target of 2050. Most changes, he adds, do not require lavish state funding any more than public money is needed to make mobile phones.

Both of these propositions are arguable. Their merits and weaknesses could easily fuel a vibrant public debate and significantly influence public attitudes to, and support for, a strongly proactive policy stance. But neither protagonist suggests that their views should be framed in the context of a referendum.

And yet, Philip Johnston's dictum is unarguable. Without the country behind the climate change policy, there is very little chance of the ambitious targets being met. Already, we see the emergence of public opposition, where a YouGov poll has 76 percent of respondents expressing concern about climate change, but with 27 percent indicating opposition to a ban on new petrol or diesel vehicles.

In the way of things, as the date of the ban gets closer, and more people start to focus on the practical implications (and the costs), attitudes will polarise and resistance may stiffen. At the point at which maximum support for the policy will be needed, the lack of popular consent may be decisive.

And while the UK car manufacturing industry might have been bludgeoned and bribed into producing all-electric cars, there will be plenty of foreign suppliers willing to fill the gap as the British government of 2030 – when the ban is due to come into force – is compelled to order a suspension.

Notably, the YouGov poll doesn't ask about heat pumps and the abolition of natural gas boilers. Presumably, with this issue only just coming into the public domain, the pollster might have thought that it was too early to seek a settled opinion on such a technical subject.

Certainly, greater public debate would help define the issues, and expose some of the considerable weaknesses in Johnson's position. At the moment, we are moving towards a ban on gas boilers in new houses, from 2025, and an ambition that all new heating systems installed in UK homes from 2035 should be "low carbon".

Bearing in mind that it is unlikely that hydrogen as a domestic fuel will be ready for a nation-wide roll-out until at least 2050 – if then – the only alternative on offer before then might be one form or other of the heat pump, at eye-watering costs to the average consumer.

But there are considerations other than cost. There are serious technical issues in installing these devices in older dwellings, with 23 percent of houses in the private sector having been built before 1919. Furthermore, 17 percent of the housing stock (4.1 million homes) fails to meet the government's "decent homes" standard, the larger proportion of these being privately rented.

Johnson wants the change-over to be market-led, but take-up is likely to be slow. Any economic advantages depend heavily on the availability of (non-existent) cheap electricity, especially as most heat pumps will be unable to heat sufficient water for most household needs, or to safe temperatures to suppress Legionella growth.

Supplementary electric heating will be required in most houses and, in many, it will be the only form of heating if the ban goes through – unaffordable to low-income residents. And private landlords, many of whom are already failing to maintain basic standards (in the context of lax enforcement), are going to need heavy persuasion to invest in expensive heating systems.

All of this points to the need for an intensive and searching public debate, and direct approval from the people, especially those who will be most affected – with major policy modifications where current ambitions are shown to be unrealistic. And, in such matters, informed democratic consent is not an optional extra. It is an essential precondition to successful policy implementation.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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