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27 October 2021

The Art of the Possible


“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable - the art of the next best”, said Otto von Bismarck, the man who achieved the unification of myriad German states, duchies, principalities, electorates and the rest, under the leadership of Prussia. Of course, to do it, he instigated three wars - against Denmark, Austria and France - so we can probably say his methods were not universally popular, and one of the results of the unification was the strengthening of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which reached its peak (nadir?) with Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Great War. So not all good, then.

But what he says is valid; the art of the possible, rational pragmatism, not making the perfect the enemy of the good - these are the kind of principals that have seen free-market, capitalist nations and economies flourish. 

And so we come to the question of energy supplies and the related - closely related - issue of climate change and the need to decarbonise the world. The politicians are competing with each other - “change done by 2050 - no, 2035 - no, 2030!”  “I can be greener than you - no more fossil fuels at all!” And so on. And all very laudable; but possible? Attainable? The next best? I fear Bismarck’s pragmatism is flying out of the window.

Now, just to be clear: I am not a scientist, my comments are in that sense made from a position of a fair degree of ignorance. However, I would also point out that the vast majority of global politicians who make the policies are not scientists either. They too have to rely on what they read and what they are told. But then they add to that what they think plays well to the gallery.

We can start from the premise that decarbonising is a good thing, and the reasons for that are clear enough not to need rehashing here. However, the way it’s done is very important, so let’s just look at some of what I would consider to have been egregious mistakes. (The order of these is not supposed to be a ranking, by the way.)

The Japanese built a nuclear power generation plant on or close to the Ring of Fire at Fukushima. There was an earthquake, and the resultant damage released harmful radiation. OK, perhaps we could learn not to site those things in those places. But Angela Merkel - Chancellor of a country where I believe the serious earthquake threat is accepted at close to zero - went further, and almost overnight closed down all of Germany’s nuclear electricity generating capacity, in case of a similar accident(!) The result of that decision is that Germany is now pretty much Europe’s worst polluter and six of the ten dirtiest gas emitters in Europe are German coal-fired plants. That’s not going to help decarbonise, is it?

Successive British governments have acted irrationally, as well. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that in moving from coal-fired to renewable power generation, there will be a need for a transition fuel for the changeover period. Neither do you to grasp the basic fact that wind and solar power will always need a back-up. In the rocks under the countryside is a wealth of gas; to get it out requires the process of fracking. But the climate protesters don’t like fracking (forget that they don’t really understand it), so the governments gave in, and instead what does the UK do? Starts to import wood chips from North America, on diesel-powered ocean freighters. I would hazard a guess that the carbon footprint of that exercise is not too different from carrying on with the coal. The claim, of course, is that the trees are renewable; true,  but you can plant trees even if you’re not  burning them…..

I could go on…. Dumb decisions over nuclear power, leading to hugely expensive (probable) white elephants like Hinckley Point, instead of small, local nuclear generators, which are cheaper and diversify the risk. Wave power and tidal power - probably the best source of all, because they are both more reliable than sun or wind (let’s face it, if the tides stop, we’ve probably got a really major problem) - why is there not more investment in developing these? (Incidentally, on this one I do have knowledge; over the years, I’ve sailed with and against enough of the tides around the British coast to say unequivocally that they have the power and the constancy to do what we need.) 

One of the first things Joe Biden did when he took power was to cancel the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada down to the US. The result of that? A need to go begging to OPEC to increase the flow, to dampen rising prices, to protect his opinion poll ratings, such as they are.

Sadly, I could indeed go on with yet more, but I think these examples give the flavour. 

But don’t worry! 

Very soon all these top-level ‘decision-makers’ will be flying in to the rubbish-strewn streets of Glasgow (because their travel doesn’t create pollution, don’t you know - a bit like a vampire having no shadow, I suppose) to make their telling pronouncements of how they can solve it all, although sadly that may mean life becomes a bit harder for all us little people, at the much-vaunted COP26. Not to worry, though, they’ll be OK in their limos, private jets, grace-and-favour accomodation…..

I suspect Bismarck wasn’t a very nice man, and I don’t have much sympathy with his authoritarian politics, but wouldn’t the climate and energy problem be so much better addressed by seeking the possible, the attainable, rather than a full frontal dash for the Holy Grail, with no thought for the collateral damage? But then, Bismarck didn't have to concern himself with vocal minority protesters or a gullible electorate.

 

    

  

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