50 Shades of Frost.

Lord Frost must have choked over his freshly ironed copy of the Daily Telegraph this morning. Spread across the wide open spaces of its front page – because, as long as there is an England, the Telegraph will forever be a broadsheet – was a map with the whole of Southern England coloured red.

This is to show the areas in which – in the current drought – wildfires are just a flicked match, barbecue ember, or suns rays concentrated through a thrown away bottle away. As the wildfire in Wennington showed at the end of last month, if vegetation and buildings are dry enough, and the winds are strong enough, a small fire can spread out of control and burn down whole streets. We should note that Wennington is on the edge of Rainham marshes, not an area we would normally expect to catch fire. In fact, we got lucky that time, because the winds were quite low. So, anyone who owns a property in that red zone, which stretches right across the Tory heartlands of the soft South, has real reason to be worried.; which would be why the Telegraph published it.

But, this is where ideological dissonance slips in. The Telegraph puts a lot of effort into bigging up all the forces on the Tory right, from Lords Lawson and Frost, to Steve Baker and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, who like to argue that Climate Breakdown is all a woke plot; that because dealing with it requires a fairer society that would be uncomfortable for people like them, not dealing with it, while hoping with Mr Micawber that “something will turn up”, is the better option.

Indeed, this is just two days after Frost opined in an essay on Public Exchange, that “there is no evidence” that the UK faces a climate emergency.

One can only conclude that he goes through life with his eyes. and ears firmly shut, and has not bothered to read very much. He could just look around him. Perhaps, like so many “non elite” Brexit supporting members of the House of Lords, he hasn’t been around to notice what’s going on here because he’s off on holiday somewhere continental. But, he can’t really miss it there either. If he is in Italy, perhaps he has noticed coverage of the drought that has cause the Po river to dry up on parts of its course. If he has passed through Germany, he might have noticed that the Rhine is now so low that shipping is being restricted. If he has gone to the United States, he can’t have missed the epic drought and wildfires there this Summer which have produced fire tornadoes in California; or the floods in Kentucky that washed whole houses down streets turned into torrents. Had he popped up to the Arctic for a bit of whale spotting, he might have been made aware that it is heating up four times faster than the rest of the planet and the permafrost is melting 43 times as fast as it was.

If he wants some written evidence, maybe he should just read the latest IPCC Report. Current policies, which he thinks are too fast, have us heading for a 2.7C average temperature rise by the end of the century. Crisis? What crisis?

But, of course, he is from a political current that dislikes “experts” and prefers its own prejudices whenever that’s more convenient.

Frost’s proposals are designed to make other people, in poorer parts of the world, pay the price for the over consumption of people like him.

He blathers complacently on – with that blithe self confidence that so many upper class people have, that if you state total bollocks with enough conviction you can disregard any evidence to the contrary – “the prevailing mood is one in which individuals are asked to restrict their use of energy and in which unsatisfactory renewables technology is touted as the best solution to our problems. Instead of focusing on technological solutions that enable us to master our environment and get more energy in a more carbon-efficient way — nuclear, CCS, fracking, one day fusion – we have focused on managing demand so we can use medieval technology like wind power.”

This is such flabby thinking that it beggars belief that he can be taken seriously by anyone with a fragment of critical intelligence. But, let’s look at them one at a time anyway.

  1. “Individuals are asked to restrict their use of energy”. At the moment, the biggest pressure forcing people to reduce their use of energy is the rapid increase in fossil fuel prices (and the profits of the energy producing companies that flow from them). Frost does not favour taxing those profits to give people a break. He stands for the free market (in this context). Nor does he favour an insulation programme that would allow people to keep warm and cook food, using less energy and getting lower bills as a result. Using less energy means less demand for fossil fuels, therefore fewer profits for the producers. Can’t have that, can we? This is of a piece with his complaint in the Brexit campaign that the EU was introducing standards to force vacuum cleaners to become more efficient – on the grounds that a proper clean needs to burn lots of joules. Vacuum cleaning for petrolheads.
  2. That “unsatisfactory renewables technology”, overtook fossil fuels in UK electricity generation in 2020. “Medieval” wind power produced 24% of UK energy demand in 2020, increased 715% from 2009 to 2020 and is now much cheaper per Kilowatt hour than fossil fuels or nuclear; and steadily getting even cheaper. That reduces bills. Once the turbines are up or the solar panels installed, the wind and the sunshine is free. “Unsatisfactory” for fossil fuel producers, no doubt. Very helpful for the rest of us. Oddly, Lord Frost does not seem so keen on “the market” here. He wants to restrict renewables as such. Perhaps not as suicidally keen as France’s Marine Le Pen, who wants to “tear down” turbines that are already up; but in the way that the Conservatives have restricted onshore wind with all sorts of planning “red tape”. You’d think, with onshore wind being among the cheapest energy sources, he’d want to cut the restrictions and “let the market work its magic”; but not a bit of it. You’d think, as a patriotic Brexiteer wedded to notions of “energy security”, he’d want to make the most of an energy source that doesn’t have to be imported. He could make a bit of a campaign of it, painting them red, white and blue and calling them “Freedom Farms”; with banner headlines in the Tory Press screaming “It’s Britain’s Wind!” But, no. If its low prices for energy users with fewer carbon emissions on the one hand, and sustained fossil fuel profits generating billowing clouds of carbon dioxide on the other, its no contest.
  3. In full macho mode, Lord Frost prefers “technological solutions that enable us to master our environment” (my emphasis). So butch. 50 shades of Frost. Let’s see what he has in his special room. “Nuclear, CCS, fracking, one day fusion“. While its in the nature of denial for people to clutch at straws, this is a peculiarly old fashioned vision of modernity. Taking them backwards, which seems an oddly appropriate thing to do… “Fusion” has been the holy grail for nuclear power that has been full of promise for at least 50 years; but has never actually arrived. This year, next year, sometime, never. He might as well argue that “one day” we will power ourselves with Unicorn farts. “Fracking” for oil and gas. No one wants a fracking site in their backyard. Presumably Frost wants to enforce them on unwilling communities “in the national interest” of the profits made by the fracking companies. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed that oil and gas are fossil fuels. So, not a solution to a problem created by burning too many fossil fuels. And not a “carbon efficient” way to generated energy. “Carbon Capture and Storage.” The IPCC Report made it very clear that this is not a technology capable of economic deployment at the scale needed. Indeed, given that this would be such a “get out of jail free” card for carbon intensive industries, you’d think that it would have been developed by now. Instead, rather like fusion, it is the solution that’s just around the corner; and has been for decades. “Nuclear”. There is an argument about how “low carbon” nuclear energy generation is. What is in no doubt is that it is immensely costly. Costlier than fossil fuels. Costlier than renewables. And slow. By So, Frost’s “solutions” are a mix of unproven wishful thinking combined with a cavalier disregard for costs; both environmental and financial. And, that’s it.

With the whole of Southern England a tinder box, perhaps the threat of wildfires in the backyards of prosperous Tory speissburgers might make a few of them pay attention – especially if house price values start being affected. But, with Frost highly influential with Liz Truss, and medieval thinkers like John Redwood slated for cabinet posts in our new and unimproved Conservative government, we can expect a lurch even further to the right. Their problem is that its only possible to safely deny reality so long as that reality isn’t imposing itself on people’s lives, as climate breakdown is. It has been argued that climate is “above politics”. It isn’t, as Lord Frost and his ilk demonstrate. But the reality of it is foundational to any politics that is relevant from here on. We’re not in the Holocene any more Toto.

Full English Brexit

In the ironically named “Planet Normal” Daily Telegraph podcast, truculent rosbif Lord Frost – AKA “Frosty the no man” – spells out the way ahead for the go for broke Tory right.

He has two main points.

Lockdown was a bad idea.

In that breathtaking way that Tories have of stating the exact opposite of the facts with breezy self confidence, he says that when the pandemic is viewed in hindsight, the UK has “come out relatively positively” but that the country will look back on lockdowns as a “serious public policy mistake”.

“Relatively positively”? Compared with who I wonder? With a death rate of 2,257 per million (and rising) the UK is 25th worst out of 207 countries. We have done better than 24. Worse than 182.

So, relatively positive compared with the USA (2,567 per million) or Poland (2,670 per million) Croatia (3,197) or Peru (6,248); but really grim compared with Ireland (1,221) or Kazakhstan (987) or Cuba (735) or Vietnam (364); let alone Japan (145) or South Korea (121) or Australia (101) or New Zealand (11) or China (<4).

The only comparable West European countries that have done worse are Belgium and Italy.

The countries that have done worst are mostly in Eastern Europe or Latin America; often countries that had a denialist leadership for at least part of the pandemic – like the USA or Brazil. The countries that have done best are those that have followed an active Covid suppression policy throughout the pandemic, like China, or for most of it, like New Zealand or Australia; or large numbers of countries in the Global South in which the average life expectancy does not reach the elderly age groups most at risk of death.

Please note the difference in scales between this graph and the European one. The Japan block here is far fewer people (151) than the Norway block above (258).

To get into a reductio ad absurdum with the country that has done best, for every 1 person who has died of Covid in China, 650 have died in the UK. Quite an achievement.

Perhaps he is less concerned with deaths – which disproportionately affect people who are old, or poor, or live in overcrowded conditions, work in front line jobs or are ethnic minority – than with “the economy”. As he says, “There haven’t been enough voices challenging the epidemiologists. There hasn’t been enough of a voice of the economy in this, [or] an attempt to get to grips with the trade-offs.” So, there we have it. On the one hand we have mass deaths. On the other, money to be made. As the Deputy Business correspondent of the Daily Telegraph put it at the start of the pandemic, a viral cull of the economically inactive elderly – sitting in care homes costing a fortune – would be “mildly beneficial”. Not something to lose any sleep about. With 175,000 excess deaths since March 2020, that’s that box ticked.

Had there been no lockdown early on, far more people would have died. The most recent waves have been blunted by mass vaccination. Vaccination did not start until December 2020. The only way to stop the first wave was to lock down hard. It worked. Even though it came late and reluctantly – with many Tories wanting to “take it on the chin”; in the hope that if enough infections ripped through the population quickly enough, the survivors would be immune by the Summer, we could bury our dead and move on. But a collapsed Health Service in the meantime would have scuppered their government, so they couldn’t risk it.

By May, cases were low enough that another couple of weeks could have had them in the sort of territory that would have required an effective test, trace and isolate system to keep them under control. Instead the government opened up too quickly. Resistance to school reopening from the teaching unions helped slow down the inevitable viral rebound, which took off apace from the start of the autumn term. The influence of people like Lord Frost in the Conservative Party stopped the government taking the necessary action before it was too late to stop another wave of mass infections, hospitalisations and deaths last winter.

So, unless Frost is rewriting History, or has a serious case of amnesia, it is quite clear that without the lockdowns in 2020 we’d have had an awful lot more dead people. Obviously “a serious policy mistake.”

He is also against what he calls “Covid theatre” – like masks – possibly because, as well as helping stop infections spreading, they are a visible sign of both the seriousness of the virus and an act of conspicuous social solidarity that shows there is such a thing as society (and that will never do).

‘Don’t rush on net zero’

As if that’s what they’re doing! Because there’s really no hurry is there?

He says, “I think climate change is a significant problem. I just don’t think it’s necessarily the most significant problem that the country faces at the moment.”  By the time it is, it will be too late. This is like the Veneto Regional Council voting against climate control measures minutes before having to evacuate their council chamber to escape rising flood waters. As for them, so for Lord Frost. Everything will be under control and normal. Until it isn’t. As he says, “I would not run at it. I would pace it a bit, if we must set ourselves this net zero objective.” IF WE MUST…get off our arses and do something, lets not go at the pace needed (7% CO2 reductions on an annual basis) let’s amble along hoping that someone else will take up the slack.

In California and British Columbia this summer, people in small towns like Greenville and Quincy would have seen everything looking normal until minutes before wildfires burned them to the ground. Perhaps Lord Frost didn’t get a look at the news during the Summer to see all those wildfires and floods. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed the melting permafrost and glaciers and the impending sea level rises. Or the droughts. Or the hurricanes and typhoons that are multiplying and moving into more “temperate” zones. Or the mass extinctions. Or the Amazon being on the verge of tipping into savannah. Still, there’s no rush is there and we have to pace ourselves…

What he is against is exactly what’s needed.

  • As fossil fuel bills rise because of rising gas prices, he wants to slow down the transition away from them. An argument that the investment in transition should not be loaded onto consumer’s bills is one thing, arguing to scrap them altogether is another. Neither he, nor anyone in the Net Zero Watch group makes the distinction.
  • He is against state investment in renewable technology (“picking winners”) because, unlike Deng Xiao Peng, he doesn’t care whether the cat catches mice as long as its privately owned. The record of leaving it to the market – when it comes to insulation and retrofitting for example – holds no lessons for him. At the current pace of insulation, 50,000 houses a year – many of them bodged by half trained white van men – we will have finished doing the 26 million homes the UK needs doing to hit net zero by 2050 in 2541. I’m not sure if that’s a leisurely enough pace for Lord Frost, but it doesn’t look like they are breaking much of a sweat to me.

As he puts it, with great precision “We’re bringing in measures that are sort of unnecessary, too soon.” He doesn’t specify what these are, but presumably he’d rather bring them in when its too late.

He is also in favour of using Brexit to go for wholesale deregulation of course.

So – the programme for a proper Tory government, with none of this leveling up pinkwash posturing: Freedom for the virus! Lord make me green but not yet! Take back decontrol!