Net Zero Becomes All Dissonance and No Cognition | Mint

Net Zero Becomes All Dissonance and No Cognition

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Feb. 7. PHOTO: LIESA JOHANNSSEN/REUTERS
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Feb. 7. PHOTO: LIESA JOHANNSSEN/REUTERS

Summary

Politicians have trapped themselves into waging a crusade voters say they want but won’t pay for.

The fault, dear Olaf, lies not in ourselves but in our voters.

That, with apologies to Shakespeare, is starting to look like an explanation for the net-zero agonies now engulfing German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and many other Western politicians. It’s both fun and accurate to lambaste our political class for its many climate hypocrisies and idiocies. But as climate policy becomes more expensive and less coherent by the week, voters deserve more and more of the blame.

A clue lies in a report released this week by the Ifo Institute, a think tank in Germany. Some 55% of respondents said they believe their country should play a leading role in the global effort to combat climate change, in a poll of Germans conducted last September. Considerably fewer were willing to pay anything for it. Asked their preferred measures for achieving net zero, only 16% supported mandates such as a ban on natural-gas-fired home heating that would impose direct costs on households. Eight percent supported an explicit carbon tax, the most economically efficient way to reduce emissions.

The punch line is that Germans’ most popular option for addressing climate change was “targeted subsidies for climate-friendly measures," which 28% of respondents supported. Note the timing. This poll was conducted before a constitutional court ruling in November disallowed Berlin’s preferred method for using off-balance-sheet government borrowing to fund climate-related subsidies. Germans supported climate subsidies when it looked like free money.

Not anymore. The admission that subsidies must be funded by tax increases or offsetting spending cuts has cast Mr. Scholz’s administration into a crisis from which it might not recover. Case in point: A mass protest—by farmers, as it happens—erupted when Berlin tried to inch toward a policy vaguely resembling a carbon tax. The administration had to backtrack. Whatever else voters say they want on climate, people really, really don’t want to redistribute the costs of mitigation toward those who emit more carbon—at least not if Johann Q. Publik thinks he might be the emitter in question.

I don’t mean to pick on the Germans, as rich a vein as that is. Everyone else is confused, too. A December poll in Britain found that 85% of respondents described climate change as “an important problem" facing the U.K. (with 46% of respondents describing it as the most important or one of the most important problems). Forty-one percent said they’d be more likely to vote for a party that promised strong action on climate change vs. 33% who said they’d be more likely to vote for a party promising to slow down on climate policy.

Do they mean it? Of course not. The same poll found less than a quarter of respondents saying climate-change or net-zero policies would be “very important" in determining their votes in the election due this year. In a question for which respondents could choose more than one answer, 57% said they would vote based on policy promises concerning the National Health Service and healthcare, and 55% said they’d focus on the parties’ approaches to inflation.

Surveys in several large European economies in August found at least two-thirds of respondents in each country were worried about climate change—and totally unwilling to pay any personal costs to mitigate it. In: planting trees, subsidizing home insulation, taxing heavily emitting companies. Out: banning internal-combustion cars, limiting meat and dairy consumption, increasing fuel taxes. Hilarious: Voters support a frequent-flyer tax as long as they don’t think they’ll have to pay it themselves, since taxing all flights remains deeply unpopular.

Squaring the circles of our many and varied cognitive dissonances is what we as voters pay our politicians to do. The problem is that for years politicians have been leaning into the dissonance rather than the cognition.

By promulgating apocalyptic rhetoric about climate change, the climate-industrial complex in politics, academia, green tech and the media has persuaded voters that climate change is an existential danger. This is why 77% of Britons can tell a pollster that climate change is “a serious global threat" and Germans can come to view their global leadership on this issue in quasimoral terms. We don’t even talk about our beloved entitlements this way, let alone any other policy with the possible exception of immigration.

What a crash, then, as voters start noticing what net zero might cost them personally. Knowing that they can’t or won’t bear the costs themselves but also unable or unwilling to drop the moral crusade, voters instead demand ever more creative expenditures of someone else’s money to achieve climate goals.

This explains the reluctance of even moderately sensible politicians to admit what they’re so obviously doing: abandoning the climate project. Rollbacks of the most expensive, least popular climate measures, such as electric-vehicle mandates or agricultural-vehicle taxes, invariably are accompanied by pledges to keep doing something else for the climate at someone else’s expense.

It’s a note of caution for those of us breathing a sigh of relief at recent net-zero reversals. Voters are growing clearer-headed about what they aren’t prepared to pay to avert climate change. Yet true sanity won’t arrive until they’ve decided they also don’t care.

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