Sure, we should be doing something about climate change. Largely we are too – we’ve already avoided the worst of RCP 8.5 by having invented fracking for example. The renewables part of energy generation continues to rise, insulation of housing is, for the UK, largely done and so on. Even electric – and probably the better technology in the end, fuel cell – cars are gaining market share and so on. The idea that we’re not doing anything is false and that we’re not doing enough equally so.
It would also be cool for there to be lots of lovely value added stuff that those currently not working could do. That doesn’t though mean that the unemployed should be building windmills. That’s not how things work because trade.
You see, the neglect of the north and the climate emergency are two problems in search of a common solution. A debate about how we reshape the post-pandemic economy should be welcomed, even if it is coming from the Tory benches. Across the globe, the coronavirus has underlined how states can mobilise vast resources to confront an unprecedented crisis when the will is there. While the virus has required the suppression of economic activity, the climate emergency seeks to reorientate that activity away from fatally harming the only home our species has. That means replacing the skilled, secure jobs stripped away from northern communities by deindustrialisation.
Sure, we can all see the appeal to economic idiots. Here’s stuff that needs to be done, there’s peeps looking for something to do. Eureka!
At which point Chesterton’s Fence. Why isn’t this already being done? Why has the world turned out like it has instead?
That’s one reason why Labour’s promise in the 2019 election of a green industrial revolution must not sink with Corbynism. Tackling the climate emergency must mean a northern manufacturing renaissance. As Mika Minio-Paluello, an energy economist with Transition Economics, notes, countries such as France, Taiwan and Turkey insist that companies seeking to build wind farms there must also build factories producing nacelles – the part of the turbine housing the wind turbine’s components. “But if you look at the UK,” she tells me, “we built loads but without the jobs.” A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson announced a £160m investment package to upgrade ports and infrastructure to boost offshore wind capacity: it sounds impressive, but after years of neglect, it is not close to being adequate. To put this in perspective, a single Danish port received investment of £122m. As a Transition Economics report earlier this year concluded, £1.3bn of public investment – matched by the same amount from other sources – is what is really needed.
There is our explanation. Building the windmills using that northern labour will cost us £2.6 billion more than buying the stuff in from J. Foreigner. For, d’ye see, J Foreigner is better at doing this than we are. Or, if you prefer the correct view of comparative advantage, among the things we can be doing we are less bad at doing things other than building windmills. So, being less bad at them then we should be doing those other things than building windmills.
A certain D Ricardo explained this all to us 203 years ago. About time it was grasped really. We are made richer by allowing other people to build the windmills while we do something else.