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The Extinction Rebellion seems to be going nicely. The BBC likes the photogenic shots of protesters; the ‘Torygraph’ thunders at it; it tickles the tummies of the likes of Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot; ‘luvvies’ fly in from Los Angeles to join it; and hypocrisy and “posh eco-loons” abound for Guido Fawkes to satirise.

Like all good protests, it both highlights and draws attention away from a particularly pressing problem. Climate change is indeed a vital issue, about which little sense is spoken. The protesters, and many on the left, correctly point to the idiocy of denialists on the right, who either pretend climate change isn’t happening, or refuse to accept its clear links with collective human behaviour. It is very worrying when senior figures set themselves up in opposition to the best scientific practice, rather than using their best judgement about how to use science in policy making, which is the politicians’ duty.

However, denialism isn’t only a monster of the right. The left is in denial, twice over: first, by ignoring home truths about the problems of combating climate change, and second, by denying that they are in denial and laying blame at the door of  “big business and conservative politics”.

They also blame ‘spineless’ governments. Ninety-four of my colleagues praised Extinction Rebellion in 2018, supporting “demands for the government to tell the hard truth to its citizens.” This ignores the UK government’s decent record in comparison with its peers, with emission levels 43% lower than 1990 levels. Although this is not, admittedly, a high bar. But even putting that aside, to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 isn’t really in a government’s gift, without it taking on all sorts of dramatic powers to suppress economic activity and the liberty of private citizens. Quite apart from the potential totalitarian overreach, net carbon emission is the total of millions of datapoints, only a few of which the government has control over.

Green technology can no doubt help, and the left would like to tax the rich, yet this is tinkering round the edges. Ultimately, one clear method for reducing carbon emissions is to lower economic activity across the board. Which is to say we all need to become poorer, or behave as if we are poorer, which amounts to the same thing. Occasionally, activists will put this case, arguing for rationing air flights for instance. But it would go way beyond this – no fashion, duller food, less light, less travel. It would mean less Instagram and Spotify. The cloud – smartphones, data centres, other infrastructure – is at least as serious an environmental issue as air travel.

Governments certainly don’t tell their citizens “the hard truth” about their requirement to consume less, but then neither do many academics, activists or green politicians. Rises in petrol prices for environmental reasons tend to provoke protests of their own, from the fuel protests of 2000 to the gilets jaunes of aujourd’hui. Activists secretly admire their violent audacity, while apparently doublethinking that more radical measures to curb car use than putting 2p on a litre of petrol would have far less effect on the tempers of what they like to call “ordinary working people”. On the contrary, there is no evidence whatsoever of any appetite, beyond a small ideologically-driven core, for restricting freedoms to consume, own and travel, and no evidence that any offer on those lines would fare very well at the ballot box. Brighton’s Green Party split every which way under the pressure of reality when it ran the council for four years, before losing half of its seats.

The tragedy is that climate change is a collective action problem that demands global sacrifice and constraint, while green philosophy is utterly bereft of ideas, as it peddles radical cures that would be worse than the disease. Of the tens of millions of people who died in famines in the twentieth century, many died in or after wars, but the majority succumbed to radical social engineering, whether China’s Great Leap Forward, the collectivisation of the Soviet Union, or the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to create a rural egalitarian society. Bob Geldof berated us in 1984-5 about the famine in Ethiopia, as if Western consumers were responsible, instead of the Derg regime which had reformed and collectivised farmland. Even now, if you want to find hungry people, look in the socialist paradises of Venezuela, Zimbabwe and North Korea. The terrible effects of green radicalism don’t feature as a datum to denialist activists.

It is indeed the success of capitalism that is the root of our climate troubles. Denialists of the right defend it but refuse to think about how it must adapt. Anti-capitalist denialists delude themselves that we can just get rid of it without massive and fatal disruption. Democrats are in denial about the deep unpopularity that serious measures would engender, both (for different reasons) in the rich world and emergent economies.

The right needs to listen to the environmental scientists; the left to the economists. And democrats of all stripes need to revitalise the representative principle over direct democracy, to allow practical leadership to prevail over the current dialogue of the deaf.

Kieron O’Hara is an associate fellow of Bright Blue and associate professor at the University of Southampton. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.