A Free-Market Energy Blog

Requiem for COP26: James Watt (‘the king said sail, but the wind said no…’)

By Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak -- November 16, 2021

“If social justice were the outcome COP26 attendees desired, they would do well to articulate how they meant to replicate the reliable, economical, and land-sparing fossil-fuel-based power generation and transportation now within reach of most of humanity.”

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, (COP26), concluded last week in Glasgow, Scotland. As usual, activists traveled to the event using carbon-fueled vehicles to demand that carbon-based fuels be left in the ground (including those in the developing world) in the name of social justice.

As many readers of this blog and some local climate change activists know, James Watt (1736–1819) was born and performed his first experiments to improve the steam engine not far from where the UN meeting took place. Watt ended up doing his most important work and is buried in Birmingham, where a series of events were organized two years ago to celebrate the bicentenary of his death.

Woke at University of Glasgow

Glasgow, too, claims some of his legacy, including the University of Glasgow, once Watt’s employer, whose school of engineering bears his name.

As could be expected, a spokesperson for the university recently tried to appease a few Extinction Rebellion activists dressed in petroleum-derived clothing who had chained their necks to the university gate (both of which would not have existed without coal). Their complaint was Watt.

The woke officials responded by telling the protesters that their institution was the first university in Scotland “to declare a Climate Emergency” and that it was committed to “the ambitious target of achieving net carbon neutrality by 2030.”

Watt, Still the Hero

One wonders how past generations of Scots would have reacted to this implicit indictment of Watt, a  hero of modernity whose legacy has long been celebrated in memorials, images and print. Perhaps a few lines published shortly after Watt’s death in the prelude to a historical novel by that most romantic of Scotsmen, Sir Walter Scott, could remind the COP26 attendees of the debt they still owe to carbon fuel pioneers:

… Mr. Watt, the man whose genius discovered the means of multiplying our national resources to a degree perhaps even beyond his own stupendous powers of calculation and combination; bringing the treasures of the abyss to the summit of the earth—giving the feeble arm of man the momentum of an Afrite[1]—commanding manufactures to arise, as the rod of the prophet produced water in the desert—affording the means of dispensing with that time and tide which wait for no man, and of sailing without that wind which defied the commands and threats of Xerxes himself. [2]

{Footnote: Probably the ingenious author alludes to the national adage: The king said sail, But the wind said no. Our schoolmaster (who is also a land surveyor) thinks this whole passage refers to Mr. Watt’s improvements on the steam engine.—Note by Captain Clutterbuck.}

This potent commander of the elements—this abridger of time and space—this magician, whose cloudy machinery has produced a change on the world, the effects of which, extraordinary as they are, are perhaps only now beginning to be felt—was not only the most profound man of science, the most successful combiner of powers and calculator of numbers as adapted to practical purposes,—was not only one of the most generally well-informed,—but one of the best and kindest of human beings.

As Sir Walter observed, using fossil fuel power has allowed everyone who can afford fossil fuel engines such as a gas furnace, a diesel generator, or a car to control their environment and make their days more productive. In their way, these devices have brought a degree of social equalization undreamt of before their truly widespread use.

If social justice were the outcome COP26 attendees desired, they would do well to articulate how they meant to replicate the reliable, economical and land-sparing fossil-fuel-based power generation and transportation now within reach of most of humanity. Perhaps the carbon-based “combiners of powers” have been such effective social emancipators that some activists have confused social justice with social control?


[1] Sir Scott’s spelling of the word ifrit, a demon or a djinn.

[2] Probably the ingenious author alludes to the national adage: The king said sail, But the wind said no. Our schoolmaster (who is also a land surveyor) thinks this whole passage refers to Mr. Watt’s improvements on the steam engine.—Note by Captain Clutterbuck.}

One Comment for “Requiem for COP26: James Watt (‘the king said sail, but the wind said no…’)”


  1. John W. Garrett  

    “There is nothing more frightening than ignorance in action.”
    -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Reply

Leave a Reply