Should the world radically restrict fossil fuels to prevent climate change?

In my debate with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., I shared six facts about energy and climate that led me to my conclusion that we should not radically restrict fossil fuels. I believe widespread human flourishing requires that the world continue and even expand fossil fuel use in the coming decades.

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This Wednesday my team and I will review and fact-check the debate on my podcast, Power Hour.

3 facts that changed my perspective on our energy choices

Fact 1: Over the last 200 years entrepreneurs have tried to produce low-cost, reliable energy using many different fuels—including sun, wind, water, wood, crops, geothermal heat, tides, waves, uranium, thorium, oil, coal, gas

Source: Vaclav Smil (2017) 

Fact 2: Despite the existence of many forms of energy production, fossil fuels are the energy of choice over 80% of the time and are also the world’s fastest-growing (in absolute terms) source of energy.

Sources: Vaclav Smil (2017) and BP Statistical Review of World Energy

Fact 3: Solar and wind depend on backup from reliable fuels and the more they are used the more expensive energy is. 

Overall, what we find is that the more wind and solar a country uses, the higher its electricity prices. 

Source: Samuele Furfari, The Changing World of Energy and the Geopolitical Challenges: Understanding Energy Developments, 2017.

Why? Since the sun and wind can fall to almost nothing, as happens in Germany, they require 100% backup from fossil fuels. 

Sources: European Energy Exchange Transparency Platform Data, Federal Statistical Office of Germany Genesis Online Database (German language)

This means that the only possible savings from solar and wind is fuel savings when the sun happens to be shining and the wind happens to be blowing. But that is miniscule compared to the fuel loss that comes from inefficiently ramping reliable fuels up and down in order to accommodate erratic solar and wind power.

Result: Average household electricity prices in Germany have more than doubled since 2000, leaving Germany with the among the highest electricity prices in the developed world—3 to 4 times what American households pay.

Source: Eurostat Energy Main Tables

Conclusion: The quality of life in the wealthy and poor world in the next several decades requires continued massive fossil fuel use. Significant, let alone radical, restrictions would come at a catastrophic human cost.

3 facts that  changed my perspective on the significance of fossil fuels’ climate side effects

Fact 1: Environmental thought leaders have been predicting imminent climate doom for 30+ years.

Leading ecologist Paul Ehrlich (1969): “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

Source: Speech at British Institute For Biology, quoted in New Scientist and Science Journal, September 1971.

Leading climate scientist John Holdren: “As University of California physicist John Holdren has said, it is possible that carbon-dioxide climate-induced famines could kill as many as a billion people before the year 2020.”

Source: Quoted in Paul Ehrlich, The Machinery of Nature (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 274.

1989: Associated Press reports top UN Environment Program Official predicts “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000.”

Source: Peter James Spielmann, Associated Press, “U.N. Predicts Disaster if Global Warming Not Checked,” June 29, 1989

Fact 2: Human beings are safer from climate today than we’ve ever been.

Low-cost, reliable energy from fossil fuels empowers us to make our climate safer.

How many climate related deaths in 2018? 5625. 

Sources: Carbon dioxide Information analysis Center Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions Global Annual Time Series, Scripps Institution of Oceanography merged ice core data, Emergency Events Database EM-DAT

Fact 3: While prominent models have predicted runaway warming and rapid sea level rises, we have experienced warming of only 2 degrees Fahrenheit  in the last 150 years with sea level rises that are very slow compared to our ancestors.

On a human scale, the changes in climate we’ve experienced so far are not devastating, but noticeable without advanced measurements 

Source: UK MetOffice Hadley Centre HadCRUT4 data

We are at historically low levels of CO2—and CO2 is not very closely correlated with temperatures. 

Source: Nasif Nahle, “Geologic Global Climate Changes

Sea level rise is far slower today than in the past. And though it may be slightly accelerating in recent years, it’s nothing like the doomsday scenarios we often hear about. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Climate summary: We are having a mild warming influence on climate that we can readily adapt to.

The best policy is to have freedom to use all forms of energy, including fossil fuels and including ending the criminalization of nuclear by the modern environmental movement.

Radical restrictions, let alone with continued criminalization of nuclear, would be genocidal.

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