One of the most evil things you can do to a poor person is take away his freedom to improve his fate.
The United Nations and governments around the world are doing just this by pushing for massive restrictions on the energy of opportunity: fossil fuel energy.
The common narrative about fossil fuels is that by using so many of them, the developed world has done a great injustice to the underdeveloped world—an injustice that should be paid for via giant transfers of wealth to poorer governments. Not shockingly, the leaders of these governments have eagerly jumped onto this narrative and blamed more successful countries, the US above all, for their woes—and, in the process, signed onto massive global restrictions of fossil fuel use, including in their own countries.
Such restrictions are not merely strings attached—they are a noose attached. They would restrict the energy that underdeveloped countries need to grow and indeed to survive.
A brief history of development in the last three decades makes it clear that cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from fossil fuels is a winning formula for development and massive improvements in human life.
Consider China and India. In each country, both coal and oil use increased by at least a factor of 5 over the last 40 years, producing nearly all their energy—and both life expectancy and prosperity skyrocketed.
Sources: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014
The story is clear—both life expectancy and income increased rapidly, meaning that life got better for billions of people in just a few decades. For example, the infant mortality rate has plummeted in both countries—in China by 70 percent, which translates to 66 more children living per 1000 births. India has experienced a similar decrease, of 58 percent.
Not only in China and India, but around the world, hundreds of millions of individuals in industrializing countries have gotten their first lightbulb, their first refrigerator, their first decent-paying job, their first year with clean drinking water or a full stomach. To take one particularly wonderful statistic, global malnutrition and undernourishment have plummeted—by 39 percent and 40 percent, respectively, since 1990. That means, in a world with a growing population, billions of people are better fed than they would have been just a few decades ago. While there is plenty to criticize in how certain governments have handled industrialization, the big-picture effect has been amazingly positive so far.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many leading environmentalists had predicted that this would be not only deadly, but unnecessary due to the cutting-edge promise of solar and wind (sound familiar?). Then as now, environmental leaders were arguing that renewable energy combined with conservation—using less energy—was a viable replacement for fossil fuels.
Amory Lovins wrote in 1976: “Recent research suggests that a largely or wholly solar economy can be constructed in the United States with straightforward soft technologies that are now demonstrated and now economic or nearly economic.” Lovins was a sensation, and around the globe governments gave solar (and wind and ethanol) companies billions of dollars in the hope that they would be able to generate cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.
But they were completely wrong. Here is a graph of energy trends since 1980.
Source: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook
From the 1970s to the present, fossil fuels have overwhelmingly been the fuel of choice, particularly for developing countries. Today the world uses 39 percent more oil, 107 percent more coal, and 131 percent more natural gas than it did in 1980.
Solar and wind are a minuscule portion of world energy use. And even that is misleading because fossil fuel energy is reliable whereas solar and wind aren’t. While energy from, say, coal is available on demand so you can keep a refrigerator—or a respirator—on whenever you need it, solar energy is available only when the sun shines and the clouds cooperate, which means it can work only if it’s combined with a reliable source of energy, such as coal, gas, nuclear, or hydro.
Why did fossil fuel energy outcompete renewable energy—not just for existing energy production but for most new energy production? This trend is too consistent across too many countries to be ignored. The answer is simply that renewable energy couldn’t meet those countries’ energy needs, though fossil fuels could. While many countries wanted solar and wind, and in fact used a lot of their citizens’ money to prop up solar and wind companies, no one could figure out a cost-effective, scalable process to take sunlight and wind, which are dilute and intermittent forms of energy, and turn them into cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.
So despite the warnings of leading experts, people around the world nearly doubled their use of fossil fuels.
The poor benefited most of all—but they would have stayed destitute had we listened to leading environmentalists. Then, as now, there were thought-leaders saying this energy use shouldn’t have happened. Paul Ehrlich, the world’s leading ecologist for the past 40 years wrote, in the 1970s:
“Except in special circumstances, all construction of power generating facilities should cease immediately, and power companies should be forbidden to encourage people to use more power. Power is much too cheap. It should certainly be made more expensive and perhaps rationed, in order to reduce its frivolous use.”
In 1977, Amory Lovins, widely considered the leading energy thinker of the 1970s for his criticisms of fossil fuels and nuclear power and his support of solar power and reduced energy use, explained that we already used too much energy. And in particular, the kind of energy we least needed was . . . electricity, the foundation of the digital/information revolution: “[W]e don’t need any more big electric generating stations. We already have about twice as much electricity as we can use to advantage.”
In 1998, Bill McKibben endorsed a scenario of outlawing 60 percent of present fossil fuel use to slow catastrophic climate change, even though that would mean, in his words, that “each human being would get to produce 1.69 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually—which would allow you to drive an average American car nine miles a day. By the time the population increased to 8.5 billion, in about 2025, you’d be down to six miles a day. If you carpooled, you’d have about three pounds of CO2 left in your daily ration—enough to run a highly efficient refrigerator. Forget your computer, your TV, your stereo, your stove, your dishwasher, your water heater, your microwave, your water pump, your clock. Forget your light bulbs, compact fluorescent or not.”
All of these thinkers still advocate similar policies today—in fact, today Bill McKibben endorses a 95 percent ban on fossil fuel use, eight times as severe as the scenario described above!
Imagine if we had followed the advice of some of our leading advisers then, many of whom are some of our leading advisers now, to severely restrict the energy source that billions of people used to lift themselves out of poverty in the last thirty years? We would have caused billions of premature deaths—deaths that were prevented by our increasing use of fossil fuels.
The same will happen if we follow their prescription today. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called for the United States and other industrialized countries cut carbon emissions to 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2050—and the United States has joined hundreds of other countries in agreeing to this goal.
That would mean billions of premature deaths over the next thirty years and beyond. And the loss of a potentially amazing future.
Opposition to fossil fuels hurts the poor most of all. And that includes their danger from climate.
It is false that we are making the underdeveloped world more vulnerable to climate disaster.
Here is a graph of climate related deaths in the G7 nations, the leaders of the developed world, vs. the world as a whole, including underdeveloped nations.
Sources: EM-DAT International Disaster Database; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014
If we look at year-to-year data, there is a dramatic difference between the heavy fossil fuel users and the light fossil fuel users in climate-related deaths—you are much, much safer in an industrialized country. But those in non-industrialized countries are still better off—climate-related deaths are going down for everyone. This has a fairly obvious application: If you care about safety from climate, shouldn’t you be encouraging rapid industrialization? Which today means encouraging fossil fuel use.
If climate endangerment of the poor is a moral issue, then the climate catastrophists are major sinners.
We know that the way to make climate livable is not to try to refrain from affecting it but to use cheap energy to technologically master it. Thus, if the undeveloped world is having trouble dealing with climate, it’s not because of our .01 percent change in the atmosphere and half a degree change in temperature since significant CO2 emissions began; it’s because they haven’t followed the examples of China, India, and others who have increased fossil fuels use by hundreds of percent. And the goal should be to help them do so—especially because the benefits of fossil fuels go far beyond climate: cheap, plentiful, reliable energy gives human beings the power to improve every aspect of life, including productivity, food, clothing, and shelter. You can’t be a humanitarian and condemn the energy humanity needs.
Even if the underdeveloped world doesn’t industrialize—which, by the standard of human life, it should—it is still wrong to claim that we’re making lives worse climatewise (or otherwise). The data completely contradict that notion. Climate-related deaths are down 98 percent worldwide, including in undeveloped countries.
Our technologies and our wealth have given poorer countries better, cheaper everything: materials for building buildings, medicine, food for drought relief. The scientific and medical discoveries we have made in the time that has been bought with fossil fuel-powered labor-saving machines benefit everyone around the world.
To oppose fossil fuels is ultimately to oppose the underdeveloped world. Fortunately, many up-and-coming countries realize this. China and India and much of Southeast Asia are committing to technological progress, which means energy progress, which substantially means fossil fuel progress—and they don’t appear to be willing to sacrifice their futures to climate fear. Neither should anyone else.