Confessions of an Anthropogenic Global Warming Fatalist
I’m neither an alarmist nor a skeptic when it comes to anthropogenic global warming, or AGW. While I used to claim that I was agnostic, a colleague astutely observed that I’m really a fatalist.
This article explains why I believe fatalism is the only rational approach.
In the great climate change debate, one fact is crystal clear. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, or CO2, have climbed at increasing rates since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the trends show no signs of moderating. We’ve all seen hockey stick graphs and read strident warnings from NGOs, research scientists and politicians predicting catastrophic AGW in the front half of this century. We’ve also seen equally strident rebuttals from skeptics who insist that the computer models are flawed and temperature data has been massaged to a point that any apparent correlation is meaningless.
Frankly, I don’t care whether computer models are flawed or the temperature data is accurate because debating those issues diverts attention from more fundamental questions:
- What is the root cause of increasing global CO2 emissions?
- Is there a meaningful chance that energy substitution schemes involving electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines could arrest emissions trends in a matter of decades?
- How many of us are willing to become latter-day ascetics, sacrifice our high-quality energy-rich lifestyle, and embrace a simpler life of low-carbon energy poverty?
While alarmists tend to blame CO2 emissions on the industrialized west, big oil and evil coal companies, the simple reality is global population quadrupled in the last hundred years, and that mass of humanity is generating more CO2 than our planet’s natural systems can process.
My first graph summarizes population and carbon emissions growth from 1800 through 2014. The population estimates come from Our World in Data, an open-access portal curated at Oxford. The CO2 emissions estimates come from the CAIT Climate Data Explorer. In the graph, both vertical scales use 1800 values as the baseline and 2014 values as the upper limit.
The visual fit is strikingly obvious, but the 0.9942 Coefficient of Correlation is irrefutable proof that population growth has been the main driver of CO2 emissions for as long as humans have understood that abundant energy drives sustained gains in health, wealth and quality of life.
Let’s focus on the graph for a minute. There was a sharp uptick in emissions between 1886 and 1916 when oil emerged as a cost-effective fuel for heat and transportation. There was a more pronounced uptick from 1945 to 1978 as the world got peaceful and industrialization in North America, Europe, and Japan soared. Emissions growth moderated from 1979 through 1999 as oil price shocks made conservation economically compelling. Since 2000, emissions have grown at a blistering pace as China and other less-developed countries transitioned from agrarian to industrial economies.
While few dare to speak the truth above a whisper, carbon emissions aren’t climbing because of human activity in industrialized economies. They’re climbing because billions of people in less-developed countries are increasing their use of hydrocarbons as they claw their way out of poverty. My second graph offers a visual summary of CO2 emissions growth in G-8 Countries, China, India, and the Rest of the World since the Kyoto Protocols were adopted in 1997.
The following table highlights selected data from the spreadsheet I used to create the graph.
While the G-8 Countries reduced their collective CO2 footprint by 2%, China, India, and the Rest of the World grew emissions at rates of 227%, 162% and 44%, respectively. Even if the G-8 Countries had eliminated their CO2 emissions, global CO2 emissions would have climbed.
The unpleasant but self-evident reality is that industrialized countries can’t unilaterally take any effective steps to offset emissions growth in less-developed countries. No matter what the plan is, it will be too little and too late. An equally obvious reality is that reducing hydrocarbon use in industrialized economies will increase supplies in less-developed countries where a rational human being who has a choice between freezing in the dark or increasing his carbon footprint will pick his comfort over some meddlesome foreigner’s AGW theories.
The common thread in all CO2 emissions reduction schemes is manufacturing machines that replace superior energy resources with inferior resources. Since alternatives are always more costly, the promoter’s playbook never changes – demonize the superior energy resource with half-truths and pseudo-science to justify higher costs. All-time favorites include:
- Protecting the planet’s oil resources from imminent and catastrophic depletion;
- Protecting consumers from greedy oil companies, oligarchs and foreign despots;
- Protecting the planet’s atmosphere by reducing CO2 emissions in wealthy countries;
- Promoting energy independence through natural resource diversity; and
- Rationalizing the massive front-end natural resource costs with the magic incantation, “recycling,” which is far easier to say than it is to do.
The vision of electric cars propelled by free power from the wind and sun is beyond alluring. It’s a classic free lunch fairy tale, and those never end well. While politicians, ideologues, stock promoters, and other dreamers promise utopia, their solutions are snake-oil; devoid of technical and economic merit because they cannot be implemented at a relevant scale in a meaningful timeframe.
Last year the human population of our planet consumed 11.7 billion tonnes of hydrocarbons, 1.8 billion tonnes of steel and 107 million tonnes of non-ferrous metals. For critical technology metals like rare earths, cobalt, and lithium, annual production rates of less than 200,000 tonnes were the rule. There are no massive stockpiles of unused metals, and it’s absurd to suggest that humanity can find enough slop in 1.9 billion tonnes of annual metal production to make a dent in 11.7 billion tonnes of annual hydrocarbon consumption.
It’s also absurd to suggest that we can mine our way out of the dilemma. Humanity has been mining useful metals for centuries, and readily accessible high-grade mineral deposits are fully-depleted. At present, it takes a decade and hundreds of millions in capital spending to complete a major mine expansion. It can take up to 40 years and billions in capital spending to develop a greenfield mine. While the oil industry has a long history of development in godforsaken places like the Arctic Circle and deep water, mining is almost always conducted on dry land, meaning that some 70% of potentially mineable resources may be beyond our reach.
I believe the notion that individuals in wealthy countries can change anything by putting an electric car in their garage and solar panels on their roof is a colossal fraud. Buyers can make themselves feel virtuous, but their senseless symbolism can’t make a difference on a planetary scale. It’s like trying to fight a hurricane with Depends.
In a world where 1 billion people want to continue consuming at current rates, and 6.7 billion want to increase their consumption, supplies of all natural-resources are constrained. We pay the most attention to oil because most of us buy minimally processed petroleum products several times a month, but the great challenge of our age will be overcoming persistent global shortages of water, food, energy and every commodity you can imagine.
Humanity is long past the point where we can find and develop enough new natural resources to solve the supply problem. Whether we like it or not, humanity’s only remaining option is to eliminate waste in all its pernicious forms; beginning with wasteful renewables.
If the dire warnings of AGW alarmists are correct, a topic where I scrupulously avoid expressing an opinion, then humanity is in for a tough time, and Mother Nature will do as she’s always done when populations in a particular species grow beyond sustainable limits. She will ruthlessly cull the human herd until balance is restored. While most will find the cull distinctly unpleasant and none of us will have an exemption, humanity will either evolve and adapt or it will face extinction, just like every other apex species in the history of the planet.
Do you ever wonder how AGW alarmists can rail against humanity’s catastrophic impact on nature while cowering in terror over nature’s defense mechanisms?
John Petersen is an Attorney based in Houston, Texas. His email is email@example.com.