Indur Goklany: The Human Triumph From Fossil Fuels
The Pope’s prescriptions would reduce human well-being and undermine the environment
As the Climate Summit of the Americas unwinds in Toronto — highlighted Thursday with a keynote appearance by Al Gore — attendees would be better off examining the reality of our carbon-driven world rather than the words of doom from Gore.
Al Gore is in the Vatican camp on climate. Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment endorsed the notions ”that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society,” that “exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits,” and that each year thousands of species are being lost. Based on these, it endorsed “changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat…warming,” drastic reductions in carbon dioxide and other emissions, and redistribution of wealth.
Unfortunately, the Vatican has been laid astray by its advisors’ statement entitled, Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement of the Problem and the Demand for Transformative Solutions. It makes claims that contradict empirical facts, and are ethically dubious.
Specifically, the advisors claim sustainability and resilience are being destroyed by over-consumption and that fossil fuels are to blame. Indeed, human numbers and carbon dioxide emissions have never been higher, but neither has human well-being! In fact, the average person has never lived longer, been healthier or wealthier. Living standards are at their highest ever; poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and mortality from vector-borne diseases and extreme events — all indicators that global warming is supposed to worsen — are at record lows. There is no indication that these trends are being reversed.
Fossil fuels have not only benefited humanity but also the rest of nature, because fossil fuels have allowed more intensive use of land, thus limiting the amount of wilderness that has to be diverted to agricultural use. Consequently, conversion of wildland to farm land has almost peaked worldwide, allowing some societies to reserve land for conservation.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution virtually all of humanity’s basic needs — food, fibre, fuel, energy, materials — were met by the rest of nature. Fossil fuel technologies and associated economic development increased the terrestrial biosphere’s natural productivity to provide these basic needs (through, for example, higher crop yields), shifted humanity’s demand for energy away from biomass and animal power, and increased its reliance on man-made materials.
Consequently, humanity’s dependence on the rest of nature for life’s basic necessities has never been lower despite exploding demand. Also, because of carbon dioxide fertilization, nitrogen deposition, and possibly a more equable climate, all caused by fossil fuel use, the terrestrial biosphere’s productivity now exceeds pre-industrial levels according to the IPCC. This allows the biosphere to sustain more biomass (i.e., more plants and animals).
Thus greater fossil-fuel use has been accompanied by advances in both human well-being and terrestrial biosphere’s ability to sustain biomass. That is, fossil fuels have increased the world’s sustainability and resilience, diametrically opposite to the advisors’ claims.
Also contrary to the advisors’ claims, inequality has shrunk among the world’s population in recent decades. Nor is there any empirical evidence for the claim that agriculture is “doubtless causing” hundreds of thousands if not millions of extinctions.
The advisors’ assertion that fossil-fuel use poses existential risks for the poor and future generations necessarily rests on models of future impacts of global warming. But impact models use climate models that overestimate global warming two- to four-fold. Neither climate nor impact models have been validated using external data, climate models often contradict each other regarding whether future precipitation will increase (or not) at regional and local scales, and impact models understate the increased adaptability of future generations, who will be wealthier and technologically-more sophisticated than we are.
The advisors’ “transformative solutions’’ are based on the delusion that economic alternatives to cheap fossil fuels are widely available, a notion belied by the government mandates and subsidies that prop up these alternative energy sources around the world. These purported solutions would therefore be counterproductive for both humanity and the rest of nature. They would slow the ongoing broad advance in human wellbeing, retard poverty reduction, and reduce the ability to adapt and cope with adversity in general and climate change in particular, especially harming the poor. They would also reduce the future productivity of the terrestrial biosphere, increasing pressure on species and ecosystems.
In exchange, the advisors would solve future problems that may not even exist or, if they do, might be more easily solved by future generations who should be richer, both economically and technologically. Essentially, these policies would give up real gains in human and environmental well-being to solve hypothetical problems forecast by models that have a record for inaccuracy.
This means that the Vatican’s backing of reductions in fossil fuel use would actually reduce human well-being and increase the human impact on the planet.
The Vatican’s advisors, however, are correct on one count: climate change is a moral and ethical issue. But it is a strange ethical calculus that justifies reducing existing gains in human well-being, increasing the cost of humanity’s basic necessities, increasing poverty, and reducing the terrestrial biosphere’s future productivity and ability to support biomass. The Vatican’s advisors’moral compassesare apparently broken.
Indur Goklany, a member of the U.S. delegation that established the IPCC and helped develop its First Assessment Report, served as a U.S. delegate to the IPCC, and as an IPCC reviewer. He is a member of the GWPF’s Academic Advisory council and the author of the Pontifical Academies’ Broken Moral Compass