During the decade that Al Gore dominated the environmental debate, global carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 28.5%.
Over the past two months, environmental activists have held protests at the White House and elsewhere hoping to convince the Obama administration to deny a permit for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Some of those same activists have launched a series of demonstrations called “Moving Planet” to move “the planet away from fossil fuels towards a safer climate future.” And next month, leaders from dozens of countries will meet at the 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa.
But for all of the sturm und drang about climate change, what has actually happened? It’s time to acknowledge five obvious truths about the climate-change issue:
1) The carbon taxers/limiters have lost. Carbon-dioxide emissions have been the environmental issue of the past decade. Over that time period, Al Gore became a world-renowned figure for his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” for which he won an Oscar. In 2007, he, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), collected a Nobel Peace Prize for “informing the world of the dangers posed by climate change.” That same year, the IPCC released its fourth assessment report, which declared that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.” (Emphasis in original.)
Two years later, Copenhagen became the epicenter of a world-wide media frenzy as some 5,000 journalists, along with some 100 world leaders and scores of celebrities, descended on the Danish capital to witness what was billed as the best opportunity to impose a global tax or limit on carbon dioxide.
The result? Nothing, aside from promises by various countries to get serious—really serious—about carbon emissions sometime soon.
Here’s a reality check: During the same decade that Mr. Gore and the IPCC dominated the environmental debate, global carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 28.5%.
Those increases reflect soaring demand for electricity, up by 36%, which in turn fostered a 47% increase in coal consumption. (Natural-gas use increased by 29% while oil use grew by 13%.) Carbon-dioxide emissions are growing because people around the world understand the essentiality of electricity to modernity. And for many countries, the cheapest way to produce electrons is by burning coal.
2) Regardless of whether it’s getting hotter or colder—or both—we are going to need to produce a lot more energy in order to remain productive and comfortable.
3) The carbon-dioxide issue is not about the United States anymore. Sure, the U.S. is the world’s second-largest energy consumer. But over the past decade, carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S. fell by 1.7%. And according to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. is now cutting carbon emissions faster than Europe, even though the European Union has instituted an elaborate carbon-trading/pricing scheme. Why? The U.S. is producing vast quantities of cheap natural gas from shale, which is displacing higher-carbon coal.
Meanwhile, China’s emissions jumped by 123% over the past decade and now exceed those of the U.S. by more than two billion tons per year. Africa’s carbon-dioxide emissions jumped by 30%, Asia’s by 44%, and the Middle East’s by a whopping 57%. Put another way, over the past decade, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions—about 6.1 billion tons per year—could have gone to zero and yet global emissions still would have gone up.
4) We have to get better—and we are—at turning energy into useful power. In 1882, Thomas Edison’s first central power station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan converted less than 3% of the heat energy of the coal being burned into electricity. Today’s best natural-gas-fired turbines have thermal efficiencies of 60%. Nearly all of the things we use on a daily basis—light bulbs, computers, automobiles—are vastly more efficient than they were just a few years ago. And over the coming years those devices will get even better at turning energy into useful lighting, computing and motive power.
5) The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Furthermore, even if we accept that carbon dioxide is bad, it’s not clear exactly what we should do about it. In September, Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder published a report that determined “switching from coal to natural gas would do little for global climate.” Mr. Wigley found that the particulates put into the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants, “although detrimental to the environment, cool the planet by blocking incoming sunlight.”
If Mr. Wigley’s right, then using sources that emit no particulates, like nuclear and natural gas, will not make a major difference in averting near-term changes in the climate caused by carbon dioxide. But then—and here’s the part that most media outlets failed to discuss when reporting on the Wigley study—widespread use of renewables such as wind and solar won’t help much, either.
Will Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton and a skeptic about global climate change, recently wrote that the “contemporary ‘climate crusade’ has much in common with the medieval crusades.” Indeed, politicians and pundits are hectored to adhere to the orthodoxy of the carbon-dioxide-is-the-only-climate-problem alarmists. And that orthodoxy prevails even though the most ardent alarmists have no credible plans to replace the hydrocarbons that now provide 87% of the world’s energy.
It’s time to move the debate past the dogmatic view that carbon dioxide is evil and toward a world view that accepts the need for energy that is cheap, abundant and reliable.
Mr. Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book, “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future” (PublicAffairs, 2010), was recently issued in paperback.