Since 1950, humanity has utilized a great deal of carbon. Simultaneously, three major changes have occurred worldwide:
- The standard of living, as measured by average global GDP per capita, has increased by 400 percent.
- The rate of plant growth on Earth has increased by 15 percent.
- The average global temperature has increased by 0.2 percent.
It is a measure of the mental and moral dementia of the current anti-carbon crusade that it has spent billions of dollars promoting alarm over the last point on the above list, while ignoring or denying the profound benefits of the first two. “The science is clear,” they solemnly intone. “The widespread use of fossil fuels is causing global warming.”
Well, the science is anything but clear, as the Earth’s “temperature” is not an actual physical quantity and therefore cannot be measured. Rather, it is a simplified notion based on a statistical average of constantly changing measurements drawn from a tiny subset of an infinite number of locations, depths, and altitudes that could potentially be selected for sampling. Nevertheless, the theory that carbon-dioxide enrichment of the atmosphere should cause some planetary warming is sound. Furthermore, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by 80 parts per million over the past 60 years, with the total amount added to the atmosphere equal to about half that produced by human fossil-fuel use over that period. Thus, assigning the observed CO2 enrichment to human activity is entirely plausible, and describing it as the cause of a claimed planetary warming of 0.6 K (0.2 percent of the ambient average of about 290 K) over the period in question is defensible. This warming might also be the cause of the six-inch increase in sea level that has been detected by careful measurements over the past 60 years.
But that said, the effects in question are insignificant, and, to the extent they matter at all, beneficial. Rising global temperatures would lengthen the growing season and increase net rainfall, both of which are very good things. The barely perceptible inch-per-decade rise in sea level is so small as to be lost in the noise of the daily tides and waves, surface erosion, soil deposition, dune building, coral-reef growth, crustal uplifts, and other much faster up or down movements of local geology.
What is not imperceptible, however, are the radical positive effects of carbon enrichment on plant life. We have photographs taken from orbit since 1958, and they show a 15 percent increase in the rate of wild plant growth worldwide due to CO2 enrichment. Not only that, but plants are starting to grow in deserts where arid conditions made plant growth impossible before. (Agricultural plants have benefited as well, but their growth has accelerated even more due to fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation made possible by carbon fuels.) There is no doubt that CO2 enrichment is responsible for this growth acceleration, because not only is the theory behind very well understood, but the experiment has been done repeatedly in the lab, and always produces the same result.
The science is clear: Anthropogenic CO2 emissions are making the Earth a more fertile planet.
Even more striking, and readily apparent, are the effects that increasing carbon use is having on human society. The graph below shows this effect, comparing average global GDP per capita (in 2010 inflation-adjusted dollars) to global annual carbon use. It can be seen that, for the past two centuries, these two quantities have risen in direct proportion.
In 1950, humans used 1,700 million metric tons of carbon per year, and the average global GDP per capita was $1,700. Today we use 9,000 million metric tons per year, and the average global GDP per capita is $9,000. That’s a fivefold increase in average global income within living human memory, and anyone who has traveled much around the world over the past half-century has witnessed this miracle unfold.
I’m one of those people. I can remember the 1950s. In the 1950s, people were a lot poorer than they are now. They were poorer in America, they were much poorer in Europe, and they were infinitely poorer in Asia and Latin America. The weather, however, was about the same as it is today.
When confronted with the above evidence for the profound benefits of carbon use, those who wish to halt this wonderful trend by making carbon unaffordable have no alternative but to resort to denial. “Correlation is not causation,” they claim. But this is dissembling. The relationship between carbon use and the production of material goods is quite clear: Virtually everything we use is either made of, produced through, or transported to us via the utilization of carbon. Therefore the data presented in the graph are not a mere demonstration of a correlation, but the quantification of the effects of a clearly understood causal relationship. To deny this, as the carbon-benefit deniers do, is a denial not only of facts and of science, but the very principle of causality that underlies the rational worldview itself.
Put simply, carbon-benefit denial is a form of insanity. We need to do all we can to find a cure.
— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books.
Nuclear reactors are designed to withstand severe weather, earthquakes, even airplane crashes. But how much more handling from the federal government they can endure remains to be seen.
Almost since the inception of the American commercial nuclear industry, presidents and politicians have taken a special interest in it. We would all be better off if they wouldn’t. While early intervention may have been justifiable because of national security, that time has long since passed. Now the government just prevents a well-developed, safe, and international industry from becoming competitive.
The current administration has emphasized nuclear energy’s importance, from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to advisers to the president (such as the formerly anti-nuclear Carol Browner). The president’s Climate Action Plan will take coal plants off the grid, and the missing megawatts will have to be replaced with another affordable and reliable source of baseload power.
Putting aside the many and fundamental problems with such a goal, nuclear energy provides affordable, reliable, and emission-free power. Accordingly, the Climate Action Plan promises to “expand [efforts] to promote nuclear energy generation” at home and abroad. As Browner has written, “If you agree . . . that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately, then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources.”
For all the talk, though, the president’s nuclear-power policies are accomplishing the exact opposite of this goal, going well beyond the usual political shenanigans and maneuverings that have always characterized the federal government’s micromanagement of this industry. Many government-induced problems plague the commercial nuclear-power industry, from oppressive export regulations to post-Fukushima standards that might make sense in a Washington office but not on the floor of a power plant. But the biggest problem holding back American nuclear power, in which the Obama administration has been particularly obstructive, is the management of nuclear waste.
The trouble started in 1982 when Congress gave the Department of Energy (DoE) the responsibility to collect and dispose of all the nation’s commercial nuclear waste. Congress subsequently chose to build a national repository by 1998 at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, pending approval of a license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Though the scheme was imperfect and fell greatly behind schedule, it at least was a plan.
After many delays, and with the NRC’s evaluation of the site finally well under way, in 2010 President Obama ignored Congress and ordered the Department of Energy to end its Yucca Mountain program. The NRC followed suit. With nearly 70,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel sitting in temporary storage at nuclear plants and government facilities across the country, waiting to be collected by the DoE, President Obama left America’s commercial nuclear reactors, the Department of Defense, and federal regulators with no waste policy at all, and wasting the more than $15 billion in taxpayer money and electricity users fees already spent for the unfinished Yucca Mountain repository project. That’s not to mention the billions more in federal liability as commercial nuclear companies sue the government for its broken promise to start collecting waste a dozen years earlier. Moreover, until recently, the NRC took a sabbatical from renewing or issuing new operating licenses to nuclear power plants because it could not be confident that waste would be collected by the government.
After a major effort to study the nuclear-waste issue by the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission, and after a series of court cases that stole attention, public resources, and time, at least the federal government is once again slowly moving in the right direction to address Yucca Mountain. But simply finishing the safety review without completing the process that would allow for a permitting decision hardly inspires confidence. Meanwhile, Congress has not yet abandoned plans for the Yucca Mountain repository, which is still required by law and affirmed by the courts.
Some critics, while admitting that government-induced risks and costs have played a role, say that abundant and inexpensive natural gas is the primary reason the expected nuclear renaissance has yet to occur. But this view is forgetful and ignores the potential benefits that would result from better policy.
Natural gas has been cheap before. Indeed, it was very cheap at about the same time the nuclear industry was last declared dead. Then, the world was responding to the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, which helped send nuclear-plant construction costs sharply upwards. At the same time, the wellhead price for natural gas was $1.18 per thousand cubic feet.
Nevertheless, nuclear power improved its safety procedures and now has the most efficiently operating power plants available. Today reactors routinely exceed a capacity factor of 90 percent, meaning the average plant spends only 10 percent of the year not producing electricity. The numbers show the industry’s progress: In 1979, America had 72 plants online; today there are 100. Meanwhile, the wellhead price for natural gas peaked at $7.97 per thousand cubic feet in 2008 before tumbling down to $2.66 in 2012.
Markets and technology change, but until the federal government gets out of the picture, nuclear power in America will not reach its potential. We need a better policy.
The first and most important step to realizing the true costs and benefits of nuclear power is to resolve the nuclear-waste issue. Until that is done, we are only playing games if we expect to see the nuclear industry to grow and innovate.
Getting the government out of the business of waste management would allow it to focus its attention on what it should be doing — establishing licensing requirements and performing oversight. A system that puts waste producers in control of managing waste would create strong incentives to pursue economical solutions that meet customers’ needs and government safety standards. It would also unlock the door for innovation in nuclear-waste management, not unlike what we see today as local garbage companies find valuable ways to repurpose and store the waste from homes and businesses.
If President Obama really believes that nuclear power is critical to the future of the country, then he needs to leave his current policies behind and work with Congress to do the following:
Support NRC’s completion of the Yucca Mountain permit application. The United States needs a geologic repository regardless of how it ultimately manages and disposes of used nuclear fuel. Plus, critical knowledge will be discovered from finishing the Yucca Mountain application review.
Institute market-based nuclear-waste management reform. The U.S. needs a market-based nuclear-energy policy. This begins with a nuclear-waste policy that gives utilities and other waste producers the primary responsibility for waste management and a system for financing nuclear-waste disposal that allows waste producers to pay directly for nuclear-waste-related services.
Develop a rational, flexible, and predictable regulatory regime. The nation needs a regulator that can issue permits for new plants on a predictable basis at a reasonable cost and is capable of regulating multiple types of reactors and other industrial facilities, such as used-fuel-treatment plants.
Modernize commercial nuclear export regulations. U.S. nuclear-power companies have a substantial opportunity to compete in the global marketplace. Unfortunately, current export regulations make such activities extremely difficult for American firms.
While the desire to help reestablish the United States as a leader in commercial nuclear power is commendable, it is critical that congressional and executive action not do more harm than good. Drawn-out permitting timetables, ill-conceived regulations, and other government-imposed market distortions create so much risk and price inflation that some believe the industry needs subsidies to compete internationally and to offset the negative impacts of these policies.
Instead, the U.S. government can best ensure the sustainability of a strong U.S. nuclear industry by simply providing a stable regulatory environment, authorizing industry to handle its own spent nuclear fuel, and opening foreign markets. As we have seen in recent years, given the freedom to innovate and compete, the private sector will take action.
— Katie Tubb is a researcher in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Jack Spencer is the director of the Roe Institute.
Environmentalists worship solar energy and wind power as Earth-friendly answers to their ecological prayers. Tortoises, bats, butterflies, and bald eagles beg to differ.
Perhaps because solar panels and industrial wind farms lack emissions, they seem “clean.” Despite their pristine appearance, however, these “green” electricity sources hammer Mother Nature — often fatally.
Consider the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in southern California’s Mojave Desert. As Carolyn Lochhead wrote on September 7 in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ivanpah occupies 3,500 previously untouched federal acres. It features 300,000 mirrors that focus sunlight on three 40-story towers of power. Inside, 900-degree temperatures yield steam, propel turbines, and generate electricity for 140,000 homes.
Ivanpah’s environmental toll is stunning:
• BrightSource Energy, the project’s owner, could have rehabilitated a brownfield, an abandoned commercial site, or a decommissioned military base. Instead, BrightSource developed 5.5 square miles of virgin desert.
• Lochhead reports that “scientists now say desert soils contain vast stores of carbon that are unleashed by construction of solar facilities.”
• Tortoises native to that area became refugees once BrightSource relocated them en masse.
• Kit-fox dens were flattened during construction.
• Monarch butterflies and birds should avoid Ivanpah at all costs. Those who traverse its highly concentrated sunbeams often ignite. Center for Biological Diversity ecologist K. Shawn Smallwood told the California Energy Commission last July that Ivanpah will roast an estimated 28,380 birds annually.
Ivanpah cost $2.2 billion, including a $1.6 billion federal loan. For its next trick, BrightSource envisions a bigger installation near Joshua Tree National Park — within a migratory path for protected peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and some 100 other bird species.
Meanwhile, environmentalists call wind power as benign as a summer breeze. In fact, wind farms have become avian killing fields. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports that “wind turbines may kill a half a million birds a year.” Wind blows away another 600,000 bats annually, primarily through lung hemorrhaging. While these “flying vampires” look scary, most are insectivores and vegetarians. Bats actually serve mankind by pollinating crops and devouring mosquitoes. Fewer bats mean more mosquitoes. Swell.
USF&WS explains also that “eagles appear to be particularly susceptible. Large numbers of golden eagles have been killed by wind turbines in the western states,” as have smaller numbers of bald eagles. Team Obama — which could not care less about America’s beautiful, majestic national symbol — almost never prosecutes wind companies for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Even worse, Obama is granting wind-farm operators 30-year federal eagle-killing permits, to continue their mayhem — all in the name of “clean” energy. On this matter, Obama’s unvarnished callousness is staggering.
Long before windmills are installed — which itself consumes open fields — they abuse the Earth.
To evaluate any energy technology, “we must remember that it’s a process, starting with mining the materials necessary for the machines,” Alex Epstein notes in his forthcoming Penguin book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein observes that manufacturing wind turbines requires “hazardous substances like hydrofluoric acid in order to get usable rare earth elements.”
The Daily Mail’s Simon Parry toured Baotou, China, a source of neodymium, the main ingredient in wind turbines’ electromagnets. He discovered “a five-mile wide ‘tailing’ lake. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill, and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy.”
This vast, hissing cauldron of chemicals is the dumping ground for seven million tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract its components.
The lake instantly assaults your senses. Stand on the black crust for just seconds and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs.
For hours after our visit, my stomach lurched and my head throbbed. We were there for only one hour, but those who live in Mr. Yan’s village of Dalahai, and other villages around, breathe in the same poison every day.
Environmentalists should stop hallucinating about “sustainable” power sources that unleash puppies and rainbows at no cost to air, water, habitat, and wildlife. “Clean energy” hurts nature. Those who believe otherwise live in Fantasyland.
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.
In this corner, we have a human-rights lawyer representing the interests of indigenous people in the Amazon residing in a remote corner of Ecuador polluted by the by-products of oil exploration; in the opposite corner we have Chevron, a multinational petroleum behemoth with billions of dollars in cash on hand but refusing to part with a dollar in the cause of justice for the beleaguered Ecuadorian tribesmen. It is a testament to the vapidness, incuriosity, and corruption of the intellectual classes, from the editors of Vanity Fair to celebrity activists such as Mr. and Mrs. Sting, that this black-hats/white-hats version of events was sufficient reason for the luminaries of the Left to hitch themselves to what turns out to be almost certainly the largest attempt at extortion in recorded human history.
For those who have not been following the case, and for those who might be familiar with it from reporting in these pages and elsewhere, Bloomberg Businessweek writer Paul M. Barrett offers a thorough account of the episode in Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who’d Stop at Nothing to Win (Crown, 304 pp., $26,00). But before digging into Mr. Barrett’s book, readers should treat themselves to the Miami Herald’s account of how Steven Donziger, the “lawyer who’d stop at nothing” of Barrett’s subtitle, corrupted Vanity Fair’s reporting on the case. The author of the Vanity Fair piece, William Langewiesche, was so thoroughly seduced by Mr. Donziger’s human-rights shtick that he literally had the plaintiffs’ attorney script the questions he was submitting to Chevron — and even went so far as to submit copy to Donziger for his approval. E-mails between the two released as part of the legal discovery process find the attorney apologizing to the allegedly independent journalist for being “a little aggressive in the editing.”
But using Vanity Fair as his sock puppet was hardly the greatest of Donziger’s achievements, as Barrett’s book dutifully reports. Scott Pelley and 60 Minutes swallowed his version of events without even chewing, as did any number of major media outfits. Crude, a film purporting to be an independent documentary about the episode, was edited to Donziger’s specs; it was, needless to say, praised to the heavens by the New York Times and others. The Huffington Post published the work of Donziger’s publicist without ever noting that she not only was being paid by the plaintiffs’ attorney but had attempted to maneuver herself into a percentage of what turned out to be a multibillion-dollar judgment.
And if the media were corrupted to an extent that would shock even a cynic, the legal institutions in Ecuador were corrupted far beyond even what one might expect from a poor, backward South American country. In one particularly entertaining passage, Barrett documents that Donziger et al. managed to corrupt a so-called independent court-appointed expert tasked with assessing the extent of environmental damage in Ecuador and the likely cost of mitigating that damage. The report submitted to the court was not the work of the independent expert but that of Donziger’s hired scientific consultant. But the Donziger team did not stop there: Fearful that the report would be too obviously their own work, they prepared a series of objections to it — and scripted the “independent” expert’s response to their objections, too. When in the early stages of litigation it became clear that they would not achieve victory in American courts, they wrote the Ecuadorian mass-litigation statute under which they would later sue Chevron in that country, tailoring the very law to the particular needs of their lawsuit.
There have got to be easier ways to make a few billion dollars.
Barrett dutifully reports these facts, but the aggregate impact of them fails to make the proper impression on him. In his telling, the story is one of hardball corporate lawyers vs. hardball human-rights lawyers, a rough kind of moral equivalency in a battle in which Donziger and his allies were finally tempted into acts that a U.S. judge would in the end rule to be racketeering. But the facts very strongly suggest that the well-being of the people of Amazonian Ecuador never seriously entered into Donziger’s calculations. As Barrett reports — a fact previously unknown to me — Donziger actively worked to undermine plans by the Ecuadorian government and its state oil company to clean up polluted drilling sites: The more damage there was to point to, the more suffering the Ecuadorian people endured, the stronger his case. Barrett is a reliable reporter, but he resists what seems to be the inevitable conclusion: There was never anything to this case other than attempted extortion from the beginning. Donziger and his allies did not get corrupted; they entered into the litigation that way.
The strange thing is this: Chevron has never drilled for oil in Ecuador.
For some years, Texaco was a minority partner in a joint venture with Petroecuador, the state oil company. When Texaco had concluded its business with Petroecuador, it entered into an agreement with the Ecuadorian government to remediate a number of drilling sites in the rain forest, proportionate to its ownership stake in the venture, about one-third. (Some 90 percent of the joint venture’s profits over the decades went to the Ecuadorian government and allied institutions.) Texaco did its work, the Ecuadorian government pronounced itself satisfied and signed off on the remediation, and it released Texaco from further liability in any related matters. This was critical, in that the remaining sites were the responsibility of Petroecuador and the Ecuadorian government, and pollution originating there would be easily mistaken for pollution coming from the Texaco sites — especially by those with a financial interest in making that mistake.
And that leads to the most damning piece of evidence presented in Barrett’s book. It almost certainly is true that the environmental standards to which the Ecuadorian government held Texaco were much laxer than would have been the case in an operation in the United States. And by all accounts Petroecuador failed to perform the remediation that it was obliged to undertake — but Donziger preemptively promised the Ecuadorian authorities that he would never seek damages from the national government or its oil company, and would refuse to collect or accept damages against them if they were awarded by a court. With that, the Ecuadorian government had license to back Donziger’s scheme to try to pry billions of dollars out of a foreign multinational while the so-called human-rights crusaders had granted the government and Petroecuador immunity.
Chevron’s role in this story is simply to have acquired Texaco during the oil industry’s period of energetic consolidation some years back. It grossly underestimated the likely impact of the Donziger litigation, perhaps owing in some part to the fecklessness of Texaco’s general counsel, Deval Patrick, who is today the governor of Massachusetts. Governor Patrick, who is black, was brought in as Texaco’s top lawyer in the wake of an ugly racial-discrimination scandal. As Barrett puts it, Patrick had no desire to play the corporate heavy against suffering Amazonian Indians.
There are some truly shocking moments in the book: Over a jovial dinner, Donziger’s allies affirm that no judge will rule against them, because any judge who did probably would be killed. The philosophical attorney says that the judge in the case probably thinks that, and that is good enough. Indeed, the threat of violence against judicial personnel and others opposing Donziger is a theme in the book. I myself had to cancel two separate trips to inspect the former Texaco sites in Ecuador when Chevron pulled its personnel out, fearful for their physical safety.
There are many characters and episodes to follow in Law of the Jungle, and Barrett is, if not a riveting storyteller, reasonably deft in helping the reader to keep it all straight and in moving the story along. And he is particularly valuable in his closing thoughts on the nature of state-run oil companies. “The company did not sneak into the Oriente,” he writes, and notes that China’s SINOPEC faces little to no prospect of being held to very high environmental standards by Beijing.
Texaco’s real sin, and Chevron’s, is willingly associating itself with such enterprises; oil executives are not such dewy-eyed naïfs as to fail to appreciate what Petroecuador is, and what the government of Ecuador was (it was, at the time of Texaco’s initial involvement, a military junta). As I told a Chevron executive some time ago: “You went to bed with the devil — you’re bound to experience a burning sensation afterward.” But “being in bed with the devil” is, unhappily, another way of saying “being in the global oil business.” In the world of crony capitalism, the U.S. Export-Import Bank is the Smurfs compared with state-run oil companies. I am open to imposing a punitive tax on anybody doing business with the government of Ecuador, or Nigeria, or China. But $19 billion seems a bit high.
– Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review. This article originally appeared in the October 6, 2014, issue of National Review.
It has been a curious experience to watch the news about the “largest climate march in history” from Japan. There weren’t any marches here in Tokyo. Indeed, 350.org, the group that was a lead organizer of the march in New York City, doesn’t even appear to have a presence in Japan.
The energy-related headlines in the Asian newspapers over the past week or so haven’t been about climate change or the march in New York City. They have largely been about nuclear and coal. And therein lies the mismatch between the rhetoric of the marchers and organizers, and the hard realities of the global energy market.
Sure, some 300,000 people showed up in Manhattan to express their desire for action on carbon dioxide emissions. But if the marchers and the organizers behind the march are serious about addressing climate change, then they should be holding a march against coal use. Instead, according to a key observation on the march made by Ed Crooks, a reporter for the Financial Times, the marchers were overwhelmingly demonstrating against, wait for it . . . natural gas.
In a Twitter message, Crooks wrote, “Anti-fracking signs here outnumber anti-coal signs by more than 10:1.” In another Twitter message, Crooks noted that anti-fracking signs were “by far the most popular” and that there were “possibly even more” signs about hydraulic fracturing than there were about climate.
If climate activists were serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions (as well as traditional air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide), they should be embracing natural gas instead of attacking it. Indeed, the U.S. is leading the world in reducing its carbon dioxide emissions thanks to increased use of natural gas, which is displacing coal in the electricity-generation sector.
Climate-change activists such as Bill McKibben love to point to Germany as an example the rest of the world should be following. Over the past decade or so, German consumers have subsidized renewable-energy programs at a cost of about $134 billion. And while it’s true that Germany is now producing more solar energy than any other country, it’s also true that the U.S. has achieved far greater emissions reductions, in absolute terms, than has Germany.
Since 2003, according to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, the U.S. has cut its carbon dioxide emissions by over 400 million tons. Germany’s reductions over that same period have totaled about 67 million tons. Thus, over the past decade or so, the U.S. has cut its emissions by more than six times what Germany has achieved, and it has done so without federal mandates for renewable energy, and it has done so at far lower cost for consumers.
Of course, while holding up Germany as an example to be copied, climate activists are ignoring another inconvenient truth: German utilities are building more coal-fired power plants. On September 22, the day after the big march in New York, Julie Mengewein of Bloomberg reported that last year, coal-fired electricity provided 45 percent of all the power used in Germany, the highest level since 2007.
Indeed, while the marchers in New York eagerly demonize natural gas, they are ignoring the extraordinary growth in global coal use. Coal is the fastest-growing form of energy, and it has been since 1973. Coal combustion now accounts for about 44 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and coal-fired generators provide about 40 percent of all global electricity.
Before I came to Japan, I spent two weeks in Australia. While there, I had several conversations about the Asian energy market with Chris Grieg, who heads the University of Queensland Energy Initiative in Brisbane. Grieg has spent 25 years in the energy sector and holds a doctorate in chemical engineering. “There’s one thing that Asian countries like more than coal,” he said, “and that’s cheap coal.”
Indeed, countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and China are building lots of new coal-fired power plants. In Japan, the home of the much-ballyhooed Kyoto Protocol, coal use has jumped more than 9 percent since 2011, when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was disabled by an earthquake and tsunami. And more coal-fired plants will be built here in Japan. In April, an official in the Japanese government, Akira Yasui of the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry, told Bloomberg that it is “crucial to have diverse energy sources” for Japan, which imports nearly all its energy. “Our basic stance,” he said, “is to use coal while caring for the environment as much as possible. Coal is economical and stable in supply.”
So why are the marchers in New York protesting against natural gas and not coal? The answer is simple: It fits the narrative that’s continually promoted by McKibben, Naomi Klein, and other high-profile environmentalists. In their view, the main reason that carbon dioxide emissions are rising and that there hasn’t been any concerted global effort to constrain those emissions is that a secret cabal of evil businessmen is preventing such action.
In an interview published in Newsday after the march, McKibben touted the event as “the largest political gathering about anything in quite some time.” When asked what frustrated him most about the lack of political action on carbon dioxide emissions, he replied that it’s “sad to see this kind of destruction solely to maintain the profit margins of the oil majors and the coal barons for a few more years.”
To believe such a narrative is to believe in a cabal so powerful that it controls events in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, a country where the average citizen consumes about 240 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. For comparison, the average American consumes over 12,000 kilowatt-hours per year, 50 times as much. That electricity use translates directly into wealth. Per-capita GDP in the U.S. is about $52,800, roughly 25 times the level in Bangladesh, where that figure is $2,100.
On Monday, just a few hours after Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, and other climate activists finished trudging through the streets of Manhattan, officials in Dhaka signed a memorandum of understanding with Malaysian officials to build a new 1,300-megawatt electricity-generation plant in Bangladesh. It will burn coal. The fuel probably will be shipped to Bangladesh from mines in Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, or Mozambique.
The punch line here is obvious: Spouting rhetoric about climate change is easy. Bashing natural gas and hydraulic fracturing while living in one of the world’s wealthiest countries is even easier. The hard reality of bringing electric lights, refrigeration, and modern industry to Bangladesh? Well, that’s just a little more complicated.
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong, was published in May by PublicAffairs.