The Carbon-Benefit Deniers

by Robert Zubrin
The hysteria over global warming ignores the tremendous benefits from carbon use.

Since 1950, humanity has utilized a great deal of carbon. Simultaneously, three major changes have occurred worldwide:

  1. The standard of living, as measured by average global GDP per capita, has increased by 400 percent.
  2. The rate of plant growth on Earth has increased by 15 percent.
  3. 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.