“And when our children’s children look us in the eye,” said President Obama in his State of the Union address, “and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
I do, too.
But the way to do this is the exact opposite of Obama’s prescribed policies of restricting fossil fuel use and giving energy welfare to producers of unreliable energy from solar and wind. Just consider the last three decades.
When I was born 33 years ago, politicians and leaders were telling my parents’ generation the same thing we’re being told today: that for the sake of future generations, we need to end our supposed addiction to fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels, they explained, were a fast-depleting resource that would inevitably run out. Fossil fuels, they explained, would inevitably make our environment dirtier and dirtier. And of course, fossil fuels would change the climate drastically and for the worse. It was the responsibility of my parents’ generation, they were told, to drastically restrict fossil fuels and live on solar and wind energy.
My generation should be eternally grateful they did the exact opposite.
Since 1980, when I was born, fossil fuel use here and around the world has only grown. In the U.S., between 1980 and 2012 the consumption of oil increased 3.9%, the consumption of natural gas increased 28.5%, and the consumption of coal increased 12.6%. (Had it not been for the economic downturn these numbers would be higher.)
Globally, oil consumption increased 38.6%, natural gas increased 130.5%, and coal increased 106.8%. (Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2013)
My parents’ generation was told to expect disastrous consequences.
In 1980, the “Global 2000 Report to the President” wrote: “If present trends continue, . . . the world
in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead.”
In 1989, the New Yorker’s star journalist Bill McKibben, claiming to represent a scientific consensus, prophesized:
We stand at the end of an era—the hundred years’ binge on oil, gas, and coal…The choice of doing nothing—of continuing to burn ever more oil and coal—is not a choice, in other words. It will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a similar temperature.Al Gore, just before becoming Vice President, said the use of fossil fuels put us on the verge of an “ecological holocaust.”
What actually happened? Thanks in large part to our increasing use of fossil fuel energy and the technologies they power, life has gotten a lot better across the board for billions of people around the globe.
Life expectancy is way up. World life expectancy at birth was just 63 years in 1980. That number has increased to over 70. The US, already far above average with 73 in 1980, today enjoys an average life expectancy of 78. The infant mortality rate of mankind is less than half of what is used to be in 1980 (from 80 to 35 per 1000 live births).
Malnutrition and undernourishment have plummeted. Access to electricity, a proxy for development and health, is constantly increasing. Access to improved water sources, a necessity for basic hygiene standards and human health, has been possible for ever increasing portions of mankind, especially in poor countries (1990 = 76%, 2012 = 89%).
GDP per capita has constantly increased. The percentage of people who live on $2 a day in South Asia, a region with massive fossil fuel use, has been steadily on the decline from 87% in the early 1980s to 67% in 2010. (Source: World Bank Data.)
And then there is the statistic that the climate doomsayers will never acknowledge. Thanks to energy and technology, climate-related deaths have been plummeting for decades: you are 50X less likely to die from a climate-related cause (heat wave, cold snap, drought, flood, storm) than you would have been 80 years ago.
We are the longest-living, best-fed, healthiest, richest generation of humans on this planet and there is unending potential for further progress.
If, that is, we don’t listen to the anti-fossil-fuel “experts.”
Here’s a scary story. In the 1970s, arguably the most revered intellectuals on energy and environment were men named Amory Lovins and Paul Ehrlich. (They are still revered, which, for reasons that will become apparent within a paragraph, is a moral crime.)
In 1977, Lovins, considered an energy wunderkind for his supposedly innovative criticisms of fossil fuels and his support of solar power and reduced energy use, explained that we already used too much energy. And in particular, the kind of energy we least needed was . . . electricity: “[W]e don’t need any more big electric generating stations. We already have about twice as much electricity as we can use to advantage.”
Environmentalist legend Paul Ehrlich had famously declared “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Thanks in large part to a surge in energy use that led to a massive alleviation of global hunger, that prediction did not come to pass. But it might have, had we followed Ehrlich’s advice: “Except in special circumstances, all construction of power generating facilities should cease immediately, and power companies should be forbidden to encourage people to use more power.
Power is much too cheap. It should certainly be made more expensive and perhaps rationed, in order to reduce its frivolous use.”
Had we listened to these two “experts,” billions of people—ultimately, every single person alive—would be worse off today. Or dead. You would certainly not be reading this on an “unnecessary” electronic device connecting to the electricity-hungry Internet.
This is what is at stake with energy. And while President Obama wasn’t extreme enough in his recent rhetoric for many environmentalist groups, he is on record as calling for outlawing 80% of fossil fuel use. Which would mean not only prohibiting future power plants, but shutting down existing ones.
Whether he knows it or not, every time he attacks fossil fuels, President Obama is working to make his grandchildren’s world much, much worse.
Alex Epstein, an energy philosopher, debater, and communications consultant, is Founder and President of the Center for Industrial Progress, head of the I Love Fossil Fuels Campaign, and author of Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: The Key to Winning
Hearts and Minds,” and the forthcoming book The Case for Fossil Fuels (Penguin/Portfolio, 2014). Contact him here.