Human Achievement Hour: An Honorable Choice for Saturday Night

Earth Hour vs. Human Achievement Hour—two irreconcilably opposed events scheduled for the same time: 8:30-9:30 pm EST, Saturday, March 28, 2015. Earth Hour protestors will turn off their lights to express solidarity with the Earth and “raise consciousness” about climate change. Human Achievement Hour partiers will turn on their lights and, in countless individual ways, celebrate the creativity of an energy-rich civilization. I may join some friends at a pub—or just stay home, plug in the Telecaster, crank up the tube amp, and let the good times roll.

The Earth Hour crowd would have you believe that our mostly fossil-fueled civilization is unsustainable. I know of no better antidote to their ideology than energy analyst Alex Epstein’s new book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein presents the big picture Earth Hour types ignore, belittle, or deny. Human beings using carbon dioxide (CO2)-emitting energy did not take a safe climate and make it dangerous. Rather, they took a dangerous climate and made it dramatically safer.

Building on the work of economist Indur Goklany, Epstein examines aggregate mortality and death rates related to extreme weather in the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT) maintained by the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).

He appropriately begins with drought, historically the leading source of climate-related deaths. Drought can decrease the two most essential commodities of human life—water and food.

In the 1920s, drought killed an estimated 472,000 people worldwide. What’s happened since then? Fossil fuel consumption skyrocketed. Carbon dioxide concentrations increased by almost one-third. The world warmed by approximately 0.8C. Deaths related to drought declined by an amazing 99.8 percent even though population in drought-prone areas tripled or quadrupled.

What caused this remarkable improvement in the human condition? Affordable energy, the lion’s share of which comes from fossil fuels, reduces drought risk in manifold ways.

Fossil-fueled machinery—tractors, harvesters, and irrigation pumps—made agriculture far more productive. So did fertilizers and pesticides made from petroleum and natural gas in factories powered chiefly by fossil energy. Fossil-fueled transport brought new technology and improved seed varieties to farms, moved produce from farms to cities, and from food surplus to food deficit regions. Plastics made from fossil fuels and refrigeration powered by fossil energy reduced spoilage and waste. Fossil-fueled economies created the wealth, physical assets, and expertise required for effective disaster relief programs. Plus, rising CO2 concentrations boosted crop yields. Overall result: a 99.8 percent decrease in drought-related deaths, and a 99.9 percent decline in drought-related mortality rates (deaths per million population.

Carbon dioxide-emitting technologies also made indispensable contributions to similarly remarkable declines in deaths and death rates related to floods, storms, and extreme weather in general.

Only those who ignore this big picture could possibly imagine that regulating or taxing away mankind’s chief source of cheap, reliable, scalable energy would make us safer or the climate more livable.

Earth Hour protestors claim reliance on fossil energy is causing dangerous “climate disruption,” increasing the frequency and intensity of storms, floods, and droughts. There is exceedingly little evidence for such assertions.

Indeed, since 1900 there has been a 20 percent decline in both the frequency of U.S. hurricane landfalls and the strength of U.S. hurricanes as measured by the power dissipation index.

Globally, there has been considerable inter-decadal variability but no trend in hurricane strength (measured in accumulated cyclone energy) since 1970.

Similarly, the IPCC’s 2013 Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) found that “there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale,” and that “there is low confidence in detection and attribution of changes in drought over global land areas since the mid-20th century” (Chapter 2, p. 214; Chapter 10, p. 871).

Earth Hour protestors have things backwards. What’s unsustainable is their campaign to tax, regulate, and mandate the world ‘beyond’ fossil fuels before cheaper, better-performing, comparably scalable alternatives are available.

In the current round of climate treaty negotiations, the European Union (EU) advocates a legally-binding agreement that would reduce global carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions “at least” 60 percent below 2010 levels by 2050. All mainstream environmental groups support that target.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce VP for climate and technology Stephen Eule sent me two slides based on his analysis of the EU proposal. To achieve a 60 percent reduction in CO2e emissions below 2010 levels by 2050, the world as a whole must reduce emissions about 77.5 percent below the baseline projection for 2050.

Here’s where it really gets interesting. Even if industrial countries miraculously reduce their CO2 emissions to zero in 2050, to meet the 50-by-60 target, developing countries would still have to cut their emissions 38 percent below current levels. And if industrial countries more realistically (or less unrealistically) reduce their emissions 80 percent by 2050, developing countries would have to cut their emissions 49 percent below current levels—from 31.6 billion tons to 16.1 billion tons.

Eule’s graphs should immediately raise red flags. No country has ever powered its development out of poverty with solar panels, wind turbines, and biofuels. Almost all emissions growth over the next 35 years and beyond is expected to occur in developing countries, and billions of desperately poor people still lack access to modern commercial energy, nearly 87 percent of which comes from fossil fuels.

Although miraculous breakthroughs in the cost and performance of non-emitting technologies could happen, it is in the nature of breakthroughs that they can’t be predicted or planned. At this point, nobody has any frackin’ idea how to eradicate global hunger and poverty while forcing energy-poor developing countries to cut their CO2 emissions in half.

So on Saturday night you have three choices. Do whatever the heck you were going to do anyway. Fine by me. Turn off the lights to make your neighborhood look more like North Korea. Not a bright idea. Or conspicuously consume energy to scoff at humbuggery and stand up for enlightenment. Fun and honorable.