What President Obama Will Not Tell Leonardo DiCaprio About Climate Policy

“President Obama will meet with actor Leonardo DiCaprio at an upcoming White House-sponsored arts festival to discuss the dangers posed by climate change,” the Washington Examiner reports. They will be joined by climate scientist Dr. Kathryn Hayhoe to examine “the importance of protecting the one planet we’ve got for future generations,” according to the White House website. Following the conversation, attendees will watch the U.S. premiere of DiCaprio’s climate change documentary film Before the Flood.

Mr. DiCaprio is one of my favorite actors, and I do not question his passion to protect humanity and nature. But as the saying goes, the road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. There are risks not only of climate change but also of climate change policy. However, the Titanic star will never learn that from President Obama or Dr. Hayhoe.

In his acceptance speech at the Oscars, Mr. DiCaprio said:

And lastly, I just want to say this: Making The Revenant was about man's relationship to the natural world. A world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow. Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this. For our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed. I thank you all for this amazing award tonight. Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted. Thank you so very much. 

I encourage Mr. DiCaprio and others who share his convictions to open their hearts and minds to competing concerns and ideas. Climate change is not the most urgent threat facing humanity. Globally, poverty always has been and remains by far the number one cause of preventable illness and premature death.

The billions of underprivileged people who are the most vulnerable to climate change are also the most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature and climate generally. Why? In large part because they lack access to commercial energy. An estimated 1.3 billion people have no electricity, another 2.3 billion have too little electricity to support development, and many of those same people cannot afford automobiles and may never experience the personal mobility we take for granted.

By the same token, automobiles and other largely fossil-fueled technologies have dramatically reduced humanity’s vulnerability to climate-related risks. As energy scholar Alex Epstein puts it, human beings using fossil fuels did not take a safe climate and make it dangerous, they took a dangerous climate and made it much safer.

For example, historically drought has been the most lethal form of extreme weather, because it threatens the availability of food and water. In the 1920s an estimated 472,000 people worldwide died from drought. Since then roughly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution entered the atmosphere, CO2 concentrations increased from about 303 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm, and the planet warmed by about 0.8°C. If fossil-fueled development were “unsustainable,” the death toll from drought should be even larger today. Instead, total deaths and death rates related to drought declined by a spectacular 99.8 percent and 99.9 percent, respectively.

Drought is far less dangerous today thanks largely to fossil fuel-supported technologies (mechanized agriculture, synthetic fertilizers, refrigeration, plastic packaging) and capabilities (motorized transport, modern communications, emergency relief programs). Deaths and death rates related to other forms of extreme weather have also declined substantially since the good old days of ~300 ppm CO2. In short, the climate has become more livable.

In the process, by making agriculture fantastically more productive, fossil fuels also rescued nature from humanity. Cato Institute scholar Indur Goklany estimates that to maintain the current level of global food production without fossil fuels, “at least another 2.3 billion hectares of habitat would have to be converted to cropland”—an area equivalent to the territories of the United States, Canada, and India combined. Thus, he observes:

Not only have these fossil fuel-dependent technologies ensured that humanity’s progress and well-being are no longer hostage to nature’s whims, but they saved nature herself from being devastated by the demands of a rapidly expanding and increasingly voracious human population.

The politics of greed knows no boundaries of party or ideology. Indeed, politics everywhere from time immemorial is chiefly the organized pursuit of plunder. Greed is no stranger to global warming advocacy, which seeks to redistribute trillions of dollars in wealth from fossil-energy interests to alternative-energy interests via carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, renewable energy quota, and other interventions designed to pick energy market winners and losers. Moreover, a major objective of the Paris Agreement is “mobilizing climate finance,” more commonly known as foreign aid, i.e. taxing poor people in rich countries for the benefit of rich people in poor countries.

A key point for Mr. DiCaprio to ponder is this. The actual climate influenced by fossil fuel emissions is already on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s 2°C climate “stabilization” target. But if we assume the validity of the modeled climate based on “consensus” science, the 2°C limit on global warming cannot be achieved without imposing painful sacrifices on developing countries.

Stephen Eule of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy has done the math. If industrial countries like the U.S. magically reduce their emissions to zero by 2050, the 2°C target is still unattainable unless developing countries cut their current CO2 emissions by 35 percent. If, less unrealistically, industrial countries reduce their emissions by 80 percent, developing countries would have to cut their current CO2 emissions almost in half—by 48 percent.

Nobody knows how developing countries can simultaneously eradicate energy poverty over the next few decades and reduce their consumption of the world’s most abundant, affordable, and reliable energy sources by 35 percent or more. Putting an energy-starved world on an energy diet obviously has the potential to be a cure worse than the alleged disease. Those who care about the world’s underprivileged people, as I believe Mr. DiCaprio sincerely does, should carefully consider the risks of climate policy as well as those of climate change.