Which Way Forward on Energy and the Environment

This Earth Day, we are likely to once again hear the too-common predictions of climate catastrophe and calls for ambitious—and costly—policies to address the problem. It all sounds quite scary. Yet, a more thoughtful approach is needed if America and the world are to move forward with sensible climate policies that ensure human prosperity while protecting the environment.

It is time to change course on the debate about climate policy. Doing so will require confronting two pathologies: overconfidence in our ability to predict the future and adherence to the politics of fear.

As I note in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner today:

We have to be willing to see what is right in front of us without losing the faculties of reason or skepticism. It’s time to recognize that there are real limits to what we know, and that the less environmental goals are used as political wedge issues, the more progress we’ll all make toward a healthier, more sustainable, and prosperous future.

The most robust response to global challenges such as climate is adaptation. Adaptive solutions require economic development. It is the principal means by which additional resources can be created to devote to the central threats to our ecosystem.

Adaptation also demands clear-eyed assessments of the world as it is. Consider one example. Forests are being cut down, with devastating effects on local biodiversity and water quality. But overall, the planet is greening, and the tree canopy is expanding, which results in greater carbon capture. Both are true, and neither should be ignored because it is inconvenient to a preferred political narrative.

A clear-eyed view of the facts—and the choices they present—is crucial given the stakes in the policy debate.

Regulators control the risks inherent to climate policy. Yet, deciding who should get access to credit or capital should not be a political decision. The Kafkaesque situation faced by energy companies and their investors is heightened by the fact that the predictions about the environment driving their situation have been consistently overstated and extreme, while any discussion of the costs and assumptions undergirding any effort to eliminate fossil fuels is so muted. As I further point out:

According to the International Energy Agency, Africa will be the most populous region on Earth by 2023. Today there are 600 million Africans without access to electricity and 900 million who lack clean water. Achieving a reliable electricity supply for this population will require a huge investment, about four times pre-pandemic trends, of $120 billion a year, every year through 2040.

That gargantuan figure assumes access to the most readily available forms of energy: fossil fuels.

We rely on coal, oil, and gas for about 80 percent of our global energy needs. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in renewable energy has merely kept pace with demand, while market-driven innovations in hydraulic fracturing have dramatically boosted production of hydrocarbon-based energy in ways that are economically salutary while also lowering emissions. Climate activists want to do away with such cleaner forms of hydrocarbon energy production (Indeed, this is the central argument of Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger).

But what would shifting from hydrocarbons to wind and solar energy actually entail? Wind and solar are highly land-intensive. One estimate is that, to generate enough electricity to match the output of a conventional gas-burning power plant, solar requires 300 to 400 times the land use. Wind appears to require 40 to 250 times the land use of a conventional power plant.

Wind and solar farms also require more nonrenewable materials to operate than an available alternative, a natural gas plant. Mark Mills, a manufacturing expert with the Manhattan Institute and Northwestern University, has shown that a 100-megawatt windfarm can power 75,000 homes, but requires 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete, and 900 tons of non-recyclable plastics. The same power from solar farms requires 150 percent of these materials.

To continue increasing the proportion of energy generated by wind and solar, the world will need an increase of up to 2,000 percent in the mining of rare earth metals. Manufacturing an electric vehicle battery requires up to 20 minerals. These metals are rarely mined in the United States. Instead, many are sourced from China, Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and other countries with lax environmental standards.China is the world’s dominant producer of rare earth elements, with a dominance of more than 95 percent of current production.

This complex picture is one major reason why considerations for human welfare should inform every stage of the climate policy debate. Those considerations underscore why overconfidence in our ability to predict the future, especially regarding a natural phenomenon as complex as climate, can be dangerous. 

The overall record of catastrophist predictions regarding the environment is rarely given the cautionary weight they deserve in policy deliberations. Why jeopardize generous research grants and sinecures, prestigious appointments, and access to government and business leaders? Why risk the wrath of professional agitators who threaten to cancel the reputations of dissenters from the view that these are the worst and most dangerous of all times?

Consider some of the most prominent, most dire environmental predictions that have gotten it wrong again and again, and always wrong in the same direction. John Holdren, who would go on to serve as senior science and technology advisor to President Obama, predicted in 1986 that climate change would almost certainly cause the deaths of a billion people by 2020 (Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, attributes this claim to Holdren in The Machinery of Nature).

More recently, a 2016 study in Nature examining Northern Hemisphere rainfall data going back 1,200 years found that today’s climate models were frequently wrong on predicting extreme rain and drought.

Melting Arctic ice is the ultimate symbol of climate catastrophe for activists. Campaigning against fossil fuels in 2009, Al Gore predicted an ice-free North Pole by 2014. It is 2021 and we are far from it. In fact, a new study suggests that humans are not the only cause of Arctic melt. There are big and poorly understood natural processes at work. According to the report, natural change in the Arctic climate “may be responsible for about 30 to 50 percent of the overall decline in September sea ice since 1979.”

Quite simply, we know a lot less about the intricacies of the processes that produce our climate than we’d like to know. We make predictions based on theories regarding those processes, and too often cling to those theories even when the predictions fail to materialize. We are overconfident and that is costly.

Moreover, the fact that climate predictions all tend to err in the same luridly apocalyptic direction raises the question of whether they are science at all, or merely polemical devices to generate fear among the public and prompt political action against certain companies or industries.

A better way forward will require putting humility ahead of overconfidence and cautious optimism ahead of the politics of fear.