Fossil Fuels — Curse or Blessing?

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Earth Day turns 48 this year and thousands of activists will “recycle” their calls for greater government control over energy resources and infrastructure. Is that a cause we should support or oppose?

The question is important because abundant, affordable and reliable energy is vital to human flourishing, and government regulations put this resource at risk. On the other hand, Earth Day protesters claim our fossil-fueled civilization is “unsustainable” and headed for a climate catastrophe. Are they correct?

Prediction is difficult — especially about the future! Nonetheless, an abundance of information from high-quality sources, like Our World in Data, reveals that the state of the world is improving. The long-term trends in human health and welfare are strongly positive.

Since 1950, annual global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions increased by 500 percent, and the world warmed about 0.8 degree Centigrade. And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, each of the last 17 years ranks among the warmest since the 1880s. Anthropogenic global warming is real. However, that doesn’t mean the planet, and more important the people who inhabit it, are in peril.

Globally, life expectancy increased by 54 percent, from 48 years in 1950 to 74 years in 2015. All regions made substantial gains, including Africa, the poorest continent, where life expectancy increased by 68 percent.

Many activists claim global warming will make diseases like malaria more prevalent by extending mosquito breeding seasons. However, global malaria infections and deaths are down 22 percent and 44 percent, respectively, since 2000.

Some scientists claim warming will depress crop yields. Yet global yields for wheat, rice and soy were higher in 2014 than in 2000, and U.S. corn yields increased by 26 percent.

During that time frame, improved yields contributed to a 5 percent increase in food availability per person even though the global population grew by 21 percent. Similarly, the global percentage of undernourished people declined from 15 percent in 2000 to 8 percent in 2015.

What about quality of life? From 2000 to 2015, per capita GDP increased by 47 percent in Africa, and by much larger percentages in Asia and Latin America. As a consequence, the share of world population living in absolute poverty — people who earn less than $1.90 per day — declined from 29 percent to 9.5 percent. Life years lost due to disability and disease also declined for all age categories, especially young children and the elderly.

To be sure, hundreds of millions of people are still hungry and poor, and millions die each year from preventable diseases. But the trends are moving in the right direction — despite climate change. Why is that?

For starters, the warming rate is gradual and fairly constant, not rapid and accelerating, as it’s often claimed. Climate change is not “worse than we thought,” it’s better than they told us.

More important, increasing wealth and technological innovation make societies less vulnerable to the effects of weather and climate. For example, since 1990, weather-related losses as a share of global GDP declined by about one-third. Since the 1920s, global deaths and death rates related to extreme weather decreased by 93 percent and 98 percent, respectively.

As fossil fuel consumption increased, the environment became more livable and human civilization more sustainable. That’s not a coincidence. Energy scholar Alex Epstein explains: human beings using fossil fuels did not take a safe climate and make it dangerous; they took a dangerous climate and made it safer.

For example, drought, historically the most lethal form of extreme weather, is far less dangerous today than it was before the advent of global warming thanks largely to fossil fuel-supported technologies and capabilities: mechanized agriculture, synthetic fertilizers, refrigeration, plastic packaging, motorized transport and modern communications.

In addition, by making agriculture more productive, fossil fuels helped rescue nature from humanity. Climate economist Indur Goklany estimates that maintaining the current level of food production without fossil fuels would require converting billions of acres of wildlife habitat into cropland. Farmland expansion is expected to peak during 2020-2040, which means a growing humanity should be able to feed itself and co-exist with other species.

Thanks in no small part to fossil fuels, the world today is healthier, wealthier and safer than ever before in history. And there’s no evidence the economic and social progress is about to stop.

Unfortunately, most Earth Day protesters won’t see it this way — even though the results are right in front of them.

Originally published at Inside Sources