Participants in President Bush’s international climate conference this week in Hawaii should know that the “solution” to global warming — expensive energy — slows economic growth, at enormous human cost. In fact, evidence suggests that policies to fight global warming are worse for human welfare than rising temperatures.
By now it is common knowledge that climate change is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels, which releases heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But fossil fuels generate 85 percent of the world’s energy because they are the cheapest sources of energy on earth. So a move towards green energy is a move away from cheap energy.
Not everyone admits the stark economic realities of fighting climate change. Representative from the European Union, for example, seem oblivious to the costs of the policies they propose. During negotiations last December in Bali, Indonesia, EU officials demanded that the world commit to steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, with the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
According to the International Energy Agency, the costs of meeting the EU’s proposal are staggering. The IEA says that it would require the construction of 30 new nuclear power plants, 17,000 wind turbines, 400 biomass plants, two hydroelectric dams the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam, and 42 coal fired power plants equipped with still-experimental systems to sequester their carbon-dioxide emissions undergroundeach year from 2013 to 2030.
Of course, alternative energy sources cost more than conventional generation from fossil fuels — that’s why a green energy future is an expensive energy future. Expensive energy, however, is inimical to economic well-being. Consider America’s economic malaise during the Carter administration, which was caused in large part by the precipitous increase in the price of oil resulting from the 1973 OPEC oil embargo
Don’t be fooled by politicians like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who claim that curbing global emissions will boost economic growth by creating a thriving “green sector.” For each solar panel technician gained, a coal miner — and much more–are lost, because higher energy prices means less of everything made from energy, which is…everything.
Economists agree that an abrupt transition to a clean energy future would cost the global economy scores, even hundreds, of trillions of dollars. Numbers, no matter how eye-popping, are only an abstraction of the human consequences of a low growth/expensive energy future. Greater wealth yields more medical care, less exposure to the elements and better nutrition-all of which save or prolong human life. By extension, slow growth kills, because it deprives the poorest of the means to ward off cold, sickness and disease.
So what’s worse: the warming, or the policy? Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg applied a cost/benefit analysis to climate change mitigation measures like the Kyoto Protocol, and found they were a tragic waste of money. According to his research, we could spend a fraction of the cost of climate policies on immediate problems, like HIV or malaria, and save millions more lives than global warming would take.
Ina 2007 study, Yale economist William Nordhaus demonstrated that the package of policies advocated by Al Gore would leave the world $44 trillion worse off at the end of the 21st century, or about double the cost of doing nothing about climate change. That’s a killer deal, literally.
To be sure, global warming is real, and the climate will slowly change. But that doesn’t mean that international officials in Hawaii should ignore the costs of controlling the planet’s thermostat; otherwise, they risk prioritizing atmospheric chemistry over global poverty.