A report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) proposed a radical policy agenda last month:
- Immediately end the approval of all new coal-fired power plants and oil and gas fields internationally.
- Swiftly phase out all gasoline-powered vehicles.
- Ban the sale of new oil and gas furnaces to heat buildings.
“That would very likely keep the average global temperature from increasing 1.5 Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold beyond which scientists say the Earth faces irreversible damage,” says a recent New York Times article that discusses the IEA’s report.
And those were just a few of the extreme measures that the world’s leading energy agency said would be required to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The Biden Administration’s “2030 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Target” puts the United States in fairly close alignment with the IEA’s objectives. The White House’s target includes a carbon-pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050.
Our Fossil Fuel Economy
How radical is this agenda? Well, since the prices of some renewable energy sources have been falling rapidly relative to those of some fossil fuels, it is plausible that the global economy may shift somewhat away from fossil fuels on its own in the coming decades. But from the industrial revolution to the present day, fossil fuels have been absolutely central to global economic progress.
Enacting the IEA/Biden agenda would mean overturning the vast majority of our economy, roughly 84 percent of which still runs on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, as opposed to other energy sources such as wind and solar, which are far less reliable and applicable to a much narrower range of industrial uses.
As Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative, has written for the Brookings Institution, “The world today is unrecognizable from that of the early 19th century, before fossil fuels came into wide use. Human health and welfare have improved markedly, and the global population has increased from 1 billion in 1800 to almost 8 billion today. The fossil fuel energy system is the lifeblood of the modern economy.”
But despite the central role of fossil fuels in humanity’s material wellbeing, the IEA and the Biden Administration believe that averting the most devastating effects of climate change will require public regulatory policy that shifts the economy almost entirely toward alternative energy sources.
Many experts believe that anthropogenic climate change is already responsible for intensified storms, heatwaves, droughts, and vector-borne diseases. According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change earlier this year, it is likely that anthropogenic climate change has been responsible for about a third of human heat deaths since 1991. Such are the “catastrophic effects of climate change” expected by the IEA to worsen substantially over the next few decades, unless global civilization brings its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
But is there any way in which such colossal regulatory measures are likely to backfire? And how bad could such unintended consequences be? Could they be so bad as to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the most catastrophic effects of climate change on human wellbeing?
Climate Danger Versus Climate Resilience
Reducing fossil fuel use may reduce the intensity of climate change, possibly including dangers such as intensified storms, droughts, and heat waves. But that’s not all it does. Using fewer fossil fuels also impacts how people are affected by those dangers: in other words, humanity’s level of “climate resilience.”
The exact definition of “climate resilience” is debated, but it typically includes adaptation to changing climate conditions, absorption of climate impact, and transformation of the environment using technological or scientific means. All of these resilience strategies are made possible by economic progress, including fossil fuel-led growth. With less access to abundant and reliable energy, civilization’s climate resilience would be substantially reduced.
The widespread availability of fossil fuels directly contributes trillions of dollars to the global economy each year, and indirectly contributes incalculably more by making countless other industries possible. This economic growth is continuously granting more and more communities access to better infrastructure, medicine, education, and other precious advantages against the dangers of an ever-changing environment. Fossil fuels, by allowing civilization to cheaply and reliably power its homes, vehicles, hospitals, factories, and other engines of human wellbeing, protect people from an ever-widening range of potential climate impacts.
The climate resilience side of the equation, despite being at least as significant as the climate danger side, is often ignored in the models of future climate impact. This is because, while it is difficult to model a changing climate, it is impossible to model the future of human ingenuity, which will be composed of decisions and insights that only the people of the future can possibly know.
How We’ve Done So Far
So which edge of the climate sword is sharper? Has the damage caused by climate change so far outweighed humanity’s progress building climate resilience?
According to research from the University of Oxford economist Max Roser and the University of Edinburgh geoscientist Hannah Ritchie, absolute global deaths from natural disasters have been going down almost every year between 1901 and 2018, even while the global population has exploded from roughly 1.6 billion to roughly 7.7 billion during that period.
This overall reduction in deaths by natural disaster, which accounts for floods, extreme weather, extreme temperature, earthquakes, and droughts, is similar to the consistent reduction in deaths by disease in recent decades (COVID-19 obviously overturned these disease data in 2020, but not in a way that’s directly relevant to climate change, since it is only vector-borne diseases that are directly exacerbated by climate change).
The data—which show climate-related deaths have been falling even while fossil fuel use has intensified climate change—suggest that so far climate danger has been no match for climate resilience in the battle over human wellbeing.
The Alarmist Assumption
The IEA, the Biden Administration, and others advocating for extreme near-term reductions in global fossil fuel use have one seldom-examined assumption at the foundation of their climate alarmism. This assumption is that despite climate resilience having consistently outpaced climate danger in the past, soon the tables will turn and climate danger will gain the upper hand.
It is widely believed that dangerous tipping points likely dwell in the future of environmental change. What is rarely factored in is that continued economic growth, facilitated in large part by fossil fuels, will likely continue to produce unpredictable technological and scientific breakthroughs, creating new forms of security and wellbeing, and at new scales.
The climate alarmists would have society sacrifice one of its most precious industries, and thus radically increase the price of electricity, food, housing, and countless other critical assets without which the global poor would be at the mercy of starvation and homelessness. These economic changes might sound weatherable to those of us who can afford frequent meals out and subscriptions to Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max all at the same time, but to the global poor, this is a matter of life and death.
As the Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman famously said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results. We all know a famous road that is paved with good intentions.” History suggests that extremist energy agendas like the IEA’s and the Biden administration’s would lead us down such a road, making millions of poor people more vulnerable to climate threats in the name of mitigating those threats.