According to Al Gore, Prince Charles, Bill Nye, and a host of other high-profile enviro-scolds, the world’s burning of carbon fuels is the death knell of civilization itself. Setting their hyperbole aside – the current state of knowledge points more towards lukewarmism than climate catastrophe – we find a big problem with the solution they commingle into their warnings.

We are told that the countries of the world must join together in drastically reducing their carbon emissions. We are told that the path to doing this lies in wholesale conversion to alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power. Some countries are doing so by artificially lowering the price of these alternative energies (tax credits and government largesse), artificially raising the price of carbon energy (taxes), and/or brute-force legislation mandating one and prohibiting the other. This serves to make energy more expensive for those countries, and thus make life more expensive for their citizens.

But, if it’s necessary to save the planet, shouldn’t that be OK? Well, only if a – it truly is necessary and b – if everyone in the world plays along.

There are two problems. First – some nations aren’t willing to harm their citizenry to that extent. Second – basic economic truths are going to get in the way.

With the advent of hydraulic fracturing in America and Canada and with new oil fields being discovered and accessed in South America, both global output and global reserves have been growing. This has knocked the price of oil down by two-thirds from its 2008 peak, putting a dent in the revenues of oil states such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, and others. Those states need revenues to maintain their economies, and have made attempts via the OPEC cartel to cut output and drive prices back up. But, they can’t manage to agree on output cuts, simply because those cuts aren’t going to be heeded globally (Russia, the United States, China, Mexico, Canada, Norway, and Brazil, all major oil producers/exporters, are not in OPEC), and because the revenue pressure will, in classic game-theory fashion, incentivize defectors.

Many oil producers need to keep pumping crude out of the ground, and that will keep prices from climbing too high. And, even if they did agree to cut output, rising prices would make less-accessible oil reserves (deep sea, shale-fracking, etc) profitable, and undermine the effort to drive prices up further.

Meanwhile, alternative energy is economically viable in certain locations and under certain conditions, and that will displace some carbon energy production. Given the large petroleum supply and the pressures that prevent decreases in output, more alternative energy will simply make carbon energy cheaper.

Then there’s the madness surrounding nuclear power. Despite its being the most obvious answer to global warming concerns, nations that are at the fore of “greening” are shutting down their nuclear plants. Sure, they’re trying to build solar and wind farms to replace that capacity, but solar and wind are intermittent, and require base-load backup. This typically means natural gas generators. So, by shutting down nuclear plants, those nations are actually increasing their future reliance on carbon energy.

On the flip side, if nuclear power does make a comeback (and any AGW green who isn’t a strong nuclear power advocate is, in my eyes, either a charlatan or a fool), it will decrease carbon energy’s global share and, given the supply pressures, make it cheaper.

As will efficiency improvements in the first world. Vehicles are getting more miles per gallon every year. Energy production facilities have every incentive to extract every erg of energy from the fuels we use. Better home heating and cooling systems, better insulation, more efficient appliances, LED lighting, and even Tesla’s solar power roof shingles reduce demand for energy in our first-world environs.

Meanwhile, the third world is rising up out of subsistence living. This is a Good Thing. What we take for granted here in the West would be unimaginable luxury to billions of the world’s poor, and there is no reason we should stand in the way of their pursuing it. Living standards grow with energy consumption, and the poor will best be served by tapping into the cheapest energy available. Of course, this serves to counterweigh price drops caused by reduced demand elsewhere, but all that’ll happen here is a shift of demand for carbon energy form first to third world.

In sum, we’ve got a lot of supply, we have a lot of people who depend on the revenues from that supply, everything we do that shrinks demand will make it cheaper, and the global rise of living standards wants the cheapest form of energy available. In the long run, market forces always win, and until something comes along that’s fundamentally cheaper than drilling and mining for carbon energy, it’s going to be a major and undisplaceable component of world energy production. The first world may indeed reduce its demand for carbon energy, but the third world will not, and as the latter continues its climb out of subsistence living (at least a quarter of India’s populace still has no electricity), cheap carbon energy will be too irresistible a temptation to ignore.

What does this mean for Al Gore et al? If we are to presume sincerity in their messaging (a big “if,” but leave that for another day), action in response to global warming concerns should be focused on technological mitigation, not brute-force reduction of carbon emissions via caps and taxes. Climate engineering ideas like carbon capture and storage and solar radiation management do not harm the world’s poor by denying them access to energy and do not require full-compliance global participation in carbon caps and taxes. They also don’t require that we act, now, despite the increasing questions regarding the veracity of climate model predictions.

It’s time to stop hating carbon energy. If we need to do something about global warming, chasing limits on carbon emissions is, quite ironically, tilting at windmills. Carbon energy will be with us for a long, long time.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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