The G7 group of world leaders last weekend committed to eliminating fossil fuels’ usage by 2100, as well as to cutting their use by 40-70% by 2050. That commitment is absurd; neither the world leaders nor anyone else knows anything about what the world economy or its technical capabilities will look like by 2100, yet in this area they are attempting to micromanage it. The world has already suffered eight years of lousy economic performance because of politicians’ mismanagement of fiscal, monetary, and environmental policies. It is time to call out the intellectual bankruptcy of these attempts to wreck our living standards.
First, a political commitment that stretches to 2100, or even 2050, is completely meaningless, given that all seven of the G7 countries are democracies, with evidence of hereditary leadership only in the United States. All but one of the G7 politicians at last week’s meeting are in late middle age; even with science perhaps lengthening lifespans, they will not be in office by 2100, or even 2050.
For one thing, their countries’ political cycles forbid it. Barack Obama leaves office in 2017; it seems unlikely that Michelle will succeed him, as Hillary is attempting to succeed Bill Clinton. David Cameron seems likely to pass his “sell-by-date” by about 2020, and indeed he has promised to stand down then. German leaders last longer, but Angela Merkel is 60 and has been in office for almost a decade. Francois Hollande is also 60, and French tradition doesn’t lead to long leadership terms. Stephen Harper is younger, only 56, but after 9 years in office is surely reaching the limits of the Canadian electorate’s tolerance. Shinzo Abe is also 60, and Japanese leaders are lucky to survive even 5 years – no Japanese prime minister has ever made it past a decade.
Only Matteo Renzi of Italy has a shot at being in office in or after 2050. He’s only 40, and will be 75 in 2050, a plausible leadership age. What’s more, Italian leaders can go on and on (though not consecutively) – Giulio Andreotti’s terms of office stretched over 20 years, ending in a conviction for organizing a Mafia murder (later reversed) while Amintore Fanfani’s terms of office stretched over 33½ years (which wouldn’t quite take Renzi to 2050) and ended when he was 79 (which would take Renzi triumphantly to 2054.)
Still, that’s 2050; even if we grant that today’s politicians have some marginal credibility making commitments for 2050, they have none whatever in making such commitments for 2100. Only if we were ruled by hereditary monarchies, with heirs bound by their ancestors’ actions, would such long-term commitments have any meaning – and even in that case, Queen Victoria in her old age in 1900 did not feel herself bound by commitments made by her uncle as Prince Regent in 1815.
The second problem with the G7 leaders’ commitment is that they are relying on pretty unsettled science and, with political enthusiasm exceeding scientific competence, going beyond it. No reputable scientist has suggested that we need to reduce carbon emissions to zero to eliminate the possibility of global warming. There are innumerable natural sources of carbon dioxide, include human exhalation, so short of wiping out human life (and much animal life) entirely we will not prevent CO2 emissions.
In reality, the main danger of destabilizing the global ecosystem is the inexorable increase in world population. By 2100 on current projections, we will have 10 billion people on the planet. Their natural carbon dioxide emissions would thus have multiplied by a factor of ten the natural emissions of 1800’s 1 billion people even if the Industrial Revolution had been conducted entirely on the basis of clean technologies.
It would be far more realistic – and far more helpful to the global environment – for the G7 leaders to pledge to reduce global population to 1 billion by 2100 than to abolish fossil fuel usage. Indeed, provided the G7 leaders expanded their forum to the G20 (the G7 countries alone have less than 10% of the world’s population), they could actually make a commitment that was meaningful, putting in place policies that would reverse the increase in the world’s population and would cost a tiny fraction of the untold billions to be devoted to combating global warming through energy source modification.
What’s more, unlike a policy of switching to more expensive and unreliable sources of energy, a policy of reversing population growth would actually increase the standards of living of ordinary people over the long term, as global resources would be less heavily utilized and would consequently be reduced in price. Merrie England was most Merrie in about 1470, after the Black Death had wiped out more than a third of the population; similarly among the richest societies in human history have been late Colonial America and 1880s Australia, both of which benefited enormously from very low population density and massive availability of resources per individual.
A third objection to the G7 proposal is the rigidity of the technologies themselves. It’s by no means certain that even with all the subsidies we are doling out to Elon Musk, we can get solar cars to the efficiency and affordability necessary for their universal use. Aircraft are even more difficult to imagine without fossil fuels; the Solar Impulse 2, an experimental solar powered aircraft, is in the process of flying one pilot round the world over a period of five months (since extended because atmospheric conditions need to be exactly right, with winds of no more than 4 mph.) Of course, we could revert to dirigibles, and to taking a week or so to circumnavigate the globe. Plastics, too, are difficult to imagine without hydrocarbons. Overall, the technical difficulties in moving to zero fossil fuel usage appear insuperable, even by 2100. The last 10% is the devil, technologically speaking.
Finally, there is the problem that the goal of abolishing fossil fuel usage is based on climate science that has yet to prove conclusively that a problem exists that is close to warranting these draconian solutions. No, I am not a climate change denier – heaven forbid I should attract that noxious epithet! But the scientific evidence so far shows only a modest warming effect, and the 17-year pause in warming since 1998, together with the further cooling that climate scientists are now postulating between now and 2050, suggest strongly that the warming effect will continue to be modest, probably no more than 1 degree Celsius per century, easily solvable at minimal cost by a few sandbags on the sea walls.
The credibility of the “global warming” hypothesis is seriously damaged for all thinking people by the tactics used by climate change extremists, most of the scientists among whom are dependent on the problem for their livelihood. The left has seized on global warming as an unparalleled opportunity to shift the world into a planned economy, with them doing the planning, at infinite cost to our living standards. The regulations they impose are extortionately expensive, and have little or no effect on carbon levels; one shudders to think of the regulations they could come up with if anybody took the zero fossil fuel usage goal seriously. Their attempts to befuddle dozy politicians into doing their bidding, and to shut down debate among the rest of us, are typical of the left’s modus operandi in any economic or social debate. There is indeed “settled science” in the global warming debate – a little of it – but it doesn’t say what the fanatics claim it says.
Far from devising ever more fanciful and more distant goals which would require the Sovietization of our economy, sensible statesmen should take global warming seriously as a problem, but meet it with a modest carbon tax, which could be ratcheted up if the problem appeared to be becoming more serious and ratcheted down if as at present it appeared to be receding. That would eliminate the cost of regulation, and the gigantic costs of such follies as shutting down the German steel industry or devoting the entire coast of Britain to wind farms. By all means discuss the problem at G7 meetings, but with a sensible 10-year time horizon and without all the gigantic intellectually dishonest bureaucracies whose livelihoods are fueled by alarmism.
Environmental problems should not be ignored. But population reduction, not mad 100-year fossil fuel elimination schemes, is the best way to address them.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)