In his global warming scare-you-mentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth” (AIT), which was recently released on DVD, former Vice President Al Gore declares global warming is a “moral issue.” It is, but for very different reasons than Mr. Gore professes.
Mr. Gore considers it immoral to oppose the Kyoto Protocol, energy taxes or other coercive schemes to curb carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions linked to global warming. My meaning is quite different: It is immoral to put an energy-starved world on an energy diet.
Carbon dioxide emissions derive from energy use, which derives from, and fuels, economic activity. Controlling atmospheric CO2 levels is not remotely possible unless China, India and other high-growth developing countries restrict use of carbon-based energy.
But demand for fossil energy is growing, especially in developing countries. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects global energy consumption will rise by 71 percent between 2003 and 2030, with three-quarters of that growth in developing countries. Fossil fuels account for the lion’s share of the increase in consumption.
The real inconvenient truth is that nobody knows how to meet current, much less future, global energy needs with low- and non-emitting technologies. Indeed, the only proven “method” for making deep emission cuts is that of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: economic collapse.
Energy poverty is a scourge, shortening the lives and impairing the health of untold millions of people around the globe. An estimated 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity, and some 2.4 billion people still rely on biomass – wood, crop waste and dung – for cooking and heating. Daily indoor air pollution in energy-poor countries is much dirtier than outdoor air in the world’s most polluted cities, and kills about 2.8 million people a year, most of them women and children. Reliance on biomass also takes a heavy toll on forests and wildlife habitat.
There is no known way to meet the developing world’s energy needs without increasing use of CO2-emitting fossil fuels. Forcing developing countries to go on an energy diet would condemn them to decades of continuing poverty, backwardness and misery.
“But Lewis,” Al Gore might object, “the Kyoto Protocol exempts developing countries from binding emission limitations. It only restricts energy use in rich countries, like the United States.” That is correct – for now. But the developing-country exemption is a classic bait-and-switch ploy. Developing countries would not have ratified Kyoto unless it exempted them from carbon controls during the first compliance period (2008-2012). But Kyoto is doomed unless the exemption is repealed, and every insider knows it.
Kyoto supporters consider the treaty just a first step in a series of carbon-suppression agreements, each more stringent and inclusive than its predecessor. Even under favorable scientific assumptions, Kyoto would avert only 7/100ths of 1 degree Celsius of global warming by 2050 – too little for scientists to detect. Taking the first step makes sense only if you are prepared to restrict energy use globally.
More critically, most European countries are not on track to meet their current Kyoto targets. They will surely miss the much tougher targets proposed for the second, post-2012 period unless they can buy large quantities of cheap emission permits from outside the European Union. China and India could provide these permits – but only if they first agree to limit their carbon emissions. Expect increased European pressure on developing countries – via trade penalties and foreign aid bribes – to limit their emissions.
Even in the United States, high energy prices inflict hardship on low-income households. Millions of families already feel pinched by the high cost of gasoline, natural gas, and home heating oil. A Kyoto-style system would push energy prices even higher. Does the new Congress really want to take credit for pushing U.S. gasoline prices to record highs?
Many members of Congress professed to outrage in late 2005 when gasoline prices spiked above $3 a gallon. Many European consumers pay twice as much for gasoline, due to high motor fuel taxes. Yet, despite higher fuel prices, European Union transport sector CO2 emissions increased almost 26 percent during 1990-2004 and are projected under current policies to be 35 percent above 1990 levels in 2010. How much higher than European-level gasoline prices does Al Gore think Americans should have to pay?
The perils of global warming are speculative. Those of energy poverty are all too real. Global warming is indeed a moral issue, because global-warming policies have enormous potential to harm poor people. This is a critical aspect of the global warming debate that “An Inconvenient Truth” conveniently ignores.
Marlo Lewis is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, A Skeptic’s Guide to An Inconvenient Truth.