The Ethical Inferiority of Renewables
Imagine for a moment that you’re a “believer in climate change action”, perhaps even a Teal candidate recently elected to Parliament on the strength of your concern, and that of your electorate, about carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. You fly (on a fossil-fuelled aircraft) to one of the world’s most impoverished countries—the Democratic Republic of Congo, let us say—and then drive (almost certainly not in an electric vehicle) carefully and slowly over rough, muddy, unsealed roads to an impoverished shanty town.
Alighting from the air-conditioned car into the tropical heat, you look a destitute couple in the eye and, through a Congolese interpreter, tell them: “I’m sorry, but you and your children—as well as billions of other impoverished people—cannot have what I’ve taken for granted since the day I was born: fossil-fuelled development and its immeasurable benefits such as clean drinking water, an effective sewerage system, decent accommodation, sufficient nourishing food, modern medical attention, local, national and global transport and communications and much else besides. You cannot have these essentials because they’re fossil-fuelled; I advocate the rapid elimination of fossil fuels, and my influential friends and I mean to get our way.” You then return to the airport, fly home and demand “climate action now!”
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If that remains your position, you’re not alone: among the most despicable moral failings of the zealots of decarbonisation, environmental, social and governance principles (so-called ESG, which one astute critic has defined as “Economic Suicide Guaranteed”), “net zero” and the like, is an indifference to the point of callousness that elevates a “first world” ideology above all else—including the welfare of the world’s poorest people. Bluntly, climate activists are at best shallow, parochial and self-centred, and at worst, greedy narcissists.
Our hypothetical Teal politician will likely dismiss this thought experiment. For starters, she will assert that if “we” don’t abolish hydrocarbon fuels as a matter of urgency, climate-induced disasters will cost millions of lives. Moreover, “green energy” is already filling and will doubtless fill the gap left when hydrocarbon-burning generators and machines splutter to a stop.
What do records show for the numbers of climate-related deaths (generously defined) over the past 100-odd years as the world has developed economically and largely thanks to cheap energy, lifting billions out of poverty? According to the International Disaster Database, despite a massive increase in the human population, climate-related deaths have fallen decade by decade (and precipitously since the 1940s), from just under half a million per annum in the 1920s, to some 15,000 annually in the ten years to 2019. Put another way, and accounting for population increase, the probability of climate-related death was 144 times higher in the 1920s than in the 2010s.
But perhaps mortality figures are too blunt a measure of the purported increasing incidence of highly destructive storms, floods and bushfires? The Insurance Council of Australia collects data on natural hazard catastrophe events (NHCEs) dating from 1967. The cost of claims for NHCEs is indeed rising; crucially, however, adjusted for inflation, population, the rising real value of assets, stricter building codes and so on, it isn’t. The normalised cost of NHCEs since 1967 has averaged 0.23 per cent of real GDP. In 2022 it totalled 0.3 per cent—and since 1967 there has been no upward trend.
These data are at odds—to put it mildly—with the headlines which greeted the release of the latest (sixth) Assessment Report (“AR6”) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Quoting the UN’s Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, the ABC reported breathlessly on August 21, 2021: “The Earth could be just 10 years from heating by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius—a threshold beyond which even more serious and frequent fires, droughts, floods and cyclones are expected to wreak havoc on humanity.”
Yet the IPCC doesn’t support anything remotely close to this hysterical claim. The following quotes come from the report of Working Group I:
On drought: “There is low confidence that human influence has affected trends in meteorological droughts in most regions, but medium confidence that human-induced climate change has contributed to increasing trends in the probability or intensity of recent agricultural and ecological droughts” (Chapter 11, Section 6.4.5).
On storms: “It is likely that the global proportion of major (Category 3–5) tropical cyclone occurrence has increased over the last four decades, and it is very likely that the latitude where tropical cyclones in the western North Pacific reach their peak intensity has shifted northward; these changes cannot be explained by internal variability alone (medium confidence). There is low confidence in long-term (multi-decadal to centennial) trends in the frequency of all-category tropical cyclones” (Summary for Policymakers, p. 9).
On floods: “In summary there is low confidence in the human influence on the changes in high river flows on the global scale. Confidence is in general low in attributing changes in the probability or magnitude of flood events to human influence because of a limited number of studies and differences in the results of these studies, and large modelling uncertainties” (Chapter 11, Section 5.4).
Steven Koonin’s terrific book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters (2021), reviews the IPCC’s actual findings and other research (including his own). He concludes: “even as human influences have increased almost five-fold since 1950 and the globe has warmed modestly, most severe weather phenomena remain within past variability”.
Why then the widespread belief, fuelled by the news media, that climate-related disasters are on the increase? Commenting on the plummeting number of climate-related deaths in March 2018, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre wrote:
this is clearly opposite of what you normally hear, but that is because we’re often just being told … how many events are happening. The number of reported events is increasing, but that is mainly due to better reporting, lower thresholds and better accessibility (the “CNN effect”).
“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics,” Robert Solow famously quipped in 1987 (the year he won the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, usually but erroneously called “the Nobel Prize in Economics”). Analogously, these days climate change is allegedly affecting everything except the figures in the Insurance Council of Australia’s Historical Catastrophe Database. The assertion is becoming more common and strident, but the reality is clearly otherwise: over the past half-century, the frequency of natural disasters in Australia hasn’t increased; nor—when properly measured and placed into proper context—has their cost or severity.
What about the assertion that “renewables” can replace energy currently sourced from fossil fuels, and do so soon? The simple reason that this is untrue is because it is not cost-effective. To replace fossil fuels now would mean hugely increased costs (of energy, and thence downstream in the broader economy). Less energy will therefore be consumed, living standards in developed countries will fall, and those areas of the world mired in poverty will remain so.
So why can’t renewables compete with fossil fuels? There are three fundamental reasons: first, because of their intermittent and unreliable nature, they require a backup system (“baseload power”) which must be able to provide up to 100 per cent of the requirements of the grid; second, they are difficult and costly to store; and third, they are of very low “energy density”, meaning, amongst other things, that they are not suited to providing power to many forms of transport and heavy machinery. There may be technical solutions to these drawbacks in the future, but until then the financial costs of renewables will mean they cannot fill the gap should fossil fuels be banished, without impoverishing us all. Regardless, we are told repeatedly that the transition to green energy is already substantially under way, notwithstanding that the available statistics do not support this; in 2021, hydrocarbons still provided 82 per cent of the world’s total energy. Moreover, the alternatives are mostly nuclear and hydro-electric (14 per cent); “renewable” solar and wind provided a mere 4 per cent.
Since the Industrial Revolution, abundant, low-cost and reliable hydrocarbon energy, by powering a vast array of machines that have produced food, housing, medical services and transport, has immeasurably improved the standard of living of billions of people and lengthened their lives. (Not incidentally, the richer a country, the better the quality of its environment—and the more it can afford to maintain and expand wilderness.) “Climate activists” thus ignore or deny the indisputable truth that the use of hydrocarbons imparts fundamental—and radically underappreciated—benefits. These include lifting a large proportion of the human population out of poverty, as well as the ability to transform our environment from one that’s naturally dangerous and unhygienic into one that’s unnaturally safe and sanitary.
There is, as Alex Epstein puts it in Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal and Natural Gas—Not Less (2022), “a moral case for a fossil future … If you want to make the world a better place, one of the best things you can do is [advocate] more fossil fuel use—more burning of coal, oil and natural gas.” That this is anathema to the climate warriors hardly needs saying, because as Epstein points out (as does Michael Shellenberger in Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, 2020), most prominent and influential climate scientists value the quality of “the environment” more highly than the welfare of people. Indeed, in order to “save the environment” they will apparently gladly sacrifice the welfare not just of individuals or groups, but of humankind as a whole.
Eliminating human impact on the environment, regardless of the consequences for human welfare, is the primary moral goal of the most prominent and influential (as decided by governments and mainstream media) climate scientists and campaigners. It’s important to emphasise that this is the express view of a minority. But that’s enough, because they’re very influential. The vast majority of climate scientists and campaigners (as well as politicians, journalists and “woke” CEOs) rarely inspect the movement’s ethical underpinnings (or lack thereof) and content themselves with the incantation of seemingly innocuous phrases. They go along in order to get along—and to get ahead.
David M. Graber, in his review in the Los Angeles Times of Bill McKibben’s prominent book The End of Nature (1989), exemplified the extreme, minority but influential position—and its chilling anti-human implications:
McKibben is a biocentrist, and so am I. We are not interested in the utility of a particular species or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them. Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet … Until such time as homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.
The rest of us can only hope that biocentrists’ hopes remain thwarted. Climate scientists and environmental activists rarely state their odious moral preferences as explicitly as Graber. If they did, most people would emphatically reject them. The trouble, as Epstein and Shellenberger document, is that most environmentalists and climate scientists—and most politicians, the mainstream media and much of the general public—share these preferences to some degree. The ubiquitous use of weasel-phrases such as “going green”, “protecting the environment” and “saving the planet” obscure their immoral consequences—not least from those who utter them.
The case of the climate-change activists is fatally flawed not merely because it’s technically infeasible and ruinously expensive, but ultimately because it’s egregiously immoral: it consigns billions of people in poor countries to continued grinding poverty, and, if implemented in rich countries, will impoverish scores of millions.
Chris Leithner is Managing Director of Leithner & Company, an investment company based in Brisbane. He is the author of The Intelligent Australian Investor (2005), The Evil Princes of Martin Place: The Reserve Bank of Australia, the Global Financial Crisis and the Threat to Australians’ Liberty and Prosperity (2011) and The Bourgeois Manifesto: The Robinson Crusoe Ethic Versus the Distemper of Our Times (2017). This article is adapted from a longer essay previously published online at http://www.livewiremarkets.com.au. He acknowledges with thanks the editorial assistance of Toby Nichols.