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Teaching the Judiciary About the Benefits of Carbon Dioxide

June 8, 2018

Climate Change Weekly #287

My lead essay in Climate Change Weekly 232 addressed responses by scientists, including those affiliated with The Heartland Institute, to a call by William Alsup, the presiding judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, who requested a tutorial on climate change and climate science. Alsup asked for the lecture prior to commencing a trial in which Oakland and San Francisco are suing oil companies for allegedly delaying emissions regulations by discrediting climate change research.

In the aftermath of the March tutorial, at a May 24 hearing to consider motions by the oil companies involved to have him dismiss the cities’ lawsuits, Alsup indicated if he is to consider the potential climate harms caused by the use of oil and gas, he must also examine the huge benefits their use has delivered, saying, “We need to weigh in the large benefits that have flowed from the use of fossil fuels. There have been huge benefits.”

Alsup is correct: the use of fossil fuels has tremendously benefitted the peoples of the world, and The Heartland Institute has produced a document succinctly highlighting many of those benefits, for his consideration.

In “The Social Benefit of Fossil Fuels,” Heartland Director Joseph Bast and Senior Fellow Peter Ferrara document five benefits, four direct and one indirect, from the use of fossil fuels.

The first two benefits described by Bast and Ferrara—that the use of fossil fuels has and continues to lift billions of people out of poverty and that fossil fuels have and are vastly improving human well-being and safety by powering labor-saving and life-protecting technologies—I count as one giant benefit. As the report shows, before the discovery of and development of technology to exploit fossil fuels,

humans expended nearly as much energy (calories) producing food and finding fuel (primarily wood and dung) to warm their dwellings as their primitive technologies were able to produce. Back-breaking work to provide bare necessities was required from sun-up to sun-down, leaving little time for any other activity. The result was a vicious cycle in which the demands of the immediate present prevented the investment of the time and capital needed to think about and discover ways to improve productivity.

Fossil fuels—first coal and then also oil and natural gas—provided the energy that produced and powered nearly all the revolutionary technologies of the Industrial Revolution, plus plastics, high-tech manufacturing, and mobile computer devices. Journalist Robert Bryce notes, “Without cheap supplies of electricity produced from coal, the ongoing revolution in information technology, as well as the age of biotech and nanotech, simply wouldn’t be possible.” Between 1850 and 2010, the exploitation of fossil fuels accompanied, and in large part made possible, a 550 percent increase in the world’s population, all while poverty and hunger declined dramatically. During this time, energy consumption increased nearly 50-fold and world per-capita energy consumption increased nearly ninefold. Nearly all the world’s increased energy consumption came from fossil fuels.

I mentioned hunger above, and that’s no coincidence. The use of fossil fuels for mechanized farming (such as gasoline- and diesel-powered tractors for planting, fertilizing, harvesting, storing, and for trucks to transport crops), to power irrigation systems, and for creating the chemicals for fertilizers and pesticides to improve and expedite crop growth and prevent loss to weeds, insects, and other pests, is responsible for the Green Revolution that delivered literally billions of people from hunger and malnutrition during the twentieth century.

As Bast and Ferrara write, “Fossil fuels … [made] it possible for an ever-smaller part of the population to raise food sufficient to feed a growing global population without devastating nature or polluting air or water.” The discovery of how to make ammonia from natural gas enabled farmers to increase crop yields dramatically, thus preventing huge conversions of wildlife habitat into cropland. Food production has risen, hunger and malnutrition have declined, and all the while fewer people and less land are devoted to farming.

An additional factor contributing to record-setting crop yields and a general greening of the Earth as forests reclaim former cropland and some desert edges, is the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting directly from the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is necessary for photosynthesis. During the middle of the last ice age, atmospheric carbon dioxide dropped to 180 parts per million (ppm), just 30 ppm above the level at which plants are unable to carry out photosynthesis and thus grow and reproduce. Many staple crops developed at a time when carbon dioxide levels were much higher than today, thus the 120 ppm increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels due to the burning of fossil fuels beginning with the Industrial Revolution has helped crops thrive. Citing various peer-reviewed sources, Bast and Ferrara state the “increase in atmospheric [carbon dioxide] concentration … caused by the historical burning of fossil fuels has likely increased agricultural production per unit [of] land area by 70 percent for C3 cereals [which include rice, wheat, oats, cotton, and evergreen trees], 28 percent for C4 cereals [which include sorghum, maize, and various grasses], 33 percent for fruits and melons, 62 percent for legumes, 67 percent for root and tuber crops, and 51 percent for vegetables.”

In addition to the greater crop yields, plants use water more efficiently under increasing levels of carbon dioxide, losing less water through transpiration.

Even if fossil fuels are contributing to modestly higher temperatures, the present warming has so far been a net benefit to humanity because we are losing far fewer lives to cold weather, and to extreme weather, than are being lost to the modestly higher recent temperatures, Bast and Ferrara write. History shows the number of extreme weather events is higher and their severity greater during colder eras. A 2004 study examining the expected impact of future warming in Great Britain estimates a “rise in temperature of 3.6°F … over the next 50 years would increase heat-related deaths in Britain by about 2,000 but reduce cold-related deaths by about 20,000.” Other studies show what is true for Britain is true for populations around the globe: cold weather (and related extreme weather events) kills far more people than hot weather.

When toting up the benefits versus the (supposed) climate costs of fossil fuel use, it’s game, set, and match in favor of fossil fuels. We need to use more fossil fuels (while constantly improving our efficiency of their use) not less of them.

—H. Sterling Burnett

SOURCES: The Heartland Institute; The Heartland Institute


Justice Dept. supports oil companies in climate lawsuitEconomics of going 100 percent renewable … Clean energy way behind on climate goals


The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has entered the legal fray in the lawsuits filed by San Francisco and Oakland against oil companies seeking damages for their alleged contributions to climate change. The Trump administration’s DOJ filed an amicus brief harshly criticizing the lawsuits and asking the court to dismiss them. The DOJ’s main argument for dismissing the lawsuits is they violate the separation of powers established in the U.S. Constitution. The cities’ lawsuit is a backdoor way to have themselves, through the courts, regulate interstate and international commerce by limiting an activity approved by the federal government. As such, it violates the Constitution’s provision delegating the power to regulate interstate commerce solely to the Congress of the United States. In the brief, acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Wood says the cities’ claims are preempted by the Clean Air Act, which regulates air emissions, meaning the regulation of carbon dioxide is properly in the hands of the president, not the cities or the courts.

“Rather than impose a liability scheme for the cost of adaptation, Congress has given the Executive Branch authority to regulate the underlying emissions within the confines of the Clean Air Act, thereby speaking directly to the effects of climate change like sea level rise,” wrote Wood in the brief. “Balancing the nation’s energy needs and economic interests against the risks posed by climate change should be left to the political branches of the federal government in the first instance.”

DOJ filed its brief on May 24, ahead of a hearing in the U.S. District Court on the oil companies’ motion to dismiss the case.

SOURCES: Science and Environmental Policy Project; Climate Liability News; U.S. Department of Justice


Physicist Norman Rogers has provided an insightful analysis of what it would take to get all of our electricity from the two politically correct sources of renewable energy: wind and solar power. He concludes it could be done but would be enormously wasteful and expensive. Rogers points out those pushing wind and solar power as a way to prevent carbon dioxide emissions and thus fight climate change often denigrate much more reliable and relatively inexpensive renewable hydropower and virtually renewable nuclear power as sources of carbon-dioxide-free energy.

Looking at the Texas electric grid as a microcosm of the nation, Rogers writes the state “has a large wind power element, capable of generating 18,000 megawatts if every wind turbine is receiving sufficient wind. On average, the system provides about 6,000 megawatts, sometimes more and sometimes less, with rapid variations.”

Rogers calculates if wind were the primary power source in Texas, to smooth out its ups and downs (and supply power during times it is completely offline) just to supply its 6,000 megawatt average power—far less than the 18,000-megawatt theoretical capacity—absent natural gas, coal, or nuclear power, the system would require backup battery power able to store 430 hours of average power. According to Rogers, “a lithium ion battery big enough for that would cost about $500 billion, or about ten times what it cost to build the entire wind system,” and it would have to be replaced every ten years. By contrast, the same 6,000 megawatts could be continuously supplied by just six nuclear plants for approximately $36 billion, or by a comparable number of natural gas power plants for a construction cost of $6 billion and fuel costs of $1.16 billion per year.

Even if one believes human carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use are causing dangerous global warming, Rogers says replacing the current electric power system with one made up of wind and solar power is a foolishly expensive way to go about reducing emissions. Rogers calculates using wind and solar power, including current redundant backup power systems for smoothing out variability—“ costs between a $100 and a $200 subsidy for each metric ton of [carbon dioxide] emissions avoided. … [By contrast,] a carbon offset can be purchased on the open market for as little as $10 [per ton], far less than the cost of reducing carbon emissions by installing wind or solar power stations.”

And of course this is only the cost of replacing a fraction of Texas’s electric power supply, a small fraction of what it would take to satisfy the power needs of the United States or the world as a whole.

SOURCE: The American Thinker


According to a new report by the International Energy Agency, member nations of the Paris climate agreement are far behind the pace of technological change needed to meet its goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The IEA examined the energy transition for 38 separate technologies or systems across five industrial sectors: [Electric] Power; Buildings; Transport; Industry; and Energy Integration. IEA found industries and countries were on pace adopt or implement only four of the technologies needed within the required timeframe to meet the Paris carbon reduction goals. In 2017, only solar photovoltaic (PV) in the power sector; lighting and data centers and networks in the buildings sector; and electric vehicles in the transport sector were growing fast enough to contribute significant carbon dioxide reductions.

According to IEA 11 of the 38 technologies surveyed were significantly “not on track,” including the construction of new geothermal power plants, the development of new transportation biofuels, and continued growth in coal electricity generation lacking carbon capture, utilization, and storage. The pace of change for an additional 23 technologies was rated “in need of improvement” or “more efforts needed,” including the development and adoption of wind and solar energy storage technologies, in which investments slowed significantly since the Paris agreement; improved efficiency in appliances and in rail and shipping; and reduced emissions from the production of chemicals and various metals and from concrete manufacturing.

SOURCES: International Energy Agency; Oil Price

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.