Must fossil fuel extraction be stopped to limit global warming?
"Fossil Fuel Extraction Must Be Stopped to Limit Global Warming." That's the headline of an article at Earth.com, an environmental activist website. It purports to convey the message of a study published May 17, 2022, in Environmental Research Letters, "Existing fossil fuel extraction would warm the world beyond 1.5°C," though the study makes no such claim.
According to the study, the world is already committed, through its 25,000 oil and gas fields and 3,000 coal mines, to emitting so much carbon dioxide that global warming cannot be limited to the 1.5°C targeted by the Paris climate agreement and the Glasgow climate pact. That means, say the authors, "that staying below 1.5°C may require governments and companies not only to cease licensing and development of new fields and mines, but also to prematurely decommission a significant portion of those already developed."
The authors don't mention that there is no enforcement mechanism in either the Paris agreement or the Glasgow pact; that both China and India, which together constitute 35% of the world's population, have every intention to increase their consumption of fossil fuels for decades to come — and are absolutely justified in doing so to ensure that their 2.8 billion people can flourish. Indeed, most of the world's developing countries, with their additional 2.3 billion people, have the same intention. With no enforcement mechanism and no buy-in to the agenda by developing countries with their 63% of the world's population, the target is simply unattainable. As Vaclav Smil, probably the world's leading scholar on energy — how we produce and use it and at what costs — told a New York Times Magazine reporter, "Germany, after nearly half a trillion dollars, in 20 years they went from getting 84 percent of their primary energy from fossil fuels to 76 percent. Can you tell me how you'd go from 76 percent fossil to zero by 2030, 2035? I'm sorry, the reality is what it is." If Germany's not going to do it, developing nations certainly aren't.
Does this mean we're all doomed? No. The whole worry depends, as Alex Epstein explains in his new book Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less, 1.5° — or even three or four times that much — certainly doesn't spell doom, either for humanity or for the rest of life on Earth, and the benefits of fossil fuels, direct and indirect, both to humanity and the rest of life, far outweigh the negative side-effects.
Demands that we cease using fossil fuels, replacing them as rapidly as possible with wind, solar, and other "renewables," all rest on a particular worldview, framework, or perspective: that nature is delicate and nurturing to humanity, and consequently human impact on nature is always harmful, both to it and to people. Instead, Epstein argues — persuasively — nature is neither delicate nor nurturing to human (or any other) life. Instead, unshaped by human action, it is "dynamic, deficient, and dangerous and requires massive, intelligent, productive impact by human beings."
If you doubt that, try living entirely from what you obtain by nothing more than gathering what grows naturally around you. Or, if you're not brave enough to try that, just look at living conditions (per capita income equivalent to under $1/day), infant and child mortality rates (about 50%), and life expectancy (about 27 years) before the Industrial Revolution.
Because they are abundant, highly concentrated stores of reliable energy at scales necessary to serve the needs of billions of people, fossil fuels are uniquely suitable to provide the energy without which that "massive, intelligent, productive impact by human beings" simply cannot happen.
And what about the side-effects of fossil fuel use — global warming and sea level rise, driven by carbon dioxide emissions? The warming happens primarily toward the poles (especially the North Pole), primarily in winter, and primarily at night. That means already high temperatures (toward the equator, in summer, in daylight) but cold temperatures that raise global average temperature, and that's good news, because extreme cold kills 20 times as many people per day as extreme heat. The sea-level rise, at a rate of about a 1 to 1.5 feet per century, is slow enough for us to adapt at a cost that is a small fraction of global GDP.
There is, in short, no need to reduce fossil fuel use and every need instead to expand it. It's the path to human flourishing. The opposite, by keeping the currently unempowered world unempowered and disempowering the currently empowered world, condemns humanity to poverty.
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D. is president of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and author of Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity and Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.