Hundreds of thousands of people paraded through New York City Sunday in a “people’s climate march” designed to influence world leaders at a UN climate summit.  They contend that fossil fuels and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions cause "global warming." But since global temperatures have been stable or declining for the past two decades, the term “global warming” has morphed into “climate change” or “climate weirding.” 

Whatever the term, the protesters contend that Earth's climate is highly sensitive to CO2, and then hypothesize almost every conceivable malady, including sea level rise, increased hurricanes and tornados, worsening droughts, heavier snowfalls, and other extreme weather events impacting humanity.

Fear mongering may capture headlines, though there are several major fallacies in this approach.  First, there has been no global warming for at least the past two decades, which means such warming could not have caused any weather events.

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Second, the dire climate-related occurrences being cited as evidence are not happening. For example:

  • Any sea level rise is modest, and there is no evidence of a cause and effect from CO2.
  • Even though weather and storm detection measures have improved markedly in recent decades, there is no indication of increased tornadoes, hurricanes, snowfall, or other extreme weather events and, in fact, such events have decreased over the past century.
  • Sea ice is not melting; rather, it has increased to a new record high in the Antarctic.
  • Floods are not getting worse, and there has been no particular change in the frequency or severity of floods worldwide.
  • Droughts are not becoming more severe, and the fraction of the world’s land under drought has been declining for 30 years.

Third, carbon dioxide (CO2) is not a pollutant:  It is the basis of life on Earth. It facilitates plant growth and enhances agricultural productivity.  It is the primary raw material utilized by plants to produce the organic matter out of which they construct their tissues, which subsequently become the food source for animals and humans.  The more CO2 there is in the air, the better plants grow. 

We assessed the economic value of this CO2 benefit for 45 crops over the period 1961-2011 and estimated that it cumulatively totaled $3.2 trillion – increasing from $19 billion in 1961 to over $140 billion in 2010.  We forecast that over the period 2012 - 2050, these CO2 benefits will total $10 trillion – benefits which the protesters and their supporters ignore.   Finally, and most important, they ignore the most obvious benefits of using fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels facilitated the industrial revolutions, launched the modern world, and ensure the livelihoods, living standards, health, and longevity we all currently enjoy.

Over the past 200 years, largely because of hydrocarbon energy, human population increased eightfold, average incomes rose 11-fold, and global life expectancy more than doubled.  Concurrently, CO2 emissions increased 2,800-fold, to 8.4 billion tons/year -- and atmospheric concentration rose from 320 ppm CO2 to nearly 400 ppm.

Hydrocarbons provide 81 percent of world energy, and the positive relationship between fossil fuels, economic growth, and CO2 emissions is strong – supporting $70 trillion per year in world GDP.  Seminal research has concluded that “Ours is a high energy civilization based largely on combustion of fossil fuels,” and that “The theoretical and empirical evidence indicates that energy use and output are tightly coupled, with energy availability playing a key role in enabling growth.”

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How do the CO2 benefits compare to potential damages?  We compared the CO2 costs and benefits per ton based on the federal government’s Interagency Working Group “official” social cost of carbon estimates.  We found that CO2 benefits outweigh the costs by, literally, orders of magnitude:  Anywhere from 50-to-1 to 220-to-1.  Normally, B-C ratios in the range of 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 are considered very favorable.  In other words, the benefits of CO2 overwhelmingly outweigh the estimated CO2 costs.  In fact, the CO2 costs are relatively so small as to be in the statistical noise of the CO2 benefits.

All major forecasts, including those of the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency predict that, for decades to come, there will continue to be a close link between energy and the economy and that fossil fuels will continue to provide about 80% of world energy.  The benefits of fossil fuel utilization will continue to outweigh – by orders of magnitude – any conceivable costs.

If the world is serious about economic growth, poverty reduction, living standards, and affordable energy, fossil fuels are essential.  Restrictions on hydrocarbon energy based on false global warming scares will only undermine progress in these areas.

Bezdek is an energy economist and president of Management Information Services, Inc., in Washington D.C.  He has served as senior adviser in the U.S. Treasury Department, as U.S. energy delegate to the EU and NATO, and as a consultant to the White House, federal and state government agencies, and numerous corporations and research organizations.  His most recent book is The Impending World Energy Mess.