Learning from the energy lessons of history
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Amidst mounting threats to the safety of our streets, horrifically reflected in the slaughter of innocents in Paris by radical Islamist terrorists, President Obama sticks to his claim that climate change is a greater threat to civilization than terrorism. Even more absurdly, his lieutenants claim that Islamist terrorism is somehow caused, or at least exacerbated, by global warming. While the president is often criticized for his disengaged stance on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he is adamant about "leading the world" in a global agreement to supplant fossil fuels to be concluded within a few weeks at the U.N.'s climate talks in Paris.

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A more likely candidate for the greatest risk to our prosperity, freedom and security is neither terrorism nor warming temperatures. With sufficient will, we can obliterate ISIS. And human beings are unlikely to control the climate given the dominance of our mighty sun and other natural variables. As Judith Curry, professor of Climatology at the Georgia Institute of Technology remarked in her Senate testimony, man-made emission of carbon dioxide is not a control knob for temperature or weather.

The graver danger for human welfare may be naive climate policies that force the elimination of the carbon energy sources on which modern economic growth is utterly dependent. The scale and the stakes in "decarbonization" are rarely acknowledged by either side of the aisle.

The climate issue is not about the environment or pollution; it is about energy. And history is here an essential instructor. Something monumental happened around 1800. Since that time, sustained economic growth has lifted billions from the miseries of abject poverty. An enduring middle class with upward mobility emerged for the first time in human history. Life expectancy, real income per capita, population, food supply, education and freedom have advanced. Western countries may have reaped the greatest benefits, but the reach is global. The Food and Agricultural Administration concludes that more people overcame poverty in the last 50 years than in the last 500.

What happened around 1800 was the Industrial Revolution — a breakthrough made possible, in significant part, by the creative conversions of fossil fuels. Since then, human lifespan is three times longer and real income per capita is 10 to 20 times higher. The world population has increased by eight-fold, but the food supply per person is greater!

Without the kind of energy in fossil fuels, economic growth of the magnitude that has occured would be impossible. Energy sources are not readily interchangeable nor suitable at a massive scale for the myriad jobs hydrocarbons now handily perform. Abundant, affordable, concentrated, versatile, controllable, and storable fossil fuels are far superior to diffused, intermittent renewable energy at this point in time. Consider the counterproductive pitfalls of Germany's and England's effort to nix fossil fuels. Just google Germany's "fatal blunder with ugly consequences" (from Die Zeit newspaper).

Consumption of fossil fuels is interconnected with modern economic growth. In the 20th century, energy consumption soared some seventeen-fold. Ninety percent of this increased consumption derived from fossil fuels. Over the same period, the gross world product (GWP) increased sixteen-fold, rising in lock-step with energy consumption.

As Michael Kelly, fellow of Britain's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, wisely reminds us, "A decarbonized global economy is going to have to have to outperform the achievement of fossil fuels. If not, mankind's progress will have to go into reverse in terms of aggregate standard of living. We should be honest and upfront about the sheer scale and enormity of the challenge implied by decarbonization."

Christina Figueres, chief of the U.N.'s climate program, publically states that communism offers the most effective system for achieving the "planned austerity" necessary to decarbonize.

In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September, Obama warned of "dangerous risks pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world." He was, of course, referring to Middle Eastern turmoil and terrorism, but his climate policies merit inclusion among those "dangerous risks" to society. Obama's global climate plan, which he enthusiastically promotes, would literally make the world a darker place as electricity prices soared, "disordering" the global economy still totally reliant on fossil-fueled production and transport. At this point in time, renewable energies are inherently incapable of replicating the work that fossil fuels now accomplish on a Promethean scale.

Energy policy is at a crossroads. While the president promotes decarbonzing, private actors in small energy companies are refining technologies to unlock the oceans of oil and gas found in shale rock. The volumes of oil and gas now accessible defeat any claims that peak oil is upon us. The U.S. is now the world's largest producer of energy. The economic opportunities of our dominant supply are prodigious, but will they be stymied by grand government plans to supplant fossil fuels?

Will the president's professed goal "to end the era of fossil fuels" gain traction in a global accord? He already has pushed the U.S. in this direction with the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. Or will new governing powers step back, repeal the ban on exporting U.S. crude oil and allow markets to operate?

To shed light on these pivotal questions for our country, the Texas Public Policy Foundation will hold the "At the Crossroads: Energy and Climate Policy Summit" on Nov. 19 and 20. At this gathering of national and international experts in various fields, we hope to reveal the enormity of the challenges implied by decarbonization and the enormity of the opportunities of the shale revolution.

Energy is as critical to modern civilization as is the nervous system is to the human body. The future of Texas, our nation and the world may well depend on whether we get energy right.

White is a distinguished senior fellow-in-residence and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. She is a former chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).