Carbon Dioxide: The Anti-Poverty Gas


Every issue of National Geographic has pictures that show the sad state of humankind. All-natural humans in their all-natural habitats look like miserable creatures, living in dirt-floored mud huts with indoor campfires, not a bar of soap in sight. A thousand years ago, everyone on the planet was living like this. We can thank our lucky stars that we were born in the industrialized west, because wherever industry doesn't exist, poverty does – something to remember when the climate-activists call for ninety-percent reductions in human carbon dioxide emissions.

A well-known dilemma exists for those who wish to simultaneously reduce poverty and carbon emissions. To illustrate, I found estimates of per capita GDP and per capita carbon dioxide production and plotted one against the other. Carbon-spewing industrialization, it turns out, is the antidote to poverty.

There are no prosperous countries that have low carbon dioxide emissions, no poor countries that have high emissions, and the higher the per-capita carbon dioxide emitted, the higher the expected GDP. None of this is a surprise since the machinery of production harnesses energy that is mainly produced by burning coal, oil, and gas. People who want to alleviate poverty should advocate more energy consumption, not less, and environmentalists intent on reducing carbon emissions should own up to the poverty that they implicitly promote.

Nothing has improved the lot of humankind more than industrialization. Compared with our all-natural brethren, life in the industrialized world is defined by an abundance of life's necessities. Through the consumption of energy, machines have become our slaves, harvesting our food, washing our clothes, moving us about town – generally saving us time and effort that we can then use to pursue even greater happiness. I cannot find fault with any of this. But environmentalists can.

The way they see it, fishing and farming, manufacturing and mining, retail and refining are all unsustainable activities. Obviously, there is nothing physical on earth that can grow without limit. Economic growth compounds like any bank account, and given a positive interest rate and enough time, it tends toward very large numbers. No question, if there were one human per square yard, we would be at the limit of sustainability. Where we are now is not.

Some of those people who are concerned about carbon, yet who still have sympathy for humans, have tried to reconcile their positions. Sustainable development plans from environmentalist organizations have made weak statements like, "[t]here is a growing agreement amongst policy makers that energy and poverty are linked," as though the authors fear being ridiculed by their comrades if they were to state this relationship as a fact. Their so-called sustainable solutions, however, are embarrassments. For instance, that same document calls for giving efficient stoves and lighting to the world's poorest two-billion people. Of course, the only places that have the capacity to build all these stoves and lighting systems are those coal-burning industrial nations. The irony is completely lost on them. Where do they think wealth comes from? The impoverished won't stop being poor once they have a stove and a few lightbulbs – industry alone will save them, and no serious industry can be powered using a few solar panels or a micro-hydroelectric generator. It's essential to think about much bigger energy sources than that.

While environmentalists think industry is ugly and exploitative, the benefits are so obvious that they have little success in tearing it down directly. Attacking energy is the sneaky strategy – energy and industry are inseparable, so an attack on one is an attack against both. We have no issues with energy, climate-activists say, it's carbon dioxide that's the problem. When coal, oil, and gas make up eighty-five percent of the energy used in the US, and similarly high proportions throughout the rest of the industrialized world, if they have problems with carbon dioxide, they have problems with almost all the energy we use. Plus, there is the rhetoric of environmentalists about river-destroying hydroelectric plants, bird-killing windmills, and waste-producing nuclear plants that reveals how, for hard-core believers, carbon-free energy is no good either.

It's hard to get the industrialized countries to change their ways, so environmentalists want developing countries to do the impossible and grow without carbon – Ailun Yang, the Greenpeace China Climate and Energy Campaign Manager said, "China has to decouple its economic development from the consumption of polluting fossil fuels," Thankfully, China has other plans – an article published late in 2004 states that 562 coal-fired power plants will be completed in the country by 2012, a move certain to increase the production and prosperity of the country's people.

Energy-fueled production is the only way human efforts can be multiplied to provide a high standard of living. Empirically, no country has yet figured out how to be prosperous without emitting a lot of carbon dioxide. My guess is that the impoverished of this world would gladly trade the anti-carbon movement's vision of hell – a world with warmer weather – for plenty of food and some of the goods that bring joy to modern life. Until I see environmentalists moving into dirt-floored mud huts, I'll assume that deep down, they think modern industrial living is pretty cool too.

July 14, 2007