Good news, everyone: More than a billion human beings no longer suffer the miseries of “extreme poverty” — a level below sustenance for necessities such as food and shelter. “Poverty around the world is plummeting; half the world is now middle class; and illiteracy, disease and deadly violence are receding,” according to Wall Street Journal columnist Greg Ip.
Last year, more than half of the world’s 7.7 billion people reached a middle-class income or are even considered rich. Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution and Kristofer Hamel of the World Data Lab crunched these numbers, calculating middle-class income as individual consumption between $11 and $110 a day in 2011 dollars.
Overcoming abject poverty was a headline issue in the middle of the 20th century, and much progress has been made.
“ Over the past 25 years more than a billion people lifted themselves out of extreme poverty,” according to Jim Yong Kim, World Bank Group president. This is a staggering achievement for human welfare reached in less than 50 years and is likely the lowest poverty rate in recorded history.
In 1980, almost half of the global population lived in “extreme poverty.” A few decades later, the percentage of people still living in extreme poverty has dramatically declined from 42 percent to slightly less than 10 percent.
It now appears that man-made global warming or climate change has replaced poverty as the zeitgeist of our time. Yet, climate policies could slow, arrest, or even reverse the phenomenal progress made in eradicating poverty and increasing income per capita across the world. Global, national, and local climate policies, aiming to avert global warming by eliminating man-made greenhouse gas emissions, are highly regressive.
Middle- and low-income families directly bear the burden of higher energy prices. The wealthy elites don’t even notice. Ask French President Emmanuel Macron how that’s going on the tenth consecutive weekend of protests against high-cost climate policies that are increasing basic costs of living across the board.
The U.N.’s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent special report proposes a carbon tax of $135 to $5,500 per ton of emissions of greenhouse gases, which could potentially raise the price of gasoline to a whopping $49 per gallon. So much for the billions who still dream about the personal mobility in owning a car.
Heavily subsidized renewable energy systems impose multiple indirect costs. All in all, climate policies aim to increase the price of energy in order to decrease the consumption of energy. Germany’s aggressive renewable policies increased retail electric rates to a level three times higher than the average in the U.S. In response, Germany’s Der Spiegel writes of “how electricity became a luxury good.” Such renewable policies now implemented across the world will certainly not facilitate the eradication of poverty.
Consider economist Benny Peiser’s assessment of the scale of climate policies. In testimony to the Senate several years ago, Peiser noted that “hundreds of billions are being paid [for climate policies] by ordinary families in what is undoubtedly one of the biggest wealth transfers from poor to rich in modern European history.”
Dissolution of existing energy systems, without comparable alternatives, risks imposing acute energy austerity that could push middle- and low-income families back into preindustrial living conditions already re-emerging in some European countries. Check out the headline in Euractiv by James Crisp: “54 Million Europeans Must Choose Between Heating or Eating.”
Affordable, abundant, versatile, and reliable electricity remains the key to economic growth and human prosperity in the modern world. Yet, multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank have begun to condition financing for power projects in developing countries on the exclusive use of renewable energy — a far more expensive and less reliable generating fuel than fossil fuels.
Nearly 1 billion people of the world’s 7.6 billion still have no access to electricity, and another almost 2 billion people lack access to clean cooking fuels. Sub-Saharan Africans have virtually no electricity. The African Development Bank recently broke ranks with the World Bank and will now take advantage of Africa’s own coal resources in order to provide reliable, affordable, and clean power for the African people so in need.
Remember the “other” Green Revolution of the 20th century that foreshadowed the successful battle against starvation? Against the odds, mankind won that global battle against starvation though the use of a fossil fuel-derived (natural gas) fertilizer to increase crop productivity. While the human population more than doubled over the past 50 years, world food production rose nearly fourfold. On a futile quest to eliminate human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, would countries actually abandon this fossil fuel-derived fertilizer still vital to the sufficiency of global food supply?
According to the most recent assessment of the U.N.’s IPCC, we must totally decarbonize within three decades or mankind, literally, will be toast. Yet, the long-heralded climate policies are not performing as planned.
After decades of lavish subsidies, wind and solar only provide about 3 percent of the energy consumed in U.S. The International Energy Administration predicts that the U.S. will continue to rely on fossil fuels for at least the next few decades. The IPCC, on the other hand, aims for decarbonization to eliminate fossil fuels by 2050. This is impossible as a matter of physics.
From the English Industrial Revolution until the present day, fossil fuels have been a necessary condition (not a cause, but a condition) of economic productivity, literally fueling economic growth. Who knows what sources of energy in the future may replace fossil fuels? At this time, however, there is no alternative to fossil fuels that can provide the vast store of concentrated, abundant, affordable, versatile, reliable, storable, and controllable energy that remains essential to reducing poverty, increasing per capita incomes, and amplifying the quality of human life.
This commentary was originally published in Washington Examiner on January 24, 2019.
The Honorable Kathleen Hartnett White is Director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment and Senior Fellow of Life:Powered. She previously served as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.