Environmental activists have done quite a bit to convince a large portion of the American population that the only way to prevent catastrophic global warming is to rapidly “decarbonize” the economy by transitioning to wind and solar electricity generation and electric vehicles. A March 2017 Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans want to emphasize alternative energy production over production of fossil fuels [1]. However, even if we assume that a warming planet will have dire consequences, an overhyped prediction of the activist movement, the drumbeat for a rapid transition to renewable energy and the exclusion of alternative options shows how detached the environmental movement is from reality.

One false premise of these policy goals is that the U.S. can make a significant impact by switching our energy sources. We can test this hypothesis by applying different emissions scenarios to the online MAGICC6 model, which uses the IPCC’s RCP6.0 scenario as a baseline. If the U.S. switches to 100% renewable electricity generation starting in 2030, the model predicts that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would be a mere 1.41% lower in 2100. If U.S. emissions were completely eliminated starting in 2030, it would reduce 2100 CO2 levels by only 4.54%. Global temperatures would be reduced by 0.042°C and 0.139°C, respectively.

Activists will claim that domestic efforts, even with their small effect, represent the need to do our part and that international efforts such as the Paris Agreement are required. But can we expect developing nations, even with financial help, to abandon the energy sources that we used to achieve our prosperity when the benefits of their efforts would be so small and far afield? We more readily expect that most countries will find it better to continue using CO2-emitting energy sources and reap the major benefits while dealing with any of the minor climate adaption costs as they come.

A second false premise is that renewable energy, primarily from wind and solar, and electric vehicles are the only way to achieve these lofty goals. As documented elsewhere on this website, transitioning our entire economy to renewable energy is unfeasible and prohibitively expensive. Scientists will tell us that it’s possible, but possible is a long way from realistic. As noted commentator Dr. Bjorn Lomborg has said, “It would be a bit like asking NASA what it would take to move the entire human population to Mars. NASA would obligingly tell us that it is technically feasible, but would require far-reaching changes to our current priorities and unprecedented investments in space technology” [4]. Given Elon Musk’s proclamations about the need to colonize Mars [5], this analogy might not be too far from reality.

If climate change activists were more serious about moving our whole economy to carbon-free energy, they would be championing the use of nuclear energy. The upward trajectory of human prosperity since the Industrial Revolution has been predicated upon our ability to access more dense sources of energy. Nuclear energy, which is far more dense even than energy from fossil fuels, promotes a continuation of this trend, whereas diffuse renewable energy resources would reverse this trend. Nuclear power plants produce no emissions, and the mining and storage of nuclear fuels can be confined to a small number of places, reducing our energy footprint on the land. However, based on a few high-profile and preventable disasters, the environmental movement has convinced itself and most of the world’s governments that nuclear energy is unsafe and has no role in our future energy mix.

The insistence of the environmental movement on a rapid shift to wind and solar energy stems from the larger goal of exerting greater government control over the energy business and our energy choices. The “Green New Deal” being promoted by some House Democrats has even broadened that goal to a whole suite of progressive policy objectives. However, by reducing our economic freedom and our access to affordable and reliable energy, such policies will reduce our prosperity and do more harm than good to our environment. Policies that advance economic freedom, especially with regard to our energy choices, are the best way to achieve the twin goals of human flourishing and lasting environmental quality.

[1] Gallup Inc. 2017. “Americans Tilt Toward Protecting the Environment, Alternative Fuels.”

[2] EIA (Energy Information Administration). “International Energy Outlook 2017: World Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Region.” Accessed 13 November 2018.

[3] Meinshausen, M., S. C. B. Raper and T. M. L. Wigley, 2011. “Emulating coupled atmosphere-ocean and carbon cycle models with a simpler model, MAGICC6: Part I – Model Description and Calibration.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 11: 1417-1456.

[4] Lomborg, Bjorn. 2018. “Another climate summit means more expensive, ineffective promises.” CapX, December 6.

[5] Solon, Olivia. 2018. “Elon Musk: we must colonise Mars to preserve our species in a third world war.” The Guardian, March 11.

Key Facts
According to a widely used climate model in the IPCC reports, if the U.S. could shift to 100% renewable electricity in 2020, we would reduce 2050 global CO2 levels by a mere 0.9% and global temperatures by only 0.025°C.
If U.S. emissions were completely eliminated starting in 2020, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would be 2.9% lower in 2050 and temperatures would be 0.077°C cooler.