The recent Papal Encyclical on “care of our common home” calls for “changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat [global] warming,” and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, based on the assessment that fossil-fueled economies are “unsustainable” and “can only precipitate catastrophes.”
If that assessment were correct, population would be smaller today, and worse off, than in previous decades and centuries. The exact opposite is the case, observes economist Indur Goklany in a concise, by-the-numbers, rebuttal. The world’s population “is at a record level,” and human well-being “is at or near its peak by virtually every objective broad measure.”
The chart below shows a strong long-term correlation between carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and increases in population, life expectancy, and per capita income — the best overall indicators of human health and well-being.
Those correlations are causal, not accidental.
The improvements in human well-being have been enabled directly or indirectly through the use of fossil fuels or fossil-fuel powered technologies and economic growth. This is because every human activity — whether it is growing crops, cooking food, building a home, making and transporting goods, delivering services, using electrical equipment for any purpose, studying under a light or going on holiday — depends directly or indirectly on the availability of energy (see below) and, in today’s world, energy is virtually synonymous with fossil fuels; they supply 82% of global energy used.
Other indicators of well-being — such as global nutrition, number of people in absolute poverty, education and literacy, access to information, weather-related mortality, access to clean water and sanitation, and global malaria mortality — also show sustained long-term improvement.
In short, civilization is becoming less vulnerable to climate-related risks, not more so. Fossil fuels have been and remain the chief energy source of material and technological progress.
Oil spills happen, but in the larger scheme of things, fossil fuels have even been a boon to non-human species. By making food production, storage, and transport more productive, fossil fuels limit the extent of land conversions required to feed a growing humanity. Although global population increased 33% between 1900 and 2012, increases in global cropland (3%) and agricultural area (2%) were ten-fold smaller. Habitat conversion for agriculture “has almost plateaued globally.”
Gloklany estimates that, “absent fossil fuels, global cropland alone would have to increase by at least 150% (or 2.3 billion hectares) just to meet current demand. This is equivalent to the combined land area of South America and the European Union.” Policy implication: Suppressing fossil energy would not only jeopardize global food security, it could also make the world less habitable for non-human species.
Goklany concludes the Encyclical’s claim that fossil fuels are destroying our common home is “risible, given that one cannot establish such a link when the phenomenon concerned, namely the alleged reduction in the world’s sustainability and resilience, has not been observed.”