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This week, I am going to consider some of the economic and related
human costs of a serious attempt to restrict carbon dioxide emissions
into the atmosphere. These are costs that the Kyoto protocol would
impose whether or not the warnings about global warming — and its
catastrophic effects — are reality or fantasy, a topic I will explore
next week.

The material basis for human flourishing is crudely measured by our
statistics of wealth and income. It is no doubt true that many in the
developed world cast their money after baubles of mere momentary
interest, distractions rather than helps on the road to happiness. But
this does not significantly alter the large picture, which is that
economic flourishing makes possible — indeed, largely consists in — an
increasingly effective human providence over the daunting and dangerous
circumstances of our material existence. Nourishing and plentiful food,
protection from the elements and disease, opportunity for leisure and
rest in circumstances that rejuvenate tired soul and body — all these
things are possessed by the people of the world, by and large, in
proportion to their annual income.

Perhaps even more important, these blessings are not best understood
as war prizes won by autonomous individuals in the combat of economic
life. Human beings work, save and spend, for the most part, so that
they can care for the people in their lives, children and spouses above
all. Whatever theories may be in the heads of leftist intellectuals,
the fact of real human life is that our economic striving is ordered to
the fulfillment of our moral duties and hopes. This is the moral
meaning of property rights, and of economic liberty, and it is the real
reason that grandiose governmental schemes to redistribute wealth or
accomplish other noble sounding goals are so dangerous — governmental
intervention in the fabric of wealth creation is almost by definition a
tyrannical disruption of our efforts to care for ourselves and each
other.

The poor of the world are particularly vulnerable to such disruption
for two reasons. First, wealth is the resource base for freedom and a
wealthy people tends to be more able to establish and preserve its
liberty against government ambition than a people entirely distracted by
the daily effort to keep body and soul together. Second, government
interference in economic activity is most damaging to people who are
still striving for material essentials and for whom economic disruption
means the delay or indefinite loss of those essentials. Recession in
America means fewer SUVs — in Bangladesh it means famine and death.

These facts may seem obvious to many but it is important to remember
that it is only in the past several decades that the intellectual battle
over their truth was won — and that the political victory is still in
doubt. The proposition that economic liberty and growth were the most
important paths to the material well-being of the world’s people was
ferociously disputed for most of the 20th century by socialists. It is
a mistake to believe that today’s liberals have abandoned that dispute.

Today, the Clintons and Gores of the world seem content to crow about
the abundance that economic liberty has produced and to make use of it
to advance their own political power. But the crucial fact to remember
is that, while they may be willing to milk this cow, they don’t love it,
don’t know what keeps it alive, and may very well kill it without a
second thought if their calculus of political advantage and ideology
shifts and the path of political power diverges from the path of
economic liberty. At that point, those who are building a global
economy of solutions to the perennial material needs and pains of human
existence will find that their political leaders have derailed a
prosperity that, at the beginning of the 21st century, was on track to
bring incalculable benefit to billions of people around the world.

The statistical correlation between economic prosperity and the use
of energy — and of electricity in particular — is nearly perfect.
Countries that are wealthy use lots of energy, countries that are poor
use very little. Countries that are on the move out of poverty, and
toward prosperity, experience dramatic increases in their use of energy.

And this is not surprising. Energy, as the late Julian Simon pointed
out, is the “master” resource — the resource that enables mankind to
transform raw materials into useful commodities. America is often
criticized by environmentalists for using so much energy but this is
absurd. We use so much energy because we feed the world, just to name
one of the many good works of the American economy. Criticizing the use
of energy in economic activity is no different, in principle, from a
parent criticizing a child who spends much energy in helping around the
house. Free economies use energy in ways that human ingenuity and
experience judge to be the most efficient deployments in particular
times and places to solve the problems and seize the opportunities of
human life. Living things use energy to accomplish their good and
important goals — and so do free economies.

This is the plainest common sense and we are far-gone down the road
of ideology, indeed, when we have become propagandized into thinking
that the very use of energy is suspect. Such suspicion is, along with
abortion, perhaps the clearest manifestation of the socialist death
wish. The left seems often to think that the perfect state of human
existence would be to successfully prevent the introduction of new life
and any sign of metabolism in those who have the questionable good
fortune to exist.

For the most part, and increasingly, the energy used by the world
economy takes the form of electricity. The obvious and true conclusion
to be drawn is that the provision of increasing quantities of energy in
the form of cheap electricity is a fundamentally important task if we
are to remain on the course of economic prosperity. And, as Dr. Mark
Mills points out, “the cheapest source of both existing and new
kilowatt-hours is fossil fuel — coal in particular. Two-thirds of
global power is fossil-fueled; that figure will rise to 70 percent by
2015 since fossil fuels account for nearly 80 percent of all planned and
projected growth in world electric supply.” The production of cheap
electricity from fossil-fuels produces carbon dioxide.

Which brings us to Kyoto. The core proposal of the Kyoto movement is
that the governments of the world should agree to enforce a dramatic
reduction in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But it
is overwhelmingly true now, and for the foreseeable future, that the
increases in energy use which will be required for continued material
improvement of the human condition will come in the form of fossil-fuel
based electricity. Therefore, over the relevant historical period we
can consider, it will remain true that the imposition of a reduction in
the rate of growth of our use of fossil fuels will reduce economic
prosperity by a corresponding amount.

The electricity produced from renewable sources will be both more
expensive and dramatically insufficient in quantity. Despite billions
of dollars in taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies over two decades, wind
farms and solar panels (the renewable energies most favored by the Kyoto
partisans) supply less than two percent of America’s electricity needs.
Other than in niche-market applications, they are simply not competitive
with other fuel sources. Were we to attempt seriously to substitute
renewable sources for fossil fuels in the production of electricity,
these limitations would translate directly into fundamental economic
costs of the kind that wealthy westerners can hardly imagine.

The cuts in global usage of electricity that are the goal of Kyoto
would prevent the spread of electrification in the developing world,
denying the people in those countries the basic benefits of such devices
as air-conditioners, refrigeration, and the whole range of labor-saving
devices that we take for granted in the West. Denied also would be the
cheap power that has been the foundation for economic growth in every
country in the world throughout the industrial age. Denied as well
would be the benefits of the age of intelligent devices, exploding
communications capacity and barely contemplated other new uses of the
electrons that lie at the heart of the new economy.

For while it is true that the communications and computer revolutions
make the use of energy greatly more efficient, and that efficiency in
the use of electricity has and will continue to grow rapidly even in its
older applications, still the growth of population, the spread of
electricity to new areas, and the development of new kinds of
applications of electricity vastly outpace the increases in efficiency.
Despite its more efficient use, absolute use of electricity will grow
dramatically in the service of human economic activity in the years
ahead and there is no source of that electricity capable of meeting the
demand but fossil fuels.

The Kyoto reductions of carbon dioxide emissions would require the
fundamental disruption of the global project of improving the material
conditions of human existence. The cost of the Kyoto experiment will be
abandoning the growth path of an economy that has the capacity to end
famine and other basic deprivations, extend access to learning, and lift
the whole globe to levels of material prosperity that were, until
recently, the prized accomplishment of the few developed nations of the
world. Why would any sane person consider paying this cost in the
absence of absolutely compelling evidence that the alternative is global
calamity on a huge scale?

One reason is suggested by the fact, previously mentioned, that we
have a class of politicians who have for a long time been evidently
motivated by something other than the ambition to leave the world’s
people in freedom to accomplish their own material and moral success.
An article in The Electricity Journal by David Wojick suggests another
reason. Dr. Wojick points out that the requirements of compliance with
the Kyoto goals do not fall evenly on all developed nations. While the
United States would have to decapitate the growth curve of its own use
of electricity in order to meet its target under Kyoto, Britain and
Germany would have to do very little. The reason is that the American
economy is growing and its use of electricity, and the associated
consumption of fossil fuels, is growing correspondingly. The tired
nations of Europe, on the other hand, are not growing and seem content
to remain economically stagnant even as they cease to replenish their
human populations. Is it not possible that the leaders of these
stagnant countries see in the Kyoto agenda an opportunity to prevent the
boisterous life of the developing world, including the still young and
vigorous American economy, from disrupting a Europe that seems content
to grow old rocking on its porch?

The use of energy is a sign of youth, of hope and of life. These
things are hated by the old, the despairing and the dead of soul. The
siren of Kyoto is an invitation to join these latter forces in the
abortion of the global effort to make life better for ourselves and our
brothers and sisters. Rejecting it will be an important part of the
duty of the West to choose life.

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