9 Graphs That Prove Using Fossil Fuels Hasn’t Harmed The Planet

Alex Epstein President, Center for Industrial Progress
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Conventional wisdom is that the more fossil fuels we use, the less livable we make our planet.

And we have been using a lot more fossil fuels over the last 30 years — an 80 percent increase since 1980. Fossil fuel use has increased so dramatically that our environment “should be” much worse.

But is it?


Source: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook

Let’s look at the hard data for key environmental indicators like air quality, water quality, sanitation, disease, climate danger, and resource availability. They show that using fossil fuels hasn’t harmed the planet — it’s actually made the planet a far more livable place.

1. Air quality has improved in the countries that use the most fossil fuels.

Take the United States. Since 1970 our fossil fuel use has increased 40 percent, and yet according to President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, here is what has happened to 6 top air pollutants.

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Source: U.S. EPA National Emissions Inventory Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data

The main cause here is anti-pollution technology that can generate energy from coal, oil, and natural gas evermore cleanly. As this technology is used more and more in China and India, their pollution problems will decrease, not increase.

2. Water quality has improved around the world

One of the most important environmental indicators is access to improved water sources, which measures access to clean water. Although we’re taught to think of fossil fuel use as fouling up our water, access to clean drinking water has gone up dramatically in the last 25 years as countries have used more fossil fuels.

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Sources: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014

Nature doesn’t give us the ample clean water we need. We need a lot of cheap, reliable energy to power machines that clean up nature’s health hazards, such as water purification plants. Using fossil fuels supplied it.

3. Sanitation has also benefited from more fossil fuel energy

Here’s the big picture of sanitation — the percent of our world population with access to improved sanitation facilities, according to the World Bank.

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Sources: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014

Note that as recently as 1990, under half the world had “improved sanitation facilities.” The increase to two thirds in only a few decades is a wonderful accomplishment, but a lot more development is necessary to make sure everyone has a decent, sanitary environment. And development requires energy.

Want a more sanitary environment for people around the globe? We need more cheap, reliable energy from fossil fuels.

4. More fossil fuels, mild global warming

For decades we have heard predictions of runaway global warming that is making our climate progressively unlivable. In 1986 climate scientist James Hansen predicted that “if current trends are unchanged,” temperatures would rise .5 to 1.0 degree Fahrenheit in the 1990s and 2 to 4 degrees in the first decade of the 2000s. According to Hansen’s own department at NASA, from the beginning to the end of the 1990s, temperatures were .018 degrees Fahrenheit (.01 degrees Celsius) higher, and from 2000 to 2010, temperatures were .27 degrees Fahrenheit (.15 degrees Celsius) higher—meaning he was wrong many times over.

In 1989 journalist Bill McKibben, summarizing the claims of Hansen and others, confidently predicted that by now we would “burn up, to put it bluntly.” Looking at the actual data on a graph, it becomes clear that he was completely wrong.

Here’s a graph of the last hundred-plus years of temperature compared to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. We can see that CO2 emissions rose rapidly, most rapidly in the last fifteen years.

Global warming since 1850 — the full story

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Sources: Met Office Hadley Centre HadCRUT4 dataset; Etheridge et al. (1998); Keeling et al. (2001); MacFarling Meure et al. (2006); Merged Ice Core Record Data, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

But there is not nearly the warming or the pattern of warming that we have been led to expect. We can see a very mild warming trend overall — less than 1 degree Celsius (less than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) over a century — which in itself is unremarkable, given that there is always a trend one way or the other, depending on the time scale you select. But notice that there are smaller trends of warming and cooling, signifying that CO2 is not a particularly powerful driver, and especially notice that the current trend is flat when it “should be” skyrocketing.

Given how much our culture is focused on the issue of CO2-induced global warming, it is striking how little warming there has been. We’re talking tenths of a degree. Without instruments, we couldn’t perceive it. Maybe that’s why the doomsayers stopped talking about “global warming” and started using “climate change.”

5. More fossil fuels, less climate danger

Is our climate becoming more dangerous?

The key statistic here, one that is unfortunately almost never mentioned, is “climate-related deaths,” which tracks changes over time in how many people die from a climate-related cause, including droughts, floods, storms, and extreme temperatures.

The trends are shocking.

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Sources: Boden, Marland, Andres (2013); Etheridge et al. (1998); Keeling et al. (2001); MacFarling Meure et al. (2006); Merged Ice Core Record Data, Scripps Institution of Oceanography; EM-DAT International Disaster Database

In the last eighty years, as CO2 emissions have most rapidly escalated, the annual rate of climate-related deaths worldwide fell by an incredible rate of 98 percent. That means the incidence of death from climate is fifty times lower than it was eighty years ago.

Clearly, as the climate-related death data shows, there are some major climate-related benefits — namely, the power of fossil-fueled machines to build a durable civilization that is highly resilient to extreme heat, extreme cold, floods, storms, and so on.

Some might say the planet will soon be unlivable (though environmentalists have been saying that for 40 years) because of mounting dangers like rising sea levels. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth terrified many with claims of likely twenty-foot rises in sea levels. Given the temperature trends, however, we wouldn’t expect warming to have a dramatic effect on sea levels. And, in fact, it hasn’t.

6. Sea level is rising and falling mostly due to non-human causes

This graph shows sea level trends from locations throughout the world. Note how smooth the trends are — and also notice how several of them are downward. This points to a truth about sea level and climate. It is affected by many factors, often factors that are much more important than any change in the global climate system.

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Source: Tide Gauge Data, Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (2014)

7. Extreme Weather is Normal

As predictions of extreme global warming have completely failed to materialize, there has been more of an emphasis on extreme weather as a reason to oppose fossil fuels. But this is misleading. The prediction of catastrophic climate change is based on the idea that warming will cause extreme weather.

And the data bears this out. As might be expected, given that there has been little warming, there has been little change in the trends of various types of storms. For example, here is the most up-to-date data as of mid-2014 on “Accumulated Cyclone Energy,” which is what would need to increase if the frequency and/or intensity of storms were to increase. As the data show, this is, like most things in climate, a dynamic variable — one that shows no dramatic changes recently.

Storm energy is normal

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Source: Maue (2011, updated June 2014)

8. More C02 in the air means global greening

Fossil fuels are super concentrated ancient dead plants. When we burn/oxidize them, we increase the amount of CO2, i.e., plant food, in the atmosphere. Thus, on top of getting energy, we should get a lot more plant growth — including growth of the most important plants to us, such as food crops.

Thousands of experiments in controlled conditions — where everything is held constant except CO2 — have convincingly demonstrated that more CO2 means more plant growth. Observe the increases in crop yield when the following crucial crops were exposed to 300 ppm more CO2 than is in the atmosphere.

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Source: Idso, Plant Growth Database (2014)

9. We have more fossil fuels resources than ever

We’re running out of resources, especially fossil fuels, right?

That’s been the prediction of many experts — for many decades.

In a 1977 televised address, Jimmy Carter, conveying conventional wisdom at the time, told the nation “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.” A popular Saudi expression at the time captured this idea: “My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel.”

If the predictions were right that we were running out of fossil fuel resources, then nearly doubling fossil fuel use worldwide should have practically depleted us of fossil fuels.

Well, no one in the oil business is riding a camel, because as fossil fuel use has increased, fossil fuel resources have increased. How is that possible?

The measure for fossil fuel resources is “proven reserves,” which is the amount of coal, oil, or gas that is available to us affordably, given today’s technology. Let’s look at reserves from 1980 to the present for oil and gas, the fossil fuels we are traditionally afraid will run out. Coal is much easier to find and extract and is considered to be the fossil fuel that is least likely to run out. Notice how the more we consume, the more reserves increase.

More oil consumption, more oil reserves

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The same is true for gas and coal.

Which means we have plenty of time to develop great supplements and substitutes, such as advanced forms of nuclear power that eventually may be able to out-compete fossil fuels on price.

But for now, using fossil fuels is making the planet a better place to live. So why not use more?

Alex Epstein is President of the Center for Industrial Progress and author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, which comes out today from Portfolio/Penguin.