Construction of renewable energy sources has become a favored policy response to address concerns about climate change and the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Additionally federal regulations have been proposed and promulgated that would force the retirement of additional coal units across the country.
Despite hyperbolic reporting and drastic regulatory measures, it is important to remember that there are benefits associated with climate change. CO2 is plant food. Therefore, increased atmospheric CO2 results in more food (Kimball, 1983) and medicine through increased plant growth (Plants Need CO2). Overall, increased CO2 levels actually are correlated with decreased deaths from natural disasters (CATO Institute, 2014). In addition, as time passes CO2 will decrease in its ability to affect temperature (Hoskins, 2014).
One argument contributing to a negative view of climate change is the “Hockey Stick Chart,” created by researcher Michael Mann. This chart is meant to illustrate that temperatures across the globe have increased exponentially in the last 100 years (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2001):
Mann’s study was initially very popular, but a peer-reviewed study of Mann’s work, conducted by researchers Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, exposed that data within the “Hockey Stick Chart” contained “… collation errors, unjustified truncation or extrapolation of source data, obsolete data, incorrect principal component calculations, geographical mislocations, and other serious defects. These errors and defects substantially affect the temperature index (McIntyre, 2003).” McIntyre and McKitrick corrected these errors, and reconstructed the “Hockey Stick Chart” with actual data. A comparison between Mann’s version of the chart and the revised version by McIntyre and McKitrick is displayed below (McIntyre, 2003):
The results of the revised version of Mann’s chart are astounding. The revised chart confirms that temperatures of the Medieval Warming Period during the 1400’s were actually warmer than those experienced today (McIntyre, 2003). It would stand to reason that if warming temperatures actually do cause harsher conditions for survival, the technology utilized in the 1400’s was adequate to combat it. Therefore, in present time, there should be no fear of warming, as history has proven we have the capacity to deal with any adverse conditions caused by it. Data suggests, however, that catastrophic warming is not likely to occur.
Models based on Mann’s work have vastly overestimated global temperature changes when compared to reality. A comparison between the two is presented below. (Spencer, 2013)
The bold green and blue lines represent reality, while the bold black line is the average temperature change predicted by accepted climate models. A slight temperature increase of approximately 0.3oC has been seen. The 0.6oC rise that was predicted by 2013 did not come to fruition, but the model still predicted warming would occur. Researchers projected that if the average temperature within the United States increased by 2.5oC, there would be approximately 40,000 less mortalities per year, due to decreased respiratory disease–such as the flu or pneumonia–contracted in the frigid weather, (Moore, 1996). A warmer climate would actually save lives, not shorten them. Although warmer weather would save lives, a 2.5oC warming would be significantly hard to achieve.
Temperature rise is linear with respect to exponential rises of CO2, meaning that further changes in atmospheric CO2, will result in decreasing incremental changes in temperature, as explained in the chart below (Hoskins, 2014):
As seen below, only 13 percent of the total potential temperature change from CO2 emissions can be mitigated with future de-carbonization policies. 24 billion dollars of tax payers’ money was spent on renewable energy initiatives in 2011 (Dinan, 2012). The question must be asked; does the forecasted insignificant temperature change warrant such a level of spending?
The claim that increased atmospheric CO2 will result in a dangerous climate must also be explored. When CO2 emissions and climate related deaths are put side by side, it is easy to see that the world has actually become a safer place as CO2 emissions have increased (CATO Institute, 2014):
Despite global population growth over time, and CO2 emissions increasing, total climate related deaths have fallen. This can be attributed to the increase in the ability to produce industrial goods used for shelter, technology, heating, and cooling. The estimated growth in the United States industrial production index can be seen below (Federal Reserve, 2015):
The industrial production total index measures the production output of manufacturing, mining, and utilities within the United States. Increased industrial production means the materials for infrastructure within the United States are growing, and the manufacturing of technology allowing society to avoid dangerous conditions is increasing. Increased levels of industrial production will generate increased CO2 emissions, due to the increase in energy necessary for production purposes. Fossil fuels have, and will continue to, provide the majority of the energy to power these advancements. As demonstrated by the climate death graph shown earlier, the tradeoff of increased CO2 emissions to provide enhanced infrastructure, growing industrial capacity, and rapid technological improvement is the saving of many human lives.
In addition to CO2 emissions being a by-product of protection, CO2 emissions increase plant growth, crop yields, and plant antioxidants by accelerating photosynthesis levels. Photosynthesis functions via a plant consuming CO2, solar energy, and water, converting those compounds to carbohydrates, and then releasing waste as oxygen.
As CO2 levels increase, the rate of photosynthesis in plants tends to accelerate. A 100 percent increase in atmospheric CO2 levels is estimated to increase photosynthesis rates by 41 percent for C3 plants and 22 percent for C4 plants (Note: Higher temperatures also catalyze photosynthesis, doubling the reaction rate for every 10oF rise in temperature) (Watkins). An increase in photosynthesis rates directly correlates to increased plant growth. When atmospheric CO2 levels are doubled, plant yields have been observed to increase by approximately 33 percent. In addition transpiration, which is evaporation of water from plant pores, is shown to decrease by 34 percent in environments with double the atmospheric CO2 concentration (Kimball, 1983). This indicates higher water efficiency usage for plants. Fruit growth is also amplified in environments with higher levels of CO2. Oranges displayed 80 percent greater fruit yield with a 75 percent percent increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration, and a 5 percent increase in their vitamin C content. Strawberries demonstrated similar effects, increasing fruit weight by 17 percent with an additional 170 ppm of CO2 within the atmosphere (Plants Need CO2). Plants with medicinal benefits have also shown increased concentrations of their active medicinal constituents with higher concentrations of CO2. The spider lily, which contains constituents that combat leukemia, ovary sarcoma, melanoma, brain cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and renal cancer, have revealed an increase of 75 percent in their active medicinal constituents with a 75 percent increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. Saint John’s Wort, which assists with depression, inflammation, and wound healing, saw a 100 percent increase in its health promoting constituents when grown under 1,000 ppm atmospheric CO2 levels (Plants Need CO2). The increases observed in these plants medicinal properties are significant, both for industrialized and undeveloped countries. 75 percent of the world population is still dependent upon biological remedies as their primary source of medication (Plants Need CO2).
Additionally, population (as displayed below) through the year 2050, is forecasted to continue growing (Haub, 2012):
With an increasing world population, more food and medicine will be essential. Higher CO2 levels yielding larger harvests of food, increased levels of medicinal ingredients, and increased vitamins will all be necessary to support a healthy human population.
Higher levels of CO2 alone do not adversely affect health. For any impact to human health to occur, atmospheric CO2 emissions would have to be close to 15,000 ppm, which is 40 times greater than the levels currently in the atmosphere (Plants Need CO2). However, prior to reaching that concentration, increased CO2 levels correlate with a better quality of life through more food and medicine, a safer life with enhanced infrastructural capabilities, and are shown to have insignificant effects on temperature in the future.
As a final note, increased energy production using renewables will not stop CO2 emissions. Even so called “carbon-free” sources give off carbon when analyzed through a life cycle analysis. During the construction phase of a wind turbine, approximately 364.8g CO2/kWh is capable of being produced; for solar, this figure becomes 218g CO2/kWh (Nugent, 2014).
CO2 is not the evil, life sucking poison that climate change activists sometimes portray. It is a by-product of a life-preserving, food-producing, industrially sound culture. Whether this culture is supported by coal or renewables should not be an either/or question, the answer should be “yes” to both.
Bottom line on climate change: Coal equates to fewer deaths (Moore, 1996), lower medical costs (Moore, 1996), and more food (Kimball, 1983).
If there was a way to have a cheap, reliable source of electric generation that also boosts crop yields (Kimball, 1983), increase base medicinal ingredient prevalence (Plants Need CO2), decrease mortalities (Moore, 1996), and strengthen the nation’s infrastructure (Federal Reserve, 2015), would it be worth discovering?
Luckily, we don’t have to discover it, it already exists. Coal-fueled generation and the CO2 emitted from coal correlates with all of the above-mentioned benefits. The population on Earth is estimated to grow by two billion people from 2015 to 2050 (Haub, 2012). A greater amount of reliable power, food, medicine, and industrial production will be needed to support this growth. Let’s stop the attempts to outlaw coal, and start using it to power our future.
Objection: Temperature increases due to climate change will lead to irreversible and dangerous changes in weather conditions.
Response: Temperatures were higher in the medieval period than present, and human civilization survived that period with less technology, poorer infrastructure, less energy, and worse water quality (McIntyre, 2003). Increasing CO2 emissions over the past two centuries correlate with fewer climate related deaths, indicating that power from coal and other fossil fuels has been used to improve infrastructure and technology over time. In reality, improved access to affordable, reliable energy has helped society to deal with extreme weather (CATO Institute, 2014).
Objection: Temperature increases due to climate change have led to ice cap melting.
Response: Artic sea ice volumes have actually been growing over the past four years. In 2011, the average sea ice volume was measured at 4,275 km3, however sea ice volumes have regenerated since that point, reaching 10,200 km3 in 2014. At the same time, recent studies indicate that the Antarctic ice sheet has also grown, adding 112 billion tons of ice annually from 1992 to 2001, and 82 billion tons annually from 2003 to 2008. (Zwally et al, 2015)
Objection: Temperature increases due to climate change are melting ice, leading to the extinction of polar bears.
Response: This statement is untrue. As of June 2014, the majority of polar bear populations are either estimated to be increasing, or stable (Polar Bear Science, 2014).
Objection: Temperature increases due to climate change are leading to the bleaching and death of coral reefs.
Response: Research has shown that coral reefs utilize various symbiotic relationships with algae to adapt to certain types of environmental stresses. One of these types of algae is heat tolerant and assists coral to avoid bleaching due to temperature increases (Silverstein, 2012). However, it is important to remember that 87 percent of carbon dioxides effect on temperature has already been realized, therefore future rises in temperature due to carbon dioxide will likely be marginal (Hoskins, 2014).
Objection: Warming temperatures caused by CO2 emissions will result in greater disease amongst crops.
Response: Research on plant pathogens and climate change is inconclusive (Garrett, 2006). However, CO2 has been definitively shown to accelerate photosynthesis, indicating that plants will grow faster; increasing crop yields by 33 percent (Kimball, 1983). In addition, with the uptick in plant growth, the agricultural industry is estimated to increase agricultural revenue by 1.3 billion dollars (Deschenes, 2002).
Objection: Warming temperatures caused by CO2 emissions will result in more severe storms and hurricanes.
Response: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that there is no convincing evidence to support this claim (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013). In addition, extraordinary trends in land falling cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons have not been seen.
Objection: Warming temperatures caused by CO2 emissions will result in more droughts.
Response: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is insufficient evidence to say with high confidence that drought is actually increasing. Trends in droughts from the 1970’s have been overstated, and the frequency and intensity of droughts in both North America and northwest Australia have actually decreased (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013).
Objection: Coal is not a renewable resource, what happens when we run out?
Response: While total coal reserves are on the decline, it is important to note that there are points where the reserves increase due to new reserves of coal being found. Coal reserves are often underestimated, as coal companies tend to plan in the short term. Initial estimates of reserves are often 4-5 times understated when compared to the actual amount of coal in the ground (World Energy Council, 2013). Thus, there is a great deal more coal to be mined. With that in mind, we should continue to take advantage of coal and continue to research new and reliable energy solutions, instead of mandating moves to expensive, intermittent, and unreliable sources such as wind and solar. Furthermore, the same question of reserves can be posed to solar and wind as well, as they require rare earth metals to be mined for their construction (Catlett, 2014).
Objection: Renewables create carbon-free generation and are environmentally friendly.
Response: This is not necessarily true. While generating electricity, both solar and wind do not produce CO2. However, performing a life cycle analysis and taking into account emissions during their construction, wind and solar can give off as much as 364.8g CO2/kWh and 218g CO2/kWh (Nugent, 2014). In addition, both solar and wind projects require mining rare earth metals in China, so the practice of mining will still continue with renewables being used (Catlett, 2014). The rare earth metal capital of the world is Batou, China, which is so polluted due to mining to make wind turbines that the population has dropped from 2,000 to 300 people (The Guardian, 2012). In addition, among other environmental and social challenges, wind turbines in the U.S. have been known to kill 1.4 million birds and bats each year, and solar panels have displaced threatened desert tortoises where they are placed (Catlett, 2014).