Carbon intensity—the measure of carbon emissions per unit of GDP—keeps declining. Since 1970, we’ve cut it by more than half. Going back even further, Jesse Ausubel—a senior program director at Rockefeller University—documents that the carbon intensity of the global economy has been declining since the time of Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln without an explicit policy to pursue that objective. Our growing prosperity and the resulting natural demand for advances in technology has driven more efficient energy use.
That phenomenon has implications beyond America. Outside of the U.S., almost 2 billion people live at levels of poverty that even the poorest U.S. citizen doesn’t experience and can’t imagine. They do not have access to commercial power or potable water, and they suffer high disease and mortality rates. Their plight is one that we know how to solve but choose to give mostly lip service.
Policies that encourage robust economic growth and real democratic processes in developing parts of the world will also lead to better stewardship of the environment in these regions.
Absolute reduction in atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is an illusion, at least for decades to come. Reductions in carbon intensity will come from greater prosperity and resulting advances in energy efficient technologies. The true moral imperative is achieving greater abundance from rising standards of living, promoting personal freedom and property rights, and encouraging greater political transparency and honesty.
There may be an axiom with such groups that the more principled their name, the less principled their agenda. To quote H.L. Mencken, “In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell.”
William O’Keefe, chief executive officer of the George C. Marshall Institute, is president of Solutions Consulting Inc.