Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
For a while, I taught a course in human-powered machinery for the Peace Corps. You know, bicycle powered generators, treadle powered pumps, that kind of thing. One of the very rough rules of thumb regarding human energy is that an adult human can put out about a hundred watts on an ongoing, constant all-day basis. If you were to hook up a bicycle to a generator you could generate a kilowatt-hour every day … if you were in good shape and you put in a ten-hour day. Sounds like work to me.
I got to thinking about this number, one kilowatt-hour’s worth of electricity for a long ten-hour day’s work, in the context of the discussion about energy costs. Some people think raising energy costs to discourage CO2 production is a good thing. I say that raising energy costs, whether to discourage CO2 or for any other reason, trades a certain present loss for a very doubtful future gain. As such, it is an extremely bad idea. Here’s why:
The existence of electricity is perhaps the one thing most emblematic of human development. With electricity, we get refrigeration to preserve medicines and foods, light to extend the day, electric heat, power to run machinery, the list goes on and on. Now, as I showed above, we can hire somebody to generate electricity for us, at the rate of a kilowatt-hour for each ten-hour day’s work. Where I live, this day’s worth of slave labor, this thousand watt-hours of energy, costs me the princely sum of about thirteen cents US. I can buy an electric slave-day of work for thirteen cents.
That is why I live well. Instead of having slaves as the Romans had, I can buy a day’s worth of a slave’s constant labor for thirteen measly cents. That is what development consists of, the use of electricity and other forms of inexpensive energy in addition to and in lieu of human energy.
Now, here’s the next part of the puzzle. Out at the farther edges of society, where people live on a dollar a day or less, electricity is much more expensive than it is where I live. In the Solomon Islands, where I lived before returning to the US in 2009, electricity in the capital city cost fifty-two cents a kilowatt-hour, and more out in the outer islands.
Now, let us consider the human cost of the kind of “cap-and trade” or “carbon tax” or Kyoto Protocol agreements. All of these attempts to decrease CO2 have the same effect. They raise the cost of energy, whether in the form of electricity or liquid fuels. But the weight of that change doesn’t fall on folks like me. Oh, I feel it alright. But for someone making say $26.00 per hour, they can buy two hundred slave-days of work with an hour’s wages. (Twenty-six dollars an hour divided by thirteen cents per kWh.). Two hundred days of someone working hard for ten hours a day, that’s the energy of more than six months of someone’s constant work … and I can buy that with one hour’s wages.
At the other end of the scale, consider someone making a dollar a day, usually a ten-hour day. That’s about ten cents an hour, in a place where energy may well cost fifty-two cents per kilowatt-hour. Energy costs loom huge for them even now. I can buy six months of slave labor for one hour of my wage. They can buy a couple of hours of slave labor, not days or months but hours, of slave labor for each hour of their work.
And as a result, an increase in energy costs that is fairly small to me is huge to the poor. Any kind of tax on energy, indeed any policy that raises the cost of energy, is one of the most regressive taxes known to man. It crushes those at the lowest end of the scale, and the worst part is, there is no relief at the bottom. You know how with income tax, if you make below a certain limit, you pay no tax at all? If you are below the threshold, you are exempt from income tax.
But energy price increases such as carbon taxes don’t even have that relief. They hit harder the further you go down the economic ladder, all the way down to rock bottom, hitting the very poorest the hardest of all.
So when James Hansen gets all mealy-mouthed about his poor grandkids’ world in fifty years, boo-boo, it just makes me shake my head in amazement. His policies have already led to an increase in something I never heard of when I was a kid, “fuel poverty”. This is where the anti-human pseudo-green energy policies advocated by Hansen and others have driven the price of fuel so high that people who weren’t poor before, now cannot heat their homes in winter … it’s shockingly common in Britain, for example.
In other words, when James Hansen is coming on all weepy-eyed about what might possibly happen to his poor grandchildren fifty years from now, he is so focused on the future that he overlooks the ugly present-day results of his policies, among them the grandparents shivering in houses that they can no longer afford to heat …
Perhaps some folks are willing to trade a certain, actually occurring, measurable present harm to their grandparents, in order to have a chance of avoiding a far-from-certain distant possible future harm to their grandkids.
I say let’s keep the old geezers warm right now, what the heck, they’ve been good to us, mostly, and lets provide inexpensive energy to the world, and thus encourage industry and agriculture to feed and clothe people, and let the grandkids deal with the dang future. That’s what our own grandparents did. They didn’t dick around trying to figure out the problems that we would face today. They faced the problems of their day.
Besides, according to the IPCC, fifty years from now those buggers are going to be several times wealthier than we are now. So why should I be worried about Hansen’s and my likely wealthy grandkids in preference to today’s demonstrably poor children? My grandkids will do just fine. Heck, they’ll probably have the dang flying cars I was promised, and the fusion power I was supposed to get that would be too cheap to meter, so let them deal with it. We have plenty of problems worrying about today’s poor, let’s focus on that and let the future take care of their poor.
The real irony is that these folks like Hansen claim to be acting on behalf of the poor, in that they claim that the effects of global warming will hit the poor hardest. I have never found out how that is supposed to happen. I say this because the effects of global warming are supposed to hit the hardest in the extra-tropics, in the winter, in the night-time. I have a hard time believing that some homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk in New York City in December is going to be cursing the fact that the frozen winter midnights are a degree warmer … so exactly which poor are they supposed to be saving, and from what?