Guest post by Indur M. Goklany
In a recent op-ed in the Guardian that WUWT commented on, James Hansen of global warming fame, argued for closing coal fired power plants asserting that “The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.”
So what’s happened to US life expectancy as the number of coal fired death factories have multiplied and as the climate has gotten warmer?
Figure 1: Data are plotted for every ten years from 1900-1940, 1945, and each year from 1949 onward. Data sources: life expectancy from Statistical Abstract of the United States 2009, and earlier editions; coal usage from Goklany (2007) for 1900-1945, and EIA (2008) for 1949-2007; carbon dioxide emissions for 1900-2005 from Marland et al (2008).
As the above figure shows, US life expectancy at birth increased by 30.5 years, from 47.3 years to 77.8 years, between 1900 and 2005, while coal usage more than tripled. Carbon dioxide emissions in 2005 were nearly nine times the 1900 levels. And, of course, the climate has also gotten warmer (not shown). To appreciate the magnitude of this improvement in life expectancy, consider that the approximate life expectancy in pre-industrial societies varied from 25-35 years.
While the increase in life expectancy is not directly due to greater coal use or CO2 emissions, much of it was enabled in one way or another by the prosperity fueled in large part by coal and fossil fuel consumption, as I have noted in my book, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet. Also recalling the IPCC’s temperature trends from 1900 onward, according to my eyeball analyzer there seems to be a better correlation between life expectancy and coal use (and CO2 emissions) or their logarithms than that between temperature increase (either for the US or the world) on the one hand and, on the other hand, coal use (and CO2 emissions) or their logarithms.
It may be argued that Hansen’s comments pertain to the future, not to the past or present. But to this I would respond that the above figure is based on real data whereas Hansen’s declaration is based on some unknown projection about the future based on unknown, unvalidated and unverified models.
Giving up fossil fuel energy use and, with that, compromising the real improvements in life expectancy and other indicators of human well-being that have accompanied that energy use, would be like giving up a real bird in hand to avoid being attacked by a monster that may or may not exist in the bush, that is, a monster that may only exist in the virtual world.
This doesn’t seem like a rational trade-off.