Getting it Wrong: Prophets of Environmental Doom Are at it Again

Published May 31, 2016

It was only 20 years ago that many environmentalists and energy gurus were predicting a bleak future for the world at the end of this century. The millennium would bring dramatic shortages of fossil fuels, they said, leading to nightmarish social and economic disruption.

A quick look around, particularly in the United States, illustrates just how wrong they were.

So now a new generation of alarmists has taken their place, using the same slipshod research methods to promote their global warming argument. In this latest doomsday scenario, humankind may one day find its world slowly suffocating in greenhouse gases created by man’s unrelenting use of those fossil fuels that should have disappeared by now.

But the current crop of prognosticators will be as wrong as their predecessors, predicts Mark P. Mills, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). Doomsayers then and now share a flawed approach to predicting the future: a failure or unwillingness to understand technological progress.

Yesterday’s prophets of doom did not expect such things as super-computing technology and the advances in geophysics that have made possible dramatic changes in fossil fuel exploration and recovery. Nor did they anticipate how human ingenuity could produce conventional power plants and vehicles far more efficient than those in use just decades ago.

Today, says Mills, “without apology, and perhaps in part because of the absence of any mechanism for accountability, the same old crowd is at it again.

“Environmentalists and self-anointed energy experts were wrong 20 years ago. What credibility do such organizations and individuals have in making similar, often identical, energy technology forecasts today? Based on the record, the answer should be none.”

Mills, a science advisor to the Greening Earth Society and president of Mills-McCarthy and Associates, a research and consulting firm specializing in technology strategy focused on the energy industry, is the author of “Getting It Wrong: Energy Forecasts and the End-of-Technology Mindset,” a report published in July 1999 by CEI’s Environmental Studies Program.

Mills notes that if energy technology forecasting were a mutual fund created 20 years ago, it would have been bankrupt long ago and destroyed by market forces.

“But because energy forecasting is directed at influencing federal and state policies and entails the use of taxpayers’ money, there is no ‘natural’ market for accountability,” he notes. “Clearly, being politically correct in energy forecasts means never having to say you’re sorry, even if you are wrong.

“We imperil the nation’s economic and energy future by ignoring the lessons of history, and by basing policy on energy and economic forecasts made today by the same community of ‘experts’ offering the same flawed nostrums as 20 years ago.”

No Blue-chip Forecasters, These

So how far off were the energy ‘experts’ of the late 1970s and early 1980s?

Among their dire predictions was the one about running out of fossil fuels, forcing us to rely increasingly on such renewable energy sources as solar energy and windmills. But in fact, oil and natural gas reserves have increased by record amounts, while consumption in the United States has remained at about six billion barrels per year and world consumption has risen by 2.5 billion barrels a year.

Windmills and solar power, notes Mills, contribute just 0.5 percent of the nation’s energy.

In 1975, the prestigious National Geographic magazine joined the environmental crusade, devoting an entire issue to the energy “crisis.” In that issue, the magazine predicted the following costs of energy in 1995 (in dollars per million BTUs of energy):

  • coal, $3 to $5 — actual price today, roughly $1;
  • oil, $6 to $11 — actual price today, roughly $3;
  • natural gas, $4 to $8 — actual price today, roughly $2.

“The U.S. and the world’s economies are inextricably anchored in the use of abundant and low-cost fossil fuels,” Mills writes. “Today the economies of the world use the energy equivalent of 60 billion barrels of oil a year. Fossil fuels supply almost 90 percent of all of that energy; oil alone supplies 25 billion barrels of the world’s energy. And fossil fuels have provided 86 percent of the growth in energy supply over the past two decades. All this occurred as the average cost of fossil fuels collapsed over 40 percent from the brief peaks reached following the ill-advised OPEC oil embargo of 1973.”

Our Electric Economy

Demand for electricity also was projected to decline, and with it the need for coal as an energy source. Since 1977, however, demand for electricity has skyrocketed 70 percent. Coal has supplied two-thirds of the increased supply of electricity.

A major factor contributing to the increased use of electricity is the energy requirements of personal computers and the companies that manufacture them. The computer’s share of electricity in commercial uses nearly equals the lighting load. “A billion PCs on the Web means electric demand equal to total U.S. output today,” predicted Mills in a May 31 Forbes magazine article, “Dig More Coal.”

The Power of Human Ingenuity

Today’s breed of hand-wringing environmentalists is attempting to accomplish what Mills termed “the equivalent of worrying about finding better lamps to burn whale oil at the dawn of the age of electric lighting. Better to let science and technology flourish.”

“Unless one presumes that the progress of science and technology has ended, that no significant new basic discoveries and technologies are possible, it is ridiculous to engage in plans to manage, anticipate, or direct technology over time periods beyond 20 years. Yet this is precisely what many in the expert community engaged in promoting the theory of global warming are attempting to do. We are being asked to put at risk trillions of dollars in investment in existing energy technologies on the basis of 20 and 20-plus year technology forecasts that have no validity.”