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Center for Economics and the Environment: Policy Series


In November 2009, former vice president Al Gore appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, and declared that unless the people of the world take drastic action to curb global carbon dioxide emissions, it could be “the end of civilization as we know it.”

Over the past decade or so, Gore has been at the forefront of a campaign aimed at reducing global carbon dioxide emissions. His book, An Inconvenient Truth, along with a documentary of the same title, were part of a tidal wave of books, magazine articles, and studies which claimed that the world faces a risk of catastrophic climate change because of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. The United Nations has weighed into the discussion with numerous reports about the issue. And in December, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Durban, South Africa to hold yet another climate meeting. That meeting follows similar climate confabs that have been held in Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Cancun.

While the statements being put forward by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which said in 2007 that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” along with claims that carbon dioxide emissions are the chief culprit, may prove to be correct, we must also maintain the possibility that these claims are wrong.

Either way, a strong opinion about the claims matters very little because no matter how much the US may want to lead efforts to reduce carbon emissions, it cannot, and will not, be able to substantially slow the increasing use of coal, oil, and natural gas.

This paper will discuss two inter-related factors that are seldom discussed by politicians and pundits: the slow pace of energy transitions and the enormous scale of our energy use. By discussing those two factors, I will show why the countries of the world will not be able to agree on any plans to impose carbon limits or carbon taxes.

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