A Free-Market Energy Blog

DeSmog on Vaclav Smil (this deep thinker is largely correct)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- April 28, 2022

“In a profile in Science magazine, [Vaclav] Smil constructed his own models of how carbon dioxide emissions might affect climate and found it ‘wanting.’ ‘I have too much respect for reality,’ Smil said.” (DeSmog, below)

I have previously highlighted DeSmog pieces on climate and energy realists to show that simply imparting the subject’s views create good analysis. DeSmog might think they are prima facie hit pieces, but they are the opposite! Back door justice, perhaps….

Note the guilty-as-charged profiles on Robert Bryce, Isaac Orr, Derrick Hollie, John Christy, and myself. Same for DeSmog’s analysis on the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

DeSmog has done so many profiles that it looks like we are in the majority. And in a sense we are! The public is not buying climate catastrophe (yawn), certainly not in paying more for energy.

Enter Vaclav Smil, a truth teller but a Malthusian nonetheless. Major excerpts of the Smil profile at DeSmog follow:


Stance on Climate Change

March 21, 2018

In a profile in Science magazine, Smil constructed his own models of how carbon dioxide emissions might affect climate and found it “wanting.” “I have too much respect for reality,” Smil said.

The Science article writes that Smil “accepts the sobering reality of climate change—though he is dubious of much climate modeling—and believes we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.” Smil, however, is skeptical of a rapid shift to alternative forms of energy.

January 2014

Writing in Global Energy Affairs, Smil said:

[B]ecause the world is so heavily dependent on fossil fuels the greatest challenge may be the way we will cope with global climate change.

Unfortunately, our models of global warming cannot tell us with a high level of confidence how rapid that change will be and how high the temperatures will rise in 50 or 100 years: difference of a single degree of Celsius translate into very different environmental and economic consequences. If we knew what was coming with certainty we could decide which one of the two main courses of action – gradual adaptation or an all-out effort aimed at emission reduction – is the more rational choice. But we do not, and this means that our production and use of energy, and hence our economic and social well-being, will continue to unfold in a world of profound uncertainty. That, too, is one constant that will not change for decades to come.

July 30, 2010

In a book published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) press entitled “Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate,” writing in a section on natural carbon sequestration, Smil wrote:

Global warming will […]  lengthen the growing seasons and intensify water cycling—that is, the overall amount of precipitation will increase—in many regions. This combination will result in higher plant productivity, a trend that was already evident throughout most of the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century. But what the long-term effect of such changes will be is not clear. Will the additional productivity be promptly negated by higher rates of respiration in a warmer world? Will most of its increment be stored in long-lived tissues, such as trunks and major roots, or tissues with rapid turnover, such as foliage and fine roots? And, most fundamentally, will global warming eventually convert forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources?


According to a review of Smil’s book, The Worst Is Yet To Be, he estimates a temperature increase of 2.5 to 3 degrees Celsius over the next hundred years.

While on sea levels, he says that “a cautious conclusion” would be that they will rise about 15 centimeters by 2050—“clearly a noncatastrophic change.”

According to Smil, the dollar impact of moderate global warming would be a “a trivial sum in all affluent countries.” He supports this with research from William Nordhaus.


[C]limate change resulting from emissions of CO2 (and from releases of other greenhouse gases) will have an indisputably global effect,” Smil wrote in a 2000 report titled “Energy in the Twentieth Century” in Annual Review of Energy and the Environment.


“Surely, hydraulic fracturing will not invariably poison the air, will not cause spates of local mini-earthquakes, and will not produce flaming faucets in all nearby areas (the three frightening clichés advanced by its opponents) — but the activity, especially if done in thousands of hurried repetitions and sometimes without careful planning, has the potential to be often unpleasant and disruptive, and sometimes outright damaging,” Smil wrote in an article at the American Enterprise Institute’s publication, The American.

Peak Oil

“Obviously, there will come a time when global oil extraction will reach its peak, but even that point may be of little practical interest as it could be followed by a prolonged, gentle decline or by an extended output plateau at a somewhat lower level than peak production. At the beginning of 2013, there are no signs that the beginning of this new oil era (regardless of its specific course) is imminent, and forecasting its onset remains an exercise in futility. Only one thing is abundantly clear to me: for the past 15 years I have been quite confident that there is no imminent danger of any sharp peak of global oil extraction followed by an inexorable production slide — and early in 2013 that confidence is greatly strengthened by new facts. Is it too much to hope that even some catastrophists and peak-oil cultists will find it impossible to ignore those numbers?” Smil wrote in The American.

Nuclear Energy

“Public unease about safety and problems with costs, liability, and permanent storage do not make a flourishing nuclear industry impossible, but they do demonstrate the enormous influence that mistaken public risk perception can have on government policy and reveal the consistently inept bureaucratic handling of the challenge so far,” Smil wrote at the American Enterprise Institute‘s blog, AEIdeas.

Nuclear energy’s discouraging record is even more unfortunate given that nuclear generation is the only low-carbon-footprint energy option readily available on a gigawatt-level scale. This is why nuclear power should be part of any serious attempt to reduce the rate of global warming. At the same time, it would be naïve to think that nuclear power could be (as some suggest) the single most effective tool for combating climate change in the next ten to 30 years. The best hope is for it to offer a modest contribution.

Key Quotes


In an interview with UM Today, Smil said:

Interviewer: “Tell me more about what’s happening on the energy front.”

Smil: “We haven’t made a single correct move in energy.” […]

“Hydroelectricity is the best, the most sustainable—I hate that word, sustainable. That’s the best form of renewable energy there is today, right? Because it runs all the time. Wind—well, you know, even in Manitoba, it’s not there 75 per cent of the time…. People feel constrained to be publicly correct to build a wind turbine farm…. Why do we do these stupidities, right? Well, because we feel renewable energy is only solar and wind, right? Not hydro apparently. Most people don’t think that way.”

Interviewer: “You mentioned you dislike the word sustainability.”

Smil: “Yeah, absolutely hate it [the word sustainability] because there is no such thing. Sustainability cannot be defined. Sustainable for what? Over next year? Over 10 years? Over a millennium? On a local basis, on a planetary basis? I mean, there are so many time and space dimensions to it you cannot define what is sustainable. If somebody is boasting that what they are doing is sustainable, it’s a total laugh. There is no sustainable thing.”

March 21, 2018

In an interview with Science magazine, Smil said: 

I have never been wrong on these major energy and environmental issues because I have nothing to sell.

 We have been increasing our global dependence on fossil fuels. Not decreasing.

November 2015

In an article in the OECD Observer, Smil wrote:

A shift to nuclear energy or to modern conversions of renewable energy flows was always inevitable. If fuel resources and technical abilities to recover them at affordable price were the only limitations, we could anticipate at least another century or more of coal, oil and gas. Global warming has made the transition to non-carbon energies a matter of some urgency, but we must nevertheless be realistic about the size and speed of such a shift.

A combination of subsidy changes–removing them from fossil fuels, enhancing them for new renewables–mandated production targets and intensified R&D could accelerate the transition to renewables, but it is unlikely to displace all fossil fuels in a few decades, particularly as many low income countries will rely on them for their development.

We should not forget that the environmentally least disruptive action is not to turn to new technical solutions to produce more energy in different ways, but simply to do with less. ‘Less is more’ has never been more desirable than in the case of tackling the rising levels of atmospheric CO2.

September 13, 2010

Writing at the American Enterprise Institute‘s blog, AEIdeas:

The myth that the future belongs to electric cars is one of the original misconceptions of the modern energy era, dating back to the introduction of the very first passenger vehicles.

“Flipping the switch” and going electric will not solve America’s automotive dependence on imported oil, either in the near- or long-term. A far better use of resources would be to focus on the development of more efficient gasoline-powered engines; there is no reason the U.S. fleet should not average 50 mpg rather than today’s average of less than 25 mpg.

September 8, 2010

Writing at the American Enterprise Institute’s blog, AEIdeas:

A new energy myth was created by the country’s most famous Nobel Prize-winner in July 2008 when former Vice President Al Gore claimed that America’s entire thermal electricity generation industry could be replaced by ‘green’ alternatives in a single decade: ‘Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable, affordable, and transformative.’ Transformative it would be, but it would certainly not be affordable, and, even if it were, it could never be accomplished in such a short period of time.

July 30, 2010

In ”Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate” Smil wrote that judgments about coal as an energy source have been “unfair”:

While fossil fuels remain the very foundation of modern economic growth, spreading prosperity and a decent quality of life, they are no longer seen in that light. Rather, they are perceived as undesirable, outright dangerous, or even immoral, since their continuing use is thought to pose an unprecedented threat to the survival of modern civilization. Growing fears about rapid global warming caused by emissions of CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels are behind this increasingly stringent judgment, and these fears feed (mostly unrealistic) visions of an accelerated global transition to nonfossil energies.

Coal has always been more polluting in terms of particulate matter and sulfur oxide emissions than other hydrocarbons, and because it also has the highest CO2 emissions per unit of released energy, it is seen as the most undesirable choice. A closer look at coal’s attributes and the history of its use shows that this judgment is unfair and suggests that if the fuel’s conversion were done with the most efficient techniques available today, we would have no reason to view it so negatively.  Crude oil—largely because of the continuing indispensability of refined fuels for the entire transportation sector occupies a more exalted place than coal. Although its considerable environmental impact is a concern, the main worry about oil is that its global extraction may peak in the very near future, and that this peak will not be followed by a prolonged production plateau but, rather, by a steep decline that will bring a multitude of economic and social hardships—in the most extreme versions, the end of modern civilization. That is why the first myth I debunk in this part of the book is the peak  oil myth.

November 19, 2008

“To think that the United States can install in 10 years wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct is delusional,” Smil wrote in The American.

May 8, 2008

In a letter to Nature, Smil said he largely agreed with a Nature commentary by Roger Pielke Jr. and others about stabilizing carbon emissions:

“I largely agree with the overall conclusion of Pielke et al. that the IPCC assessment is overly optimistic,” Smil wrote. “But I fear that the situation is even worse than the authors imply.”

“The speed of transition from a predominantly fossil-fuelled world to conversions of renewable flows is being grossly overestimated: all energy transitions are multigenerational affairs with their complex infrastructural and learning needs. Their progress cannot substantially be accelerated either by wishful thinking or by government ministers’ fiats.”

Key Deeds

June 28, 2012

Smil wrote an article at IEEE Spectrum titled “A Skeptic Looks at Alternative Energy.” In the article, Smil contends that in “the world of new renewable energies […] subsidies rule—and consumers pay.” Smil argues that reducing emissions in the Western world would be “utterly swamped” by increases in coal use in China and India:

The ultimate justification for alternative energy centers on its mitigation of global warming: Using wind, solar, and biomass sources of energy adds less greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. But because greenhouse gases have global effects, the efficacy of this substitution must be judged on a global scale. And then we have to face the fact that the Western world’s wind and solar contributions to the reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions are being utterly swamped by the increased burning of coal in China and India.

November 15, 2011

Writing at The Americanthe journal of the industry-funded American Enterprise Institute—Smil argued against delaying the Keystone XL pipeline. He wrote: “Obama’s delaying consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline is what is called a spherically perfect decision, because no matter from which angle you look at it, it looks perfectly the same: wrong.”

Smil writes that CO2 emissions from the Keystone KL pipeline would be dwarfed by emissions from China, using this as an argument for why the pipeline would have little impact on climate change. He wrote: “If there would be no oil-sand oil produced in Alberta to feed the XL pipeline and then refined in the United States and the products burned in American vehicles, then the Chinese would generate an additional mass of CO2 equivalent to that prevented burden in less than two weeks.”

He concluded: “By preventing the oil flow from Canada, the United States will thus deliberately deprive itself of new manufacturing and construction jobs; it will not slow down the increase of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion (OK, by two weeks, perhaps); it will almost certainly empower China; and it will make itself strategically even more vulnerable by becoming further dependent on declining, unstable, and contested overseas crude oil supplies. That is what is called a spherically perfect decision, because no matter from which angle you look at it, it looks perfectly the same: wrong.”

July 30, 2010

Smil wrote a book published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) press entitled “Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate.”

In the book, Smil outlines a number of “myths.” The first supposed myth is regarding electric vehicles: “The myth that the future belongs to electric vehicles is one of the original misconceptions of the modern energy era, going back to the very introduction of the first practical passenger cars,” Smil wrote. “[I]t will be decades, rather than years, before we can judge to what extent electric cars offer a real substitute for vehicles powered by internal combustion engines and contribute to more efficient personal transportation in the United States.”

He describes nuclear energy as a “successful failure.” According to Smil: “Nuclear power should be part of any serious attempt to reduce the rate of global warming; at the same time, it would be naïve to think that it could be (as some suggest) the single most effective component of this challenge during the next ten to thirty years. The best hope is for it to offer a modest contribution.”


Vaclav Smil is basically right. Climate alarm is much less certain than the physical reality of energy density, which runs the world. Now that reality has come his way with the world energy crisis, he continues to be respected in the mainstream, as indicated by this recent New York Times magazine Q&A, Titled “This Eminent Scientist Says Climate Activists Need to Get Real.”

DeSmog can continue to quote Smil in updates, to which I say, “thank you and check your premises.”


  1. John W. Garrett  

    Many, many years ago, in order to preserve my peace, health and sanity, I stopped trying to educate the uneducable.

    I am grateful for the existence of people like Smil (and Robert Bradley) who have taken up that fight.


  2. Russell Cook  

    Achieved my own badge of honor when Desmog created a Profile page on me ( https://www.desmog.com/russell-cook/ ). Similar to the Profile above, the hapless intern there who was tasked with creating my Profile could not come up with anything actually damaging to me. More funny is how they could not bring themselves to link to non-archive versions of my GelbspanFiles blog, and they offered NOTHING to counter what I said about their beloved co-founder James Hoggan ( http://gelbspanfiles.com/?p=2728 ). In case anybody isn’t aware of it, Desmog’s other co-founder is Ross Gelbspan, who self-admitted his role there starting 8 seconds into this old audio interview of him: https://soundcloud.com/sciencepope/ross-exposing-coal-media


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