I’ve had this book in my to-read stack for about a year now, and I’m reading it seriously only now. I was put off by the title—“the moral case for fossil fuels” sounds as absurd as “the benefits of cutting” or “the virtue of selfishness.” Despite the entire hoo-ha surrounding climate, surely there couldn’t be a moral case for fossil fuels? It turns out there can be; a very strong one. But first I had to get off the pulpit.
I’ve selected the following piece as a representative sample of the stream of thought behind Epstein’s thesis. As ever, there is an inherent trip wire in doing this: You don’t get the wider context of his arguments. Please read the book if you want to find out more about the world we live in; if you’re happy to stick where you are, then don’t. No skin off my back.
I have inserted in square brackets […] my own comments on Epstein’s text.
Alex Epstein: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
Chapter 4: The Greenhouse Effect and the Fertiliser Effect
A huge source of confusion in our public discussion is the separation of people (including scientists) into “climate change believers” and “climate change deniers”—the latter a not-so-subtle comparison to Holocaust deniers. “Deniers” are ridiculed for denying the existence of the greenhouse effect, an effect by which certain molecules, including CO2, take infrared light waves that the Earth reflects back towards space and then reflect them back toward the Earth, creating a warming effect. But this is a straw man. Every “climate change denier” I know of recognizes the existence of the greenhouse effect, and many if not most think that man has had some noticeable impact on climate. What they deny is that there is evidence of a catastrophic impact from CO2’s warming effect. That is, they are expressing a different opinion about how fossil fuels affect climate—particularly about the nature and magnitude of their impact.
[Note: Certain questions need to be asked, including whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and more importantly, how an open gaseous system like the Earth’s atmosphere can act as a greenhouse, analogous to artificial glass greenhouses. I believe that heat can be trapped, and that our atmosphere can do this, but not in the way that is being postulated by the standard climate model. When we stop asking questions, and say “the science is settled”, we depart from science and enter politics.]
Once I was clear on how unclear the questions we were asking were, I could ask better questions and get better answers. And once I got clearer on how to use experts as advisors, not authorities, and how to always keep in mind the big picture, I had a much better chance of getting the right answers to the right questions.
Here’s how I put the right questions now, from a human standard of value.
The first is: How does fossil fuel use affect climate livability? When we burn fossil fuels, what are all the climate-related risks and all the benefits that result?
Given that our standard is human life—we want the climate we live in to be as liveable as possible—there are two types of impacts we need to study and weigh. The first is the impact of CO2 on climate itself. CO2 affects climate in at least two ways: as a greenhouse gas with warming impact, but also as plant food with a fertilizing impact (plants are a major part of the climate system as well as a benefit of a liveable climate)…The second impact of CO2, which is rarely mentioned, is the tendency of cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from fossil fuels to amplify our ability to adapt to climate—to maximize the benefits we get from good weather and ample rainfall and minimize the risks from heat waves, cold snaps, and droughts…
[Note: (i) The selected excerpts are necessarily brief; environmental impacts and sustainability are dealt with elsewhere in this book and the other books I have referred to. (ii) That alternative energy sources may become economically viable and practicable in the future cannot be a morally justified as a reason to deprive the needy of the cheapest source of energy now. This is especially true if we, the arbiters of who gets what, use fossil fuels and their associated benefits for ourselves. It is a shameful hypocrisy if we do.]
Discussion of climate change often assumes that any man-made climate change is large if not catastrophic and that our ability to adapt is not all that important. This is unacceptable. It is prejudicial to assume that anything is big or small, positive or negative, before we see the evidence. We have to actually investigate the facts. It might be that the greenhouse effect leads to a tiny, beneficial amount of warming or that having or not having fossil fuels to build sturdy infrastructure is the difference between two hundred and two hundred thousand people dying in a hurricane.
[Note: There are currently seven billion people sharing the terrestrial biosphere. In the wink of an eye there will be twenty billion people. That’s what all social models have to deal with. It is a well established and demonstrable fact that the higher people are on the socio-economic ladder, the fewer children they tend to have. It is part of the moral case for fossil fuels that the basis of raising the standard of living of any people is cheap energy. I do not discuss genocide, although I think about it a lot.]
Granted, acquiring evidence is often hard because of so many conflicting reports, which is why it’s so important to get experts to explain what they know and what they don’t know clearly and precisely.
The bottom line: For the three major climate impacts of fossil fuels—the greenhouse, fertilizer, and energy effects—we want to know how they work and how they affect us, all the while asking, “How do we know?”