Alex Epstein
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?”

One comment on “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

  1. Steve Garcia

    Hilton, you’ve chanced upon a rational book, though one I have not read. This concise passage alone shows how rational it is, Epstein is.

    Estein I am a liberal climate SKEPTIC. The appellation, “denier”, is a nasty, nasty label afixed by those who can’t meet Epstein’s level of rational thinking. Shame on my fellow liberals for that abandoning of rational discussion for such hoc personalization.

    Specifically, in this passage Epstein touches on several excellent points, some of which you’ve responded to. The “warmists” ARE wrong about the greenhouse effect. And YOU pointed out exactly how. A close look at how a greenhouse works DOES show that its warming only comes about because of the shutting down of convective air flow by the glass itself. It’s not the glass acting as a filter of certain frequencies or re-radiation; it is the glass stopping air from flowing naturally. This, of course, does not translate into our climate system at all. There IS no such stoppage of air circulation. Convection isn’t stopped at all. Thus, the analogy is erroneous.

    On this point of yours, and me being a climate skeptic, I DO disagree with Epstein’s assertion that “deniers” are deniers because they refuse to accept the greenhouse effect. All skeptics I know of refuse to accept the catastrophic level of any warming because it is simply not warranted – AND because there is plenty of scientific evidence to call the catastrophe-to-come into question. There is a mountain of counter evidence, and the warmist side convinces itself that THAT evidence if flawed and lie to themselves that it is the fossil fuel industry paying some lackey scientists to produce it, thus rendering THAT evidence as “ignorable”. Without this ignorablilty, climate alarmism has not one foot to stand on. No scientific premise can stand if the evidence argues both ways.

    Thus, they must DISCOUNT real and tangible evidence, in order to convince themselves of the rightness of their cherry-picked conclusions. Within EACH warmist, then, is a denier – of inconvenient truths/evidences.

    (From all I’ve seen – which is a lot – scientists of all fields weigh facts and label some facts as ignorable. They pick among the known facts and highlight the facts that agree with their memes. They sweep other – inconvenient – facts under an academic carpet and simply pretend that those facts don’t exist. YES, it’s political. It’s also a form of religiosity. And dammit, it has no PLACE in the effort of science to uncover the reality of our natural world. I mean, WTF?)

    Epstein catches here the crux of all science, too – The ability to uncover and ASK the right questions. Until the right questions are asked, the right answers can never be found. And WITH the right questions, not only does the present puzzle become so much simpler/clearer, but the progression of scientific endeavor is facilitated. One can point at several scientific fields (physics and astronomy being two) and how they are floundering and have gotten all magical and mystical – and thus SEE which fields have failed to ask the right questions and have thus mired themselves in confusion. It’s sad to see. It’s epicycles all over again – patch upon patch, down a blind alley.

    Science is not, as some believe, simply a compendium of facts, stored in some granddaddy-of-’em-all database like Indiana Jones’ warehouse. Science is nothing without attempts to INTERPRET those facts within a cohesive and GROW-ABLE point-of-view. When the point-of-view goes round and round in circles for too long, at some point it becomes time to ask THIS right question: “Are we asking the right questions. within the right paradigm?” IOW, is the paradigm wrong?

    *** Epstein: “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.”

    In this, Epstein is not as correct as he assumes. Read Patrick Moore’s “Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist”. In it, Moore – one of the five FOUNDERS of Greenpeace – points out that many within the environmentalist movement DENY that humans have any right to continue to live. They consider human beings as a virus on the planet Earth that must be eliminated. Human haters. They want the environment to be as livable as possible – for the animals and plants, but with humans removed. There are more of these people than you or Epstein think. It’s nonsense, but it exists and is focused within that community. I like your response above to that. Quite sane. Epstein is, too, actually.

    Epstein: “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.”

    We just came out of a difficult climate time – the Little Ice Age – in about 1810 or so, only 200 years ago. Though it was not continually cold for its 350 to 400 years, it certainly WAS cold, and cold OFTEN. It’s pointed out that it was so cold that the Thames commonly froze over, enough that winter fairs were held on its ice. The Thames at London simply doesn’t freeze over anymore. And that in Holland the canals froze over – and that they don’t anymore. (A new Dutch friend pointed out that in HER childhood, even, she and everyone skated on the canals.) As a basic question, one must ask, “What happens when something labeled an Ice Age ends, does it warm up or cool down?” The second question is, “How long is the warm-up period allowed to be? Is our current 200 year point since the end of the Little Ice Age past the warm-up period?” Is this current level of warm in itself catastrophic? Not in 2100. NOW. No, of course not. Our farmers feed 7.3 billion people with less percentage starving than at any time in our known history. Obviously, that is ONE criteria. Corollary: Could we feed 7.3 billion with a climate like 1790? (I don’t know, but I doubt it.)

    Epstein: “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.”

    This is where the Malthusians err. They simply gave humans NO credit for adaptation. They assumed that “bad” things would get worse, possibly exponentially so, while “good” things like adaptation would not be part of the equation. Malthus (who died in 1834), wrote just as the Little Ice Age was ending and the Industrial Revolution was just beginning. His assessments were like predicting a horse race based on which horses entered the starting gates first. Yet into the 1960s and 1970s the modern Malthusians used his assessments, seemingly without discernment, to predict that by now we would be out of iron and copper and many other minerals, along with many other dire predictions – NONE of which have come true. They wrote at a time JUST AS the western world was beginning to clean up its air and water. (The current generation has NO idea what real pollution is. Google the term and look at Google’s image gallery – and see that real pollution in the west was all pre-1970.) The climate warmists are simply Malthusians who’ve managed to catch the ears of politicians with their predictions of doom. Hollywood and its ubiquitous dystopian future movies has bought into this Malthusian idea and run with it – so we have Malthus coming out our ears.

    And too many people accept this direction as real, when in fact, humans have done a BANG UP job of adapting – and cleaning up the environment in the process. From The Pill, which has reduced birth rates miraculously, to the Green Revolution, to recycling of iron and plastics, to scrubbers, and to efficient waste and water treatment plants in every city, and to catalytic converters and lead-free gasoline. ADAPTATION. With the blossoming of the USA-type society in scores upon scores of countries, it’s clear that we are adapting and even thriving, while the Malthusians have always predicted shortages and starvation.

    My message to Epstein would that we’ve BEATEN the adaptation curve – and the planet is all the better for it. We need to wake up to this fact and STOP listening to the Malthusians. We are on a path to a Star Trek future, much more than to a “Road Warrior” future. And the environment is SO MUCH healthier, because of scrubbers and water treatment plants and The Pill.

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