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Post Tagged with: Carbon Dioxide

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein

I rarely gush about a book, but The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein is an exception. I, like the author, was raised in an orthodox “green” environment where everything I’ve ever been taught and every person I’ve ever known has been unequivocal: climate change is dangerous, humans are causing it, and anything but immediate action against the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions will damage the future of humanity. I never fully bought the mania around climate change, out of a gut feeling that we weren’t being told the complete story, but didn’t take the time to sit down and figure out why, until I picked up this book.

BN-FU581_bkrvfo_FR_20141201135820Epstein’s book makes the exact opposite case, and it’s worth listening to: that to stop the productive harnessing of fossil fuel energy would be devastating to today’s and future humans, and moreover, if we want healthier lives, cleaner air, and a safer environment now and in the future, we should be encouraging more fossil fuel use and supporting the industry that develops these resources.

(In case you were wondering, Epstein adamantly denies taking any money from the fossil fuel industry).

The book starts by focusing on reframing the cultural debate around climate change. The author emphasizes using a human standard of value instead of an environmental (nature first) standard of value, and he provides plenty of support for why, to humans, the benefits of cheap, plentiful and reliable energy in the form of fossil fuels far outweigh the risks.

In short, humans mostly benefit from impacting our environment: nature and climate are inherently dangerous to our species and we make it safer. The mechanism by which we make our environment safer and more productive for human life is cheap, plentiful and reliable energy, that right now only exists in fossil fuels. Epstein looks at supposedly renewable alternatives like wind and solar and how uneconomical they are, not to mention unreliable. He addresses arguments about the costs of fossil fuel consumption, from pollution to ecosystem impact to climate change, essentially in the same way: that cheap energy makes our lives safer, our environment cleaner, and allows us to control out climate for our own flourishing and comfort. He takes us to remote parts of the world where electricity is not commonplace, where premature babies die from lack of incubation, where labs can’t use microscopes to study disease and create cures, where farms can’t get irrigated and crops can’t get to market, all because of a lack of cheap, plentiful and reliable energy.

Far from being the global warming-denying screed I expected, he actually spends very little time talking about climate change at all. He does address the fact that there is little consensus among scientists about how much climate change humanity should expect to see in the next couple centuries, and looks at the dubious historical record of such predictive models (including that of Paul Ehrlich, about whom I recently read in The Bet). He acknowledges that carbon emissions probably do have a minor impact on global temperatures–but that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter compared to the immense wealth to be gained by humanity because of it. The ability of humans to innovate and adapt to their changing environments is made possible by fossil fuels, and our continuing progress as a civilization–including the rise out of poverty for billions around the globe–requires cheap, plentiful and reliable fossil fuel energy. Plus–and this is a case he made plenty of times–fossil fuel usage is linked to cleaner and healthier environments as technology and innovation advances (made possible again by you guessed it, fossil fuels).

One thing I wish he had addressed was the issue of energy export. One of the reasons America’s air and water has gotten so much cleaner, despite using more and more fossil fuels over the last half century, is because we have exported so much of our energy-intensive activities to China and elsewhere, where fossil fuel pollution is a serious problem. I have no doubt that the Chinese, like us, can develop technologies to limit pollution as well, and in any event, it wouldn’t be a reason not to burn fossil fuels as much as a reason to regulate their emissions, but it would have been a good point to make as the third world industrializes and starts to reap the benefits of fossil fuel energy.

He does make a good case against pollution (for the strict purpose of preventing negative externalities, not dissuading fossil fuel use). However, he doesn’t reconcile his support for antipollution regulation with his general support of carbon-burning industries. He could say, without hurting his argument, that there’s nothing wrong with risk managing (potentially) catastrophic global warming by taxing or capping CO2 emissions as a matter of policy. Though regressive, that would be a fair tax priced into everything as the cost of civilization, and would have little impact on encouraging new energy development. I think this oversight is due only to the fact that that’s not really the point of his book. He wrote this book not to lobby for individual policy, but to fight back against cultural anti-fossil fuel prejudice advocated by environmentalists and progressives who prioritize nature over human life. At this task he did an laudable and astounding job. I would not be surprised to see Epstein quickly emerge as a leading spokesperson for an alternative environmental discourse in the future.

January 13, 2015Comments are DisabledRead More
Six Degrees…the Apocalypse, Now

Six Degrees…the Apocalypse, Now

Massive tsunamis.  Sinking cities.  Mass hunger, limited food, uninhabitable climates and the devastation of the earth’s most productive biomes.  These are what Mark Lynas predicts for an earth that is just an average of 6 degrees Celsius warmer, in his new book Six Degrees.  What is so scary is that, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a six degree increase in global temperature is possible within the next century (albeit, it is on the high end of estimates).

In a slew of research, Lynas charts, apocalyptically, the path the earth will take if current trends in carbon dioxide emissions continue.  One degree at a time, gradually, the natural mechanisms that keep the world’s climate in place, the subtle changes in tropical temperatures, ocean temperatures, rainfall and polar melting will send the weather into overdrive.  Massive hurricanes like Hurricane Katrina will be small compared to the “hyperstorms” expected by mid-century.  Wide food shortages are to be expected, as the world’s agricultural centers in North America and South Asia will become dryer and less arable, and many agricultural operations will be aborted by soil acidity from rising oceans.  Mountain glaciers, which serve as hearts to great river arteries which provide water to the some of the world’s biggest cities–Lima, Peru and Karachi, Pakistan among them–will melt, leaving millions of people without drinking water and looking for somewhere to live.  As the polar ice caps melt, faster each decade due to a positive ice albedo feedback, ocean levels will rise, and costal cities–most of the world’s cities–will be in a situation similar to New Orleans the past century.  Capable of saving the city, yes, but incapable of preventing a storm from breeching the levies.

The scariest prospect of a warmer future is the massive migrations that will be taking place, and accompanied with food shortages, the political extremism that is bound to occur.  Millions of Africans, looking for food after their already paltry agricultural supply goes dry, will want entry into more developed nations, whose technology might have their people living large for many years to come.  Of course, more immigration means more discrimination, more marginalization.  “Climate revolutionaries” will blame industrial nations for their role in causing their suffering, and some of these climate revolutionaries in some of the worst hit nations–India and Pakistan to be precise–will be armed with nuclear weapons and will be under political pressure to use them.

Six Degrees is indeed apocalyptic, but it does not seem entirely exaggerated.  With even one degree of warming, something that almost unanimously scientists agree will be reached by mid-century, changes in climate will make ocean waters rise, and storms will intensify.  Warmer oceans do not absorb oxygen as well, and thus the oceans, the home of millions of phytoplankton (source of one half of all the world’s primary photosynthesizing biomass) will become devoid of a necessary ingredient to life.  With carbon dioxide-absorbing phytoplankton dying, it is only a matter of time before carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, and the cycle starts to feed on itself.

But, on the bright side, best case humans will be living on Mars by then, and everyone will be able to generate their own food using Star Trek-style replicators, and everything will be dandy.  Of course, worst case, as people start tearing apart every building looking for food, there’s little chance scientists and teachers and even governments will be able to operate, meaning the progress of technology will slow to a stop and we’ll enter the dark ages.  But at least we’ll be alive, right?  Well, given the exponential destruction of species in tropical rainforests and the extent to which our food chain is becoming killed from the bottom up, that doesn’t even seem to be very likely.

What is scary to me is that in my lifetime, I might actually see some of the greatest cities this world has ever known swallowed up by the oceans.  In the meantime, the world will be consumed by political extremism and worse, religious fanaticism.

It’s dangerous to jump to conclusions, and worse of all, to throw millions of dollars into solving the wrong problem (we don’t even know if it can be solved).  But major science is needed right now to develop clean energy alternatives that are cost competitive with fossil fuels, which futurist Ray Kurzweil sees happening in the next 20 years.  Carbon fuel sources have to be replaced eventually, and ways of sucking up the excess carbon dioxide have to be developed.

I think that this book should be read by anyone interested in the long-term, and short-term, effects of climate change.  Even if it seems a bit exaggerated, it is certainly worth contemplating what could happen to the planet–and the human species–if current warming trends continue.

And as for the politics of the matter, I don’t really get if it’s worth debating who is causing the problem.  Even if the problem isn’t caused by humans, isn’t it still worth trying to solve?  Our very species, after all, may be at stake.

June 3, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More