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Post Tagged with: Global Warming

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
A Pale Blue Dot

A Pale Blue Dot

From Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994):

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

August 16, 2010Comments are DisabledRead More
I’ve Been Robbed

I’ve Been Robbed

When I signed up to take the University of Chicago class Global Warming, with professor David Archer, I was not surprised when I went to buy the required readings for the course and found the main textbook priced at $50. I was also not surprised to find that the book, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, published by Blackwell, was written by Dr. Archer himself. After all, I have taken many classes which have, as part of their syllabi, works written by the instructor. However, I was unpleasantly surprised when I opened the textbook “for non-science major undergraduates” and discovered something: It was terrible.

The book Global Warming reads like a third grader wrote it. Interspersed with barely passable “scientific” charts are editorialized comments about dominoes, bricks, and how wonderful carbon is. Furthermore, the grammatical and stylistic mistakes made throughout have me convinced that not only is this published book at best a first draft, but no editor ever made it through reading it before press time.

“Stick with me and everything will all tie together in the end,” reads a sentence on page 42. Apparently the world is “bouncing around like Jell-O,” as I learned on page 54. At one point, I learn all about the author as I’m reading: “The 10-day forecast says showers the weekend after that, but no one believes the end of a 10-day forecast anyway. They’re better than they used to be, but 10 days is still something of a crap shoot. And here I am sitting down to write about forecasting the climate 100 years from now” (page 56).

“It takes time for the climate of the Earth to reache equilibrium” (page 135), apparently because we are in ye olde times. On page 62 there is chart of Foucault’s pendulum, with the labels “Dominoes are safe” and “Dominoes awaiting their doom” to illustrate how safe the proverbial “dominoes” are based on the pendulum’s location on the earth. On page 156 there is a chart with “Watch me tip over” written as a label on what is apparently supposed to be an ice shelf. On page 170 there is a chart “Lambchops vs. sheep” which apparently illustrates how the Tragedy of the Commons works. In another attempt to illustrate the complex principles of economics, the book explains: “If the economy grows by 5% each year, everyone gets rich and shoeshine boys trade stock tips” (page 176).

Photosynthesis is a “nifty trick,” the fact that biomolecules are hydrocarbons is “amazing stuff” (page 87), and my favorite: “One could imagine an extract-the-juice-from-a-popsicle-on-a-hot-day curve. The popsicle consumption rate starts off slowly a the beginning because the popsicle is too cold to eat, then at the very end you have to swallow the last half of the popsicle in one gulp to keep it from hitting the sidewalk” (page 104).

(I don’t care what the subject is, but the words “popsicle” and “gulp” should never be in any academic textbook.)

I could go on, but the list of corrections that need to be made to make this book academically passable would use up this entire piece. Suffice it to say that on the first page, when the author claimed “As I write, it is a crisp, clear Fall day,” I would not be surprised if the book was finished on that same day, and sent off to the publisher the next. It is a rough, terribly written, completely disorganized, shoddy first draft. Which begs the question, Why did I pay $50 for this book?

The answer is twofold. One, I am a non-science major in the College who, because of the core, has to take a sequence or equivalent in the Physical Sciences. For me, as well as 253 other people this Spring quarter, that means signing up for Global Warming.

Secondly, by signing up for any class, I have to buy (or otherwise obtain) the required readings. For me, that meant buying this book and another, Six Degrees (which I highly recommend for global warming enthusiasts). With the 10-day money back guarantee that Barnes & Noble offers, there’s not much of a chance I’m getting my money back.

But the fact that the book is so bad makes me wonder about what can only be described as a blatant conflict of interest. The professor of the course sits down to write a terrible book, charges $50 for it, and makes everyone who takes his class buy it. Every Spring quarter, if Dr. Archer made just 10% royalties on every book sold (which is a conservative estimate for an already published author), he makes $1,270. That’s about 2.5% of annual tuition. And with the “success” of this book, I’m sure he’s been offered an advance for his next book as well.

Like I said before, I’ve had plenty of professors assign books that they’ve written. I buy the books because they are integral to the course and the way the professor teaches it. Plus, they’ve always been good books. But I can’t imagine that Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast is the best book available on the subject, even if it is targeted to undergraduate non-science majors. And if there is a better textbook available, then the choice of the professor to assign his book over another does not serve the best interest of the students.

With the prices of books as high as they are, it is only fair for we students to demand only the best readings from the best authors. Global Warming is not only terribly written, it is dumbed down and insulting to me as a student. Science majors do not get dumbed-down versions of Marx and Smith to read for SOSC, so why should history and humanities majors get such books for science? Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of the core to provide a general education at a minimally intelligent level?

After finally being done with the science aspect of the core, I am left to wonder how many students in the past have been the victims of such blatant conflict of interest. Furthermore, I wonder how many thousands of dollars have been earned by faculty of the University of Chicago through underhanded attempts to secure unnecessary book profits from students, at the expense of their students’ education. I pay enough for tuition, living expenses, and books as it is: I shouldn’t need to watch my back for professors seeking to dupe me.

June 4, 2008Comments 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