The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, by Alex Epstein, Portfolio/Penguin, 248 pp., $27.95.
The climate crisis, Al Gore declared in 2007, is "not a political issue, it's a moral issue." It's "a clear moral issue," the climatologist James Hansen said in 2011. "We should think of global warming in a different way—as the great moral crisis of our time," the environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in 2001.
What has provoked this great moral crisis? Chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, which is increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; if continued, most climatologists believe, this will significantly boost the average temperature of the globe. Many argue that this man-made global warming could produce catastrophic results, including widespread famines, flooded coastal cities, chaotic weather, and mass extinction. "Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice," Hansen and his colleagues claimed in a December 2013 article for PLoS One.
Moralizers do not make trade-offs between right and wrong. When a person declares an activity a moral issue, he is not engaging in debate; he is ending debate. The only thing to do is to do the right thing. In this case, climate moralizers insist that the right thing to do is for the current generation to cut, drastically, its use of fossil fuels. If someone disagrees, he is not merely mistaken. He is evil.
In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein aims to turn this moral argument on its head. Epstein, the founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, makes a persuasive case that cheap and abundant fossil fuels are critical to enabling billions to escape conditions of Malthusian privation. But the core debate here isn't really moral so much as it's practical; a debate based on weighing the risks of poverty against the risks of climate change.
Epstein starts by asking, "By what standard or measure are we saying something is good or bad, great or catastrophic, right or wrong, moral or immoral?" People like McKibben, he argues, elevate the moral value of nature over that of human beings. As a result, they believe that "there is something inherently wrong with man having an impact on the climate," and that our impact on the natural environment in general should be minimized.
One of the more disturbing examples that Epstein cites comes from the National Park Service biologist David Graber, who in 1989 wrote: "We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-fuel consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along." Wishing a plague would wipe out most of humanity is near the absolute height of immorality.
"To me," Epstein counters, "the question of what to do about fossil fuels and any other moral issue comes down to: What will promote human life? What will promote human flourishing—realizing the full potential of life?" Much of the rest of the book explores the manifold ways that energy derived from coal, oil, and natural gas has enabled human flourishing over the past two centuries.
As humanity burned more fossil fuels and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, human lives dramatically improved. "Weather, climate, and climate change matter—but not nearly as much as they used to, thanks to technology," Epstein writes. For example, the death rate from extreme weather events has dropped 98 percent since 1920. Indeed, the chief benefit of burning fossil fuels has been longer and healthier human lives. The central idea of Epstein's book is that "more energy means more ability to improve our lives; less energy mean less ability—more helplessness, more suffering, and more death."
Before the Industrial Revolution, human societies were mainly powered by human muscles. The average person burns 2,000 calories per day. A gallon of gasoline contains 31,000 calories, the amount energy a human body burns in 15 days. The machines that Americans use every day to power their homes, commute, work, and play, consume about 186,000 calories per person—the equivalent of 93 human servants consuming 2,000 calories daily.
On the other hand, billions of human beings still rely on their muscles and on biomass such as wood and animal manure. In fact, some 1.3 billion of the world's 7 billion people do not have access to electricity; about 3 billion overall are classified as not having adequate access to electricity. These people need to be connected to modern energy sources in order to flourish. Global energy production would have to quadruple to raise the rest of the world to U.S. levels of consumption.
What would using more fossil fuels to fulfill this demand do to the climate? Epstein does not subscribe to the climatological consensus that boosting atmospheric carbon dioxide will produce dangerous climate change. Among other things, he points out that the climate computer models have so far predicted more warming than has actually occurred. But let's assume man-made warming anyway. That by itself does not tell people what are the best policies to handle it.
The climate moralists frequently argue that renewable energy will fix the problem. In December 2012, for example, McKibben gushed that "there were some days this month when [Germans] got half their energy from solar panels." The reality is that after spending $130 billion, Germany gets only 4.5 percent of its gross energy supplies from solar panels. Epstein characterizes the climate catastrophists' advocacy of current renewables as trying to force everyone to use the worst energy technologies while hoping for the best.
In a nice comparison of material use, Epstein reports that one megawatt of wind generation capacity requires 542.3 tons of steel, coal generation requires 35.3 tons, and natural gas requires 5.2 tons. Of biomass energy supplied by corn ethanol, he asks the devastating question, "Why should we feed human food to machines with hundreds of times our appetites?"
So Epstein is entirely correct when he asserts that current renewable energy technologies are far too costly and not scalable—that is, not capable of being easily expanded or upgraded on demand. But I suspect that he is underestimating human ingenuity when it comes to improving their efficiencies and lowering their costs. Epstein does note that one alternative to fossil fuels, nuclear power, is safe, reliable, and scalable. But he adds that nuclear energy is expensive compared to fossil fuels due to excessive regulations, which for Epstein makes it doubtful that we can roll out substantial supplies of nuclear energy in the near term.
He may be too glum about that. Environmentalist opposition to nuclear power may be abating. In November 2013, Hansen and his colleagues published an open letter to "those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power." It forthrightly states: "Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power."
Another interesting speculative possibility is that the engineers at Lockheed Martin who announced a design for a small-scale nuclear fusion reactor last fall will get it to work. At any rate, Epstein is right that "our concern for the future should not be running out of energy resources; it should be running out of the freedom to create energy resources, including our number-one energy resource today, fossil fuels."
There is another problem with Epstein's book, one more substantial than the possibility that he has unduly pessimistic about nuclear's political prospects. Is the energy and climate debate really an argument about morality, pitting those whose standard is a flourishing humanity against those whose standard is a burgeoning natural world?
Graber's wicked musings notwithstanding, it isn't necessarily so. Epstein acknowledges, after all, that "we do want to avoid transforming our environment in a way that harms us now or in the long run." And the climate change activists cited at the beginning of this article don't merely talk about the human impact on the environment; they talk about the environment's impact on humanity, saying they don't want to transform the climate in a way that harms future generations.
Deciding how best to enhance our descendants' prospects is not a clash over right and wrong. It is a dispute over trade-offs. Will loading up the atmosphere with greenhouse gases as we generate more innovation, knowledge, technology, and wealth yield more benefits than harms for us and for future generations?
Epstein is clearly right that supplying people, especially poor people in economically underdeveloped parts of the world, with cheap fossil fuel energy now will yield far more benefits than harms. What about future generations? Is the continued use of fossil fuels, as Hansen argues, an "act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice?" Not necessarily.
Based on scenarios devised for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, people living three generations hence with the worst consequences of climate change will still likely be more than eight times richer than people living today are. Without climate change, people in 2100 would supposedly be 10 times richer. It is really more just for people today with global average per capita incomes of $10,000 to sacrifice so that people living in 2100 will have average incomes of $100,000 instead of only $80,000?
There's yet another deep debate about values lurking beneath our climate arguments, one that Epstein largely ignores. Anti-market ideologues use catastrophic climate prophecies to attack an economic system they detest. In This Changes Everything, for example, activist Naomi Klein asserts, "Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war." Climate science, Klein claims, is "the most powerful argument against unfettered capitalism" ever. For writers like Klein, climate change is an excuse to remold the world. Call it the green shock doctrine.
Epstein concludes that "the moral case for fossil fuels is not about fossil fuels; it's the moral case for using cheap, plentiful, reliable energy to amplify our abilities to make the world a better place—a better place for human beings." His intriguing book strongly makes the case, moral or not, that increasing energy abundance in whatever form is crucial to enhancing the human prospect.