The ethics of fossil fuel use
I am grateful to Schalke Cloete, of One in a Billion blog fame, for alerting me to this public debate, which was held on Monday at the privately-financed Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina (the US State that has passed a Law that makes accelerating sea level rise illegal).
The debate appears to have been arranged at the behest of one of the two protagonists, Alex Epstein (founder of the Center for Industrial Progress) – whose challenge Bill McKibben (350.org) clearly accepted.
The video below runs to nearly 100 minutes in length so, I suspect, only very few will watch it. Anyone who does will find it very rewarding but, for the majority that probably will not watch it, I have summarised its content below.
To start with both speakers are given 10 minutes to put their case, they are then given opportunity to respond to the points made by the other; to cross-examine each other; and to put forward closing arguments.
Bill McKibben went first and started by stating that fossil fuels were good for us but that the advantages of their continued use are now outweighed by the disadvantages and, therefore, wherever we can, we should stop using them. He then provided fact-based evidence for twelve risks we face if we do not do this:
1. Ocean acidification which will kill corals and endanger a wide variety of shellfish.
2. Melting Ice caps and permafrost (sea level rise and methane release).
3. Increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events of all kinds.
4. Reduced crop for crops of all kinds and consequential increases in food prices.
5. Mass extinction of species (that cannot migrate or whose habitats are degraded).
6. Inundation of coastal cities (with all the collateral damage and disruption that will cause).
7. Increased frequency and severity of forest fires.
8. Increasing numbers of deaths resulting from atmospheric pollution and heat waves.
9. Economic growth and development will be hindered by increased expenditure on mitigation.
10. Socio-political instability and insecurity arising from all of the above (see the Pentagon’s QDR).
11. Libertarian desires will be endangered by the increasing need for autocratic responses.
12. Democracy itself is endangered by policy inaction being promoted by the fossil fuel lobby.
In response to all of this, Alex Epstein insisted that the risks were unproven. This being North Carolina (where accelerating sea level rise has been outlawed), he insisted that there is no evidence that things will get that bad. He then proceeded to point out that climate-related deaths (whatever they are) have gone down over time, whilst CO2 levels have gone up. Despite the fact that he did not himself offer any evidence, he dismissed all of McKibben’s well-referenced arguments as mere speculation. He then trotted out numerous climate denial classics including the mutually contradictory arguments that (a) global warming has stopped and (b) technology will enable us to solve the problem. Alex repeatedly referred to fossil fuels as affordable abundant energy; and repeatedly referred to it as real energy (implying that somehow renewable energy is not real?)
Bill McKibben responded to all of this by pointing out that correlation is not proof of causation; and provided yet more evidence to back up his original assertions. He questioned why anyone would champion increased fuel use rather than promoting the reduction of demand through improved energy efficiency. He questioned why Epstein was so defeatist about the prospects for renewable energy; and pointed out that many of the problems he cited had in fact already been solved. Renewable energy is real energy and, since the alternatives to fossil fuel exist, its use should therefore be maximised as fast as possible.
Epstein responded by asserting that all environmentalists are anti-progress because they are anti –hydroelectric projects and anti-nuclear. He therefore challenged McKibben to endorse the legitimacy of both as potential solutions. He then trotted out yet more climate change denial classics such as (i) CO2 is a trace gas (citing the rise from 0.03% volume to 0.04% volume as insignificant – even though that would actually represent a 33% increase); and (ii) climate model predictions have proven to be unreliable (when in fact they have proven to be overly optimistic). Despite the fact that Epstein – Philosophy and Computer Science major – is clearly no expert in the natural sciences, he even tried and failed to refute the fact that ocean acidification is not happening (by claiming they are becoming less alkaline and more neutral).
Epstein was then invited to rebut McKibben’s arguments. In so doing he repeated his mantra about the folly of giving up on the most affordable and abundant energy source we have, which would prevent progress; and unnecessarily condemn millions to a life of misery. He asserted that fossil fuels had made modern agriculture possible and solved the problem of world hunger that people worried about 40 years ago. Furthermore, given the growth in human population since then, he suggested that we now need fossil fuels in order to prevent widespread malnutrition and starvation.
In rebutting Epstein’s arguments, McKibben started by repeating that fossil fuels had made many good things possible in the past but that the risks of their continued use now outweigh the disadvantages. Climate change has already resulted in more food being eaten than grown in 6 of the last 11 years; and that unabated increase in fossil fuel use will only make it increasingly hard to grow crops. McKibben also questioned the wisdom of trying to refute the opinions of the World’s leading ecologists by asserting that our oceans are not actually turning into acids.
In their closing speeches, Epstein and McKibben recapped their main arguments: Epstein questioned the validity of all the evidence McKibben had presented (but presented none himself); and questioned the integrity of McKibben – accusing him of misrepresenting the situation (for what motive?). In complete contrast, McKibben did not use such language and, being careful not to attack Epstein personally, repeated his main point that the fossil fuel industry is the only one that does not pay to dispose of its waste. He then concluded by suggesting that fossil fuel companies need to decide to become energy companies instead; and embrace the use of all the alternatives that we have.