Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

The ethics of fossil fuel use

with 19 comments

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 ( 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.

19 Responses

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  1. For a brief period I tried to take a more sceptical approach, the most lukewarm being that in human history we: humanity- have never restricted our own development at cost of protecting future generations simply because we could never predict outcomes. Imagine if we sensibly did not embark on the nuclear arms race and missile tech- now imagine a large close proximity asteroid on a collision course. As a peace monger I would have objected to the gun lathe invented a couple of centuries ago but it changed humanities course for ever.

    However, it doesn’t take long to find the complete intellectual bankruptcy of the ignoratti. Extraordinary levels of misinterpretation of data go on with a concerted effort to ignore the big picture and focus on the unknowns. The video highlights a possible reason and method of the denial culture and it strikes me as having its roots in the legal profession.

    US law is supposedly based around proof of guilt as a priority, [different to the European system and a variant of the UK’s- but I’m no expert!] the defence doesn’t have to prove its case. Given that some will view AGW and fossil fuel use as an accusation it may be they are taking the stance that they [the accused] don’t have to offer proof, the onus being on the prosecution and the defence simply has to pick holes in the case and draw attention to doubts.

    I offer this mentality as an explanation [please challenge it] and draw attention to the ‘victim mentality’ deniers have, the attitude that any sophistry is equal to facts, and that it is also a tactic used by creationists. The scope of such an approach certainly throws up enough cultural references with the wild west myths, tv court room dramas, and capitalism’s belief that until told [made] otherwise it is not their problem. The deep attitudes of the American Dream [the get rich or die tryin] is of the innocent free individual hampered by government, rules and socialists. [in this case Martin you are a socialist- code for those ‘other folk’]. Potential for a socio PhD, me thinks.

    If it has basis it at least offers the potential for new approaches. It helps me understand their viewpoint- if they are ‘victims’ who are just getting on with their lives then such ‘unfounded’ attacks are directly against their human rights.


    9 November 2012 at 12:06

    • A very thought-provoking comment, Jules, thank you. I must admit that I thought the principle that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty was common to most Western-style democracies? However, either way, I think you are absolutely right to suggest the problem is the legal style defence strategy adopted by the fossil fuel industry. The problem then – for the general public (i.e. presumably those you refer to as “the ignoratti”) – is that genuine scientists tend to operate by devising a null hypothesis and then falsifying it.

      Thus, as you say, although sceptics focus on residual uncertainty; most relevantly-qualified scientists accept that the vast majority of the evidence indicates that the null hypothesis – that anthropogenic CO2 is not the main cause of AGW/ACD – has indeed been falsified. I would like to believe that this understanding is taking hold in the minds of most people. If so, then the debate can and should move on to whether or not it makes sense to take action now. Here too, I believe progress has been made in recent years; as a result of the Pentagon, the International Energy Agency, and formerly sceptical economists like William Nordhaus all saying that “wait and see” is no longer a survivable strategy. Nevertheless, time is running out:

      With regard to your final paragraph, this makes me realise that, although I have previously explained why I am not a socialist and why I am not a capitalist, I have never explained why I am not a libertarian or a liberal. This was clearly remiss of me because, had I done so, you might understand why I consider myself naturally conservative and yet implacably opposed to the business as usual/growthmania/status quo…

      Martin Lack

      9 November 2012 at 14:12

  2. As to your last comment the use of ‘socialist’ [example- Obama is a socialist] is apparently code by the right for all those who are not WASPs… So gays, blacks, commies, and enviro-fascists can be attacked using a single non-blatant insult.

    On the wider issue – if there is an American Dream [as described] ideology prevalent – then I can make sense of their collective stupidity. Stuff needs to be on the cultural radar before it can be accepted. As an atheist, the notion to some that I could possibly have morals is alien; it ‘does not compute’.

    “relevantly-qualified scientists accept that the vast majority of the evidence indicates that the null hypothesis – that anthropogenic CO2 is not the main cause of AGW/ACD – has indeed been falsified”
    From a simplistic legal point of view, the above statement might as well be in Greek. In the world of the definite, the term ‘theory’ means ‘an idea’; whereas law [both here and the US] is an absolute.


    9 November 2012 at 15:13

    • Yes indeed; science does not deal in absolutes: Apart from 1+1=2, all human knowledge is conditional and awaiting contradiction. However, as I said, our problem is that those still hoping for reality to contradict science are almost out of time; and the consequences of their procrastination are going to be very unpleasant.

      Martin Lack

      9 November 2012 at 15:40

      • Dr. Michael J. Economides,

        “After a desperate literature search over four years, involving as many as 30 engineering and science graduate students, we have yet to come up with one professional paper that shows a quantitative causality between increased carbon dioxide and enhanced global temperature.”

        A head ignoratti with a clever use of language. Perhaps there is the magic bullet that tackles this ignorance head on, it may not convert the disciples but may help in getting most of the public on board. Time is a funny thing- it may be too late, to much international politics, but my hunch [of no real value of course] is that impeding peak-frak gas and oil as well as the long overdue heat up will come together at the same time.

        BTW I am hoping to do a year or two study and assistance with agricultural mitigation for the poorest of the poor in a corner of Bangladesh. The eye of the CC storm. I have no idea how that kind of in-yer-face reality will change me.


        9 November 2012 at 20:21

        • Did you mean “impending”? If you did, I think you will be proven right.

          Martin Lack

          9 November 2012 at 21:35

  3. Epstein decidedly deserves his initial letter E capitalised and illuminated. E is for Empty.

    As we approach Remembrance Day I shudder as I sense all those who died for our future roll over.

    Epstein is either one of the ‘ignoratti’ © (only joking) or is in advocacy to promote the spread of ignorance, or at least prevent the ‘ignoratti’ © (only joking – again) from freeing themselves.

    Lionel A

    9 November 2012 at 19:31

    • Epstein got a Degree from Duke University, so he cannot be stupid. Therefore, one is forced to conclude he is just a very bad judge of character.

      Martin Lack

      9 November 2012 at 21:37

      • I was thinking of his Empty rhetoric, and considering your assessment that makes him out as intending to continue the delusion of the ignoratti.

        Lionel A

        9 November 2012 at 22:17

        • Thanks for the clarification. I do not think it is at all certain that Epstein is deliberately deceiving people. On the contrary, I think he himself has been misled by the erroneous thinking of people like Lindzen and Monckton. In common with the vast majority of people, unless he chooses to investigate rebuttals, he does not have the expertise to spot the flaws in arguments contrarians like these continually spout.

          Martin Lack

          10 November 2012 at 09:56

  4. Hehe… It is pretty clear which side of the debate you are on, Martin😉

    But yes, there is no doubt that McKibben won this debate through his sheer onslaught of facts, but Epstein’s point, albeit not that well conveyed, remains an important one: the risks of not burning fossil fuels are also very large. Just like climate change deniers routinely underestimate the risks of using fossil fuels, I feel that environmentalists often tend to underestimate the risks of not using fossil fuels just as much.

    I have not read McKibben’s book, but his 95% renewables assertion does strike me as being quite badly disconnected with reality. Such extreme assertions from the environmentalists’ side clashing with equally extreme assertions from the fossil fuel industry’s side (e.g. the USA has enough shale oil to power the world) is guaranteed to keep us running around in circles wasting much of our precious time and resources fighting each other.

    What we need is a mediation between the risks of burning fossil fuels and the risks of not burning fossil fuels (widespread social engineering to substantially reduce per-capita energy consumption together with technologies like CCS, nuclear and hydro). Before a sizable number of people at both extremes of the debate realize this, I fear that very little will be done to ensure the future of our civilization.


    9 November 2012 at 20:38

    • McKibben did well to avoid being riled by Epstein, especially when he tried to paint all environmentalists as being anti-progress (i.e. anti- nuclear and anti-HEP). McKibben did not try and defend his 95% reduction figure; but he did not retract his assertion that we have 5 times more fossil fuels than it would be safe to burn. Fossil fuels are useful for many things; and where their use cannot be substituted (plastics and aviation fuel) it will have to continue. However, wherever its use can be substituted it should be. McKibben’s very final remark was thus very well made: Fossil fuel companies need to reinvent themselves as energy companies; or they risk consigning themselves and civilisation to history.

      Martin Lack

      9 November 2012 at 21:45

  5. […] 2012/11/08: LoE: The ethics of fossil fuel use […]

  6. One person uses facts, statistics and common sense. One twists words.
    And how come people are still trying to say that the last 14 years haven’t seen any warming? 2005 and 2010 are the warmest on record!


    2 December 2012 at 00:22

    • I just finished watching the debate… and I feel like punching someone!:)
      Thanks for the video, Martin. It was an interesting debate. However, I believe “Bill” is the winner here. “Alex” only has an argument if you assume that all climate scientists are wrong. Unfortunately, they are not. Actually, that’s not true. As more and more research is showing, climatologists have been conservative in their projections and the climate disruption is happening faster than they projected only a few years ago.


      2 December 2012 at 01:24

      • Congratulations on watching the whole thing. I too was very angry by the end of it.

        Martin Lack

        2 December 2012 at 11:30

    • Epstein was not so much twisting words as dodging the issues McKibben raised. I also repeated numerous fallacious arguments. The global warming has stopped argument reduces to the deliberate selection of comforting data and/or dismissal of any rebuttal on the grounds that it is politically motivated (i.e. reality inversion).

      Martin Lack

      2 December 2012 at 11:29

  7. Thanks for including the video so that anyone who takes the time to watch can contrast it with your summarization. It is incredible to me that anyone could pay attention to this debate and find McKibben convincing. Droning on with mind-numbing lists of alleged statistics is not how one conducts a debate if you want your audience to think rather than accept supposed authorities.

    Alex did a great pair of post-debate podcasts deconstructing McKibben’s “evidence.” I highly recommend them.

    Mark Wickens

    24 July 2013 at 12:38

    • Thanks for taking the trouble to create an email address just for me. If Alex is right and McKibben wrong, that means the vast majority of experts are either fools or liars. Although I know it is possible that the majority can be wrong (e.g. Flat Earth and non-heliocentric solar system), all such fallacious consensuses persisted in spite of – and were eventually overturned because of – the weight of evidence that they were erroneous. That is simply not going to happen with anthropogenic climate disruption because:
      — it is a consensus theoretically deduced from basic physics, tested in a laboratory, with overall predicted consequences that have been validated by events; and
      — the majority of 20th Century warming, the warmest-ever decade being the last, and ongoing climate disruption cannot be explained if the consensus is wrong.

      The debate was over 25 years ago. Obviously, the fossil fuel industry does not want the public to understand this but, nevertheless, it amazes me that large numbers of otherwise very intelligent people fail to see that they are being lied to in exactly the same way they were by the tobacco industry. Time is on no-one’s side but history and science are very clearly not on your side. I would offer you my condolences but, the truth is, we are all losing (a habitable planet).

      Martin Lack

      25 July 2013 at 16:59

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