Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

Alex Epstein goes against the grain in his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. He makes a case that we should be using more, not less, fossil fuels, and at the risk of turning you off, dear reader, I dare say he made some good arguments.

The first thing to note is the goal or viewpoint he sets: the betterment of the human condition as measured by standards of living (health, wealth, happiness etc). I'm partial and sympathetic to this point of view, but I recognize that others may disagree, instead preferring to view success as something like keeping the earth as it would have been had humans not been around.

With that goal in mind, he then goes on the assert the powerfully positive impact fossil fuels have had on our standards of living so far. It's hard to argue with any of it. Cheap energy has allowed many of us to live better than kings of even the recent past, but without requiring the human and animal slaves that royalty has generally used to prop itself up.

For us, changing energy sources right now would cost more, but we can handle it. But there are huge portions of the world's population where this tradeoff is a matter of life and death. Here's an excerpt from the book about a hospital in The Gambia:

" matter how many times the technician suctioned out the nose and mouth, the infant did not utter a sound. After twenty five minutes the technician and nurse both gave up. The surgeon later explained that the baby had suffocated in utero. If only they had had enough power to use the ultrasound machine for each pregnancy, he would have detected the problem earlier and been able to plan the C-section. Without the early detection, the C-section became an emergency, moreover, the surgery had to wait for the generator to be powered on. The loss of precious minutes meant the loss of a precious life..."

and another:

"A full-term infant was born weighing only 3.5 points. In the U.S., the solution would have been obvious and effective: incubation. But without reliable electricity, the hospital did not even contemplate owning an incubator...she perished needlessly."

But maybe it's worth the destruction and loss of life we are/will cause to our planet's poorest by moving away from fossil fuels if we are making our planet unlivable. On this topic, however, Epstein believes climate models have consistently over-estimated the impact of C0₂, and as such we are not heating the globe as much we thought. It turns out the globe does not heat up linearly with C0₂, but rather logarithmically, meaning each additional unit we put up there has less of an impact than the previous unit. (Please note, these are his calculations; I have not verified his work.)

And though we are heating the globe, Epstein makes a case that with the help of energy we are able to deal with climate disasters better than we ever have. We have used fossil fuels to reduce loss of life from disasters by providing emergency assistance and transportation when required.

Alternative forms of energy have their own problems (other than nuclear), requiring huge investments in mining that have pollutive extraction methods that in some cases make them worse than fossil fuels in many ways.

Finally, while the negatives of climate change are often discussed, the benefits are never discussed. These take the form of increased plant life and more arable land as a result of higher C0₂ concentrations and warmer temperatures.

I don't know enough to have an opinion on climate change. I simply haven't done the work. But most people I know are quite against fossil fuels. I find it hard to believe that so many people have done the work in what is undoubtedly a very complex subject, so I suspect they are just going along with what everybody else thinks. I expect to do the work on this topic going forward. If anyone has any favourite resources I should check out, please leave them in the comments.


BCCanada1963 said...

If you want to better understand the climate crisis, the worst possible place to start is someone who has no expertise in climate science. He is not a climate scientist, he is a paid energy lobbyist who is paid to sow doubt and disputes the broad scientific consensus. Embarrassing that so many investors pride themselves on being logical and then proceed to embarrass themselves by recommending this tripe.

Anonymous said...

Literally thousands of climate scientists contribute to the UN’s primary research effort, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They are the established global authority on the subject.

Anyone with serious interest in the subject should dive into their published reports, and think carefully about the incentives of a) academic experts that have devoted their careers to the subject; vs. the incentives (particularly economic) of those on the other side of the argument.

I would also ask: if there’s even a 5-10% chance of catastrophic effects due to human-accelerated climate change, is that an acceptable risk...?

Am I willing to bet on the consensus opinion of thousands of climate scientists, or a (very) few who dissent with the expert consensus?

Anonymous said...

Yeah thousands of them have contributed to one subject with only one possible outcome. People who want to share a differing opinion get booted out and their funding removed.

And those people aren't nobodies either. There is so much political and economic pressure from both sides of the isle that trusting either of them blindly is foolish to say the least.

But in the court of public opinion there is definitely one side winning.

Anonymous said...

> Yeah thousands of them have contributed to one subject with only one possible outcome.

It's absurd to claim that the consensus view around climate change is formed by a group of scientists who are all studying one thing, in search of a specific outcome. Not only are those scientists studying all manner of different things: climatology, oceanography, geology, ecology, etc.; the overall consensus on climate change is based on results from all those fields of study coming together in a cohesive picture, one that provides us a macro view of how Earth is changing over time.

> People who want to share a differing opinion get booted out and their funding removed.

People who disagree with the consensus on climate change have a massive evidentiary burden to overcome. Dismissing scientific results has to be justified based on counter-evidence that invalidates prior research, or by providing evidence in support of an alternative hypothesis. A scientist who rejects the consensus without evidence or without a hypotheses of their own is not practicing science, but something else entirely. As a result, it doesn't surprise me that those individuals would be dismissed and potentially lose access to funding. Scientific results are only useful when we have faith that those results are produced in accordance with scientific principles, which is why it matters that scientists adhere to them, and why it is a big deal when someone is caught violating them.

There are certainly financially motivated organizations out there funding research who will cut off access to that funding when the results go against their best interest, but that isn't an indictment of the scientific community, but rather an indictment of those organizations. At the end of the day, if you can back up your claims with evidence, then you can force a shift in the consensus view. That's how every major shift in our understanding of the world has worked, and it will continue to work that way.

> There is so much political and economic pressure from both sides of the isle that trusting either of them blindly is foolish to say the least.

Trying to illustrate this as an issue with two sides doesn't make any sense. There is the scientific view, which is constantly being refined in light of new evidence, but which has arrived at the general consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real, and that the consequences of those changes on their current trajectory would be catastrophic. Then there is the political/social/economic view which is generally going to have little to do with the scientific consensus per se, and instead be based on how the consensus fits into the bigger picture of one's motivations. Perspectives here run the gamut:

- You might trust in the scientific results, and choose to act counter to your own short term interest in favor of countering climate change.
- You might believe that climate change is a very real existential threat, but choose to act in your own self interest anyway, because you do not expect to be alive by the time the damage is done
- You might fit somewhere between 1 and 2, trusting in the science, but choosing to act selfishly or altruistically depending on what motivates you at a given moment in time
- You might not have an opinion one way or the other on the science, and simply act based on other criteria
- You might distrust the scientific consensus, believe climate change is all a big hoax benefiting someone else, and choose to actively work against those interests or simply in your own self interest
- Some variant of one of the above, or something else entirely

> But in the court of public opinion there is definitely one side winning.

Well one either trusts in the scientific method, or not. You say it like its a bad thing, but what it indicates is that most people still trust the science, and support actions that take the scientific consensus seriously. Anything else would reflect an inability to act in the collective interest of humanity.

Potato said...

Even if the heating from CO2 is logarithmic, that only matters over huge ranges of CO2 increases -- if we're worried about the first doubling, then it matters little that the second doubling has half the warming effect. Plus there are other processes beyond heating that may not be -- the so-called tipping points. Some are also delayed, such as ocean level rising: even if we stopped adding C02 and halted any further increases in global temperature today, sea levels would still rise over the next few decades because it takes time for the ice to melt.

The point about food and arable land is a dangerous one -- that's our food supply he's gambling with! What if we do unlock reams of land with the appropriate (new) climate, but it takes two centuries for tillable soil to develop there, while current arable land is lost in decades? Not to mention the disruption of having to move all the farms and farmers. What if plants are more productive with more CO2, but the parts we eat get less nutritious?

Improving the lives of those in developing nations is a noble goal, but in some cases it can be met by leap-frogging some technologies. Many areas in Africa went straight to cell phones without going through a landline phase. Similarly they could go straight to nuclear, hydro, and distributed solar/wind without having to build coal plants first. And of course, that's also why many climate agreements put the lion's share of the burden for emissions reductions on the developed nations.

Given the potential risks, I'm eternally surprised (I shouldn't be, but yet I am) by the lack of will to tackle climate change. Two decades ago the pessimists said it would cost Canada ~$40B to meet our Kyoto targets. Geez, that's cheap at twice the price -- we just spent multiples of that on a virus, might as well do some lasting good with that kind of scratch.

Rod said...

His book might as well be called "The Moral Case for Burning the Furniture". The heat feels good for the first few minutes. It's hard to argue with that. The problem comes later...