Philip Cross: The moral argument for fossil fuels

Alex Epstein’s book argues that the moral thing to do is to develop as much energy as possible

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The latest book by Alex Epstein, American libertarian author and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, expands on the unabashed case for fossil fuel consumption he first made in The Moral Case of Fossil Fuels. In his latest offer, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Thrive Needs More Oil, Coal and Natural Gas – Not Lessit frames the debate on fossil fuels, prosperity and climate change (which he does not ostensibly deny) from the perspective of a philosopher, not the scientists and economists who dominate the debate.

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The perspective that philosophy brings is encapsulated in an exchange Epstein had with Barbara Boxer, the Democratic senator from California. Boxer challenged his credentials, saying “it’s the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. I think it’s interesting that we have a philosopher here talking about a problem,” for which Epstein justified the relevance of philosophy by saying that its role was “to teach you to think more clearly.” Clear thinking about fossil fuels and the importance of energy to humans is rare in any public forum today.

Epstein argues that most discussions of fossil fuels are muddled and misguided because the elites who control the debate, including the media, pop-scientists, politicians and teachers, simplify, distort and sensationalize the often contradictory findings or inconclusive scientific research in this area. . Worse still, they only exhibit the negative side effects of fossil fuels, ignoring their enormous benefits in extending lifespans, raising living standards, and enabling the recent huge increase in human population.

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There is a clear contradiction between this almost total bias and the way the same elites assess vaccines and antibiotics, i.e. admitting they have side effects, but concluding that their overall benefits outweigh the harms. Epstein argues that applying the same balanced approach to fossil fuels should lead to a similar conclusion – but elite opinion fiercely resists acknowledging the benefits of fuels.

One of the symptoms of this anti-fossil fuel bias is how faulty predictions never lead to accountability. In the 1970s, experts warned of impending global cooling catastrophe – just as global temperatures began to rise. Then groups such as the Club of Rome claimed that the world would soon run out of fossil fuels – only to see global production increase as technology made new sources readily available. Still others, like Greenpeace, have warned that fossil fuel pollution will poison our air, land and water – although pollution levels have since declined. Meanwhile, the actual trajectory of global warming has not followed the trajectory predicted by most models, which is hardly surprising given their embryonic state.

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From his philosopher’s perspective, Epstein argues that we should care about the climate danger not the climate change. The planet has long been an inhospitable place for humans. Far from being a Garden of Eden, life before the widespread deployment of fossil fuels was truly “wicked, brutal and short” in the words of Thomas Hobbes. Thanks to improvements in everything from shelter to clothing, climate-related deaths have dropped 98% over the past century. The places that remain most exposed to climate danger are poor countries like Bangladesh, not the wealthy communities living along the coasts. The high incomes generated by energy consumption allow humans to protect themselves from natural hazards and diseases.

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By focusing on climate change and not climate danger, environmentalists end up condemning all human impacts on the planet. According to Epstein, this leads to the general rejection of all energy sources, not just fossil fuels. The result is the near impossibility of building nuclear reactors (despite having the safest record of any energy source) and growing resistance even to renewables such as hydroelectric dams and solar and wind farms. . The low energy density of renewable energy compared to fossil fuels requires them to occupy huge tracts of land, which generates opposition due to the loss of green space and wilderness. The logical conclusion of opposition to any form of energy development is that we humans suffer either a huge drop in our standard of living when we return to the Hobbesian state of nature, or a sharp reduction involuntary of our number. Epstein calls either result “anti-human.”

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Epstein argues that it is immoral to condemn three billion people to extreme poverty on less than $2 a day by denying them access to the benefits of more energy from fossil fuels. Concretely, improving their material life requires the development of fossil fuels, which have a huge advantage over renewable alternatives in terms of affordability, reliability and scalability.

The reason why fossil fuels account for more than 80% of global energy consumption today, just like 50 years ago, is simple: they are the best source of energy. Even as rich countries limit their use of the fossil fuels that have sustained their own prosperity, emerging countries are consuming them more than ever. Energy — the ability to work — is the basis for economic growth and improved living standards. Instead of apologizing for power consumption, Fossil Future argues that the moral thing to do is to develop as much energy as possible.

Philip Cross is a Principal Investigator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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