Note: these highlights were saved with the Kindle version of this book. They are cross-published on Goodreads but I prefer to host them here on my own site. If you’re interested in this book, I recommend purchasing on Amazon here: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels on Amazon
Evidence shows that climate change, natural or man-made, is more manageable than ever, because human beings are so good at adapting, using ingenuity and technology.
Eighty-seven percent of the energy mankind uses every second, including most of the energy I am using as I write this, comes from burning one of the fossil fuels: coal, oil, or natural gas.
I understand that a lot of smart people are predicting catastrophic consequences from using fossil fuels, I take that very seriously, and I have studied their predictions extensively. And what I have found is this: leading experts and the media have been making the exact same predictions for more than thirty years. As far back as the 1970s they predicted that if we did not dramatically reduce fossil fuel use then, and use renewables instead, we would be experiencing catastrophe today—catastrophic resource depletion, catastrophic pollution, and catastrophic climate change. Instead, the exact opposite happened. Instead of using a lot less fossil fuel energy, we used a lot more—but instead of long-term catastrophe, we have experienced dramatic, long-term improvement in every aspect of life, including environmental quality. The risks and side effects of using fossil fuels declined while the benefits—cheap, reliable energy and everything it brings—expanded to billions more people.
In 1972, the international think tank the Club of Rome released a multimillion-copy-selling book, The Limits to Growth, which declared that its state-of-the-art computer models had demonstrated that we would run out of oil by 1992 and natural gas by 1993 (and, for good measure, gold, mercury, silver, tin, zinc, and lead by 1993 at the latest). The leading resource theorist of the time was ecologist Paul Ehrlich, who was so popular and prestigious that Johnny Carson invited him onto his show over a dozen times. In 1971 he said, “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people,” and in 1974 he wrote, “America’s economic joyride is coming to an end: there will be no more cheap, abundant energy, no more cheap abundant food.”
John Holdren, a protégé of Paul Ehrlich who serves as science adviser to President Barack Obama, had a particularly dire prediction, according to Ehrlich in 1986: “As University of California physicist John Holdren has said, it is possible that carbon-dioxide climate-induced famines could kill as many as a billion people before the year 2020.”
Just as the media today tell us these catastrophic predictions are a matter of scientific consensus, so did the media of the 1980s.
In the 1970s, Ehrlich went as far as to say, of the overall devastation ahead, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
So what happened? Two things: Instead of following the leading advice and restricting the use of fossil fuels, people around the world nearly doubled their use of fossil fuels—which allegedly should have led to an epic disaster. Rather, it led to an epic improvement in human life across the board.
While in a sense “money can’t buy happiness,” it gives us resources and, therefore, time and opportunity to pursue our happiness. It’s hard to be happy when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. The more opportunity you have to do what you want with your time, the more opportunity you have to be happy.
One thing I have noticed in reading most predictions of doom is that the “experts” almost always focus on the risks of a technology but never the benefits—and on top of that, those who predict the most risk get the most attention from the media and from politicians who want to “do something.” But there is little to no focus on the benefits of cheap, reliable energy from fossil fuels.
As we have used more fossil fuels, our resource situation, our environment situation, and our climate situation have been improving, too.
It’s true that once we burn a barrel of oil, it’s gone. But it’s also true that human ingenuity can dramatically increase the amount of coal, oil, or gas that is available. It turns out that there are many times more of each in the ground than we have used in the entire history of civilization—it’s just a matter of developing the technology to extract them economically.
Recall that in 1986 James Hansen predicted that “if current trends are unchanged,” temperatures would rise .5 to 1.0 degree Fahrenheit in the 1990s and 2 to 4 degrees in the first decade of the 2000s. According to Hansen’s own department at NASA, from the beginning to the end of the 1990s, temperatures were .018 degree Fahrenheit (.01 degree Celsius) higher, and from 2000 to 2010, temperatures were .27 degree Fahrenheit (.15 degree Celsius) higher—meaning he was wrong many times over.
In the last eighty years, as CO2 emissions have most rapidly escalated, the annual rate of climate-related deaths worldwide fell by an incredible rate of 98 percent. That means the incidence of death from climate is fifty times lower than it was eighty years ago.
The leading experts we were told to rely on were 100 percent wrong. It’s not that they predicted disaster and got half a disaster—it’s that they predicted disaster and got dramatic improvement.
Imagine if we had followed the advice of some of our leading advisers then, many of whom are some of our leading advisers now, to severely restrict the energy source that billions of people used to lift themselves out of poverty in the last thirty years? We would have caused billions of premature deaths—deaths that were prevented by our increasing use of fossil fuels.
Whether our escalating use of fossil fuels is good or bad for us is a complex interdisciplinary question, and everyone is a nonexpert in many relevant issues. In this respect, we are all in the same boat. To reach an informed opinion, we need to draw on the work of experts in many fields, working to understand and evaluate their opinions and to interrelate them with one another and with our other knowledge.
Our fossil fuel use so far has been a moral choice because it has enabled billions of people to live longer and more fulfilling lives, and I think that the cuts proposed by the environmentalists of the 1970s were wrong because of all the death and suffering they would have inflicted on human beings.
Earlier we saw that human beings are safer than ever from climate, despite whatever impact we have had from increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from .03 percent to .04 percent. And yet Bill McKibben and others call our present climate catastrophic. By what standard?
Because many of the people predicting dire consequences from fossil fuel use avowedly do not hold a human standard of value and because the vast majority of discussions on the issue are not clear about the standard of value being used, we need to always ask, when we hear any evaluation: “By what standard of value?”
The average human being needs about 2,000 calories a day to give him enough energy to do everything he needs to do—from going to the office to taking a walk to manual labor to sleeping. That’s equal to 2,326 watt-hours, which is the amount of energy it takes to power a 100-watt lightbulb for 23.26 hours. Essentially, your body uses the same amount of energy as a 100-watt lightbulb.
Consider the amount of energy at the average American’s disposal. The average American’s total machine energy use is 186,000 calories a day—ninety-three humans (or twenty-three Michael Phelpses)! This is one of the greatest achievements in human history. In the past, before modern energy technology, the main way to overcome the problem of human weakness was putting others into a state of servitude or slavery—which meant that only some could prosper, and at the great expense of others. But with machine energy and machine servants, no one has to suffer; in fact, the more people, the merrier.
Nineteenth-century coal technology is justifiably illegal today. The hazardous smoke that would be generated is now preventable by far more advanced, cleaner coal-burning technologies. But in the 1800s, it was and should have been perfectly legal to burn coal this way—because the alternative was death by cold or starvation or wretched poverty.
Solar and wind produce a combined 1 percent of the energy we use, whereas fossil fuel energy—coal, oil, and natural gas—produces 86 percent, more than five times all other sources combined. That 86 percent is only 7 percent less than 1980’s 93 percent. But the total is what matters most—note that our total fossil fuel use is now far, far greater.
Here’s a key principle for understanding what makes energy, or anything else, cheap and plentiful. For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, including every input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful. With hazelnuts, not only do you have, as in any process, materials, machines, and manpower, you have a huge limiting factor in that the land needed is far from plentiful. Hazelnuts require land with a unique combination of rainfall or irrigation, mild summer climate and cold winter climate, and fertile soil. This happens overwhelmingly in one place, Turkey, which dominates the market, and this ideal hazelnut habitat generates only one crop a year.
The top five countries ranked by solar energy consumption are Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, and China. The percentage of each country’s electricity that comes from solar energy is, respectively: 4.5 percent, 6.3 percent, 4.0 percent, .09 percent, and .6 percent.
The top five countries ranked by wind consumption are the United States, China, Spain, Germany, and India. Faring slightly better than solar, the percentage of each country’s electricity that comes from wind energy is, respectively: 3.3 percent, 2.03 percent, 16.5 percent, 7.44 percent, and 2.96 percent.
Traditionally in discussions of solar and wind there are two problems cited: the diluteness problem and the intermittency problem.
The diluteness problem is that the sun and the wind don’t deliver concentrated energy, which means you need a lot of materials per unit of energy produced. For solar, such materials can include highly purified silicon, phosphorus, boron, and compounds like titanium dioxide, cadmium telluride, and copper indium gallium selenide. For wind, they can include high-performance compounds (like those used in the aircraft industry) for turbine blades and the rare-earth metal neodymium for lightweight, high-performance magnets, as well as the steel and concrete necessary to build thousands or tens of thousands of structures as tall as skyscrapers.
As Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel capacity, especially coal, has not been shut down—it has increased.
As Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel capacity, especially coal, has not been shut down—it has increased. Why? Because Germans need more energy, and they cannot rely on the renewables. In a given week in Germany, the world leader in solar and number three in wind, their solar panels and windmills may generate less than 5 percent of needed electricity.
The only way for solar and wind to be truly useful, reliable sources of energy would be to combine them with some form of extremely inexpensive mass-storage system. No such mass-storage system exists, because storing energy in a compact space itself takes a lot of resources. Which is why, in the entire world, there is not one real or proposed independent, freestanding solar or wind power plant. All of them require backup—except that “backup” implies that solar and wind work most of the time. It’s more accurate to say that solar and wind are parasites that require a host.
It is deeply irresponsible and disturbing that environmental leaders are telling us to deprive ourselves of fossil fuels on the promise of what can charitably be described as a highly speculative experiment, and can less charitably be described as an ill-conceived, resource-wasting, perennial failure.
The main limitation of hydroelectric power is there aren’t nearly enough suitable water sites for it to be a global source of energy. In China and Brazil, the top two consumers of hydropower, you can get a lot of electricity from it; in Nebraska, you can’t.
The issue of nuclear safety is full of so much rhetoric and emotion that it can be hard to sort through. But as a starting point, let’s ask: How do we know how safe it is? I think the most reliable indication of a technology’s safety is how many deaths it has caused per unit of energy produced. In the free world, nuclear power in its entire commercial history has not led to a single death—including from much-publicized failures at Three Mile Island and Fukushima.
Unfortunately, activists use inaccurate characterizations to make it extremely time consuming and expensive to build new plants. Nuclear power is radioactive, they say—not mentioning that so is the sun and that taking a walk, let alone an airplane ride, exposes you to far more radioactivity than does living next to a nuclear power plant. A nuclear plant could be bombed by terrorists and bring about some sort of Hiroshima 2, they say—not mentioning that the type of uranium used in a nuclear plant literally can’t explode.
Fossil fuels are so called because they are (in most theories) high-energy concentrations of ancient dead plants. Our entire civilization is based on burning these dead plants, which are made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms connected by powerful chemical bonds. When you burn gasoline in your car or coal in a power plant or gas to heat your home, those bonds break apart, releasing enormous amounts of energy. They exist in solid (coal), liquid (oil), and gas (natural gas) form.
Coal is the world’s leading fuel for electricity—producing 41 percent of the world’s electricity in 2011—and is expected to become the leading source of energy overall. In the developing world, it has been the overwhelming choice for every country that has industrialized recently. Since the 1980s, the world has experienced record increases in coal consumption: in Brazil, by 144 percent; in India, by 425 percent; in China, by 514 percent.4 It is no coincidence that countries with increased coal consumption also experience better lives overall—as electricity consumption increases, infant mortality rate decreases rapidly and access to improved drinking water sources increases.
Coal use is growing quickly and could grow even more quickly. The United States could be a major contributor; we have been called the Saudi Arabia of coal and have the potential to become a huge coal exporter, feeding cheap energy to machines around the world.
Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, one of several technologies that can be used to get natural gas out of shale.
The shale energy revolution has led to a rapid increase in natural gas and oil production in the last decade and has the potential to do much more. The combination of horizontal drilling and fracking has turned previously known but economically unreachable reserves of natural gas into easily accessible and cheap natural gas. In the United States, proven reserves of natural gas have increased 46 percent since 2005.
There are estimated to be far more natural gas supplies in what are called methane hydrates, natural gas deposits in frozen form, which exist at the bottom of the ocean. Thus the potential supply of natural gas could extend many centuries, at least.
Oil is an ultraconcentrated form of energy—liquid energy—so it’s ideal for any moving vehicle. Every portable power source needs to carry its fuel with it, which means that size and weight are of paramount consideration. Oil, in effect, has the ultimate strength to weight ratio. A gallon of gasoline has 31,000 calories—the amount of energy you use in fifteen days. Oil can be refined into stable, potent liquid fuels—gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.
Chemists can “crack”—break down—the molecules in a barrel of oil into small parts, and then reassemble them into an unbelievable variety of polymers, including modern plastics. While you think of oil in your car as in the gas tank, in fact there is more oil in the materials in the car than in the gas tank. The rubber tires are made of oil, the paint and waterproofing are made of oil, the plastic, dent-resistant bumper is made of oil, the stuffing inside the seats is made of oil, and in most cars, the entire interior is one form of oil fabric or synthetic material or another.
Every resource technology involves starting with easier problems and moving toward harder problems. When I read “We’re using dirtier and dirtier oil” or “We’re having to scour further depths to get oil,” I think, What is the “appropriate’” length to go to get oil? Should we have stopped at 69.5 feet? At every stage, one could be accused of “scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
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.
Paul Ehrlich declared in the 1968 sensation The Population Bomb that “the battle to feed humanity is over”—and he was in good company. In 1969, the New York Times reported: “While there have always been famines and warnings of famine, food experts generally agree that the situation now is substantially different. The problem is becoming so acute that every nation, institution, and every human being will ultimately be affected.”22 A group of leading American intellectuals wrote an open letter declaring: “The world as we know it will likely be ruined before the year 2000. . . . World food production cannot keep pace with the galloping growth of population.”
Modern agriculture, like every modern industry, runs on machines, and fossil fuel energy is our leading source of machine food. Therefore, fossil fuel energy is the food of food.
Matt Ridley, author of the valuable survey of human progress, The Rational Optimist, describes the value of mechanization on his own farm: “A modern combine harvester, driven by a single man, can reap enough wheat in a single day to make half a million loaves.” A single man, made into an agricultural Superman by the power of oil.
True of agriculture is true of every industry. The energy industry has a special place in human productivity, prosperity, and progress. As the industry that powers every other industry, it can be considered the master industry. Whether we are talking about the computer industry, the electronics industry, the health-care industry, or the pharmaceutical industry, every industry uses machines, uses resources that are manufactured using energy, and uses time that is available because of our high-energy society’s productivity.
We have to be clear: Is human life our standard of value or is “lack of impact” our standard of value? If we’re on a human standard, we should be concerned in a negative way only about impacts of energy use that harm our environment from a human perspective—such as dumping toxic waste in a nearby river or filling a city with smog. But we should also assume that energy gives us more ability to improve our environment, to make it healthier and safer for human beings.
Energy is what we need to build sturdy homes, to purify water, to produce huge amounts of fresh food, to generate heat and air-conditioning, to irrigate deserts, to dry malaria-infested swamps, to build hospitals, and to manufacture pharmaceuticals, among many other things.
I became familiar with the existence of professionals in climate science, such as Richard Lindzen of MIT and Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia, who argued that global warming wasn’t the big deal it was made out to be. Given that our standard is human life—we want the climate we live in to be as livable as possible—there are two types of impacts we need to study and weigh. The first is the impact of CO2 on climate itself. CO2 affects climate in at least two ways: as a greenhouse gas with a warming impact, but also as plant food with a fertilizing impact (plants are a major part of the climate system as well as a benefit of a livable climate).
Weather refers to present, near-term atmospheric conditions, especially temperatures and precipitation.
Climate is the longer-term (usually measured in thirty-year increments) weather trends in a given region: how hot and cold it gets, how much precipitation there is, what kind of storms pop up, et cetera.
One crucial truth is that climate is naturally volatile and dangerous. Absent a modern, developed civilization, any climate will frequently overwhelm human beings with climate-related risks—extreme heat, extreme cold, storms, floods—or underwhelm human beings with climate-related benefits (insufficient rainfall, insufficient warmth). Primitive peoples prayed so fervently to climate gods because they were almost totally at the mercy of the naturally volatile, dangerous climate system.
The greenhouse effect is a warming effect that certain molecules, including water and carbon dioxide, have when they are in the atmosphere. When infrared radiation from the sun reflects off the planet and heads toward space, these molecules, called infrared absorbers, reflect some of it back, causing heat.19 The impact of these gases in the atmosphere is analogized, in its warming impact, to the glass in a greenhouse that helps keep plants warm.
Now let’s look at CO2. It’s a greenhouse gas that exists in trace quantities in the atmosphere—just under .03 percent (270 parts per million, or ppm) before the industrial revolution, a level that we have increased to .04 percent (396 ppm).
As the following illustration shows, the greenhouse effect of CO2 is an extreme diminishing effect—a logarithmically decreasing effect. This is how the function looks when measured in a laboratory.
Those who speculate that CO2 is a major driver of climate have, to their credit, made predictions based on computer models that reflect their view of how the climate works. But fatally, those models have failed to make accurate predictions—not just a little, but completely.
Here is a graph of 102 prominent, modern climate models put together by John Christy of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, who collects satellite measurements of temperature. Even though the modern models have the benefit of hindsight and “hindcasting,” reality is so inconsistent with the theory that they can’t come up with a plausible model.
Since the industrial revolution, we’ve increased CO2 in the atmosphere from .03 percent to .04 percent, and temperatures have gone up less than a degree Celsius, a rate of increase that has occurred at many points in history.
As predictions of extreme global warming have completely failed to materialize, there has been more of an emphasis on extreme weather as a reason to oppose fossil fuels. But this is misleading. The prediction of catastrophic climate change is based on the idea that warming will cause extreme weather.
Figure 4.5 shows sea level trends from locations throughout the world. Note how smooth the trends are—and also notice how several of them are downward. This points to a truth about sea level and climate. It is affected by many factors, often factors that are much more important than any change in the global climate system.
One of the discoverers of the greenhouse effect, Svante Arrhenius, who regarded increased CO2 emissions as a very positive phenomenon. In 1896 he said: “By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth, ages when the earth will bring forth much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind.”
Here’s what we know. There is a greenhouse effect. It’s logarithmic. The temperature has increased very mildly and leveled off completely in recent years. The climate-prediction models are failures, especially models based on CO2 as the major climate driver, reflecting a failed attempt to sufficiently comprehend and predict an enormously complex system. But many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists have deliberately tried to manipulate us into equating the greenhouse effect with the predictions of invalid computer models based on their demonstrably faulty understanding of how CO2 actually affects climate.
The reason we care about recent global warming or climate change is not simply that human beings are allegedly the main cause. It’s the allegation that man-made warming will be extremely harmful to human life. The 97 percent claim says nothing whatsoever about magnitude or catastrophe. If we’re the main cause of the mild warming of the last century or so, that does not begin to resemble anything that would justify taking away our machine food.
One of the main papers behind the 97 percent claim is authored by John Cook, who runs the popular Web site SkepticalScience.com, a virtual encyclopedia of arguments trying to defend predictions of catastrophic climate change from all challenges. Here is Cook’s summary of his paper: “Cook et al. (2013) found that over 97 percent [of papers he surveyed] endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.”
Cook is able to demonstrate only that a relative handful endorse “the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.” Cook calls this “explicit endorsement with quantification” (quantification meaning 50 percent or more). The problem is, only a small percentage of the papers fall into this category; Cook does not say what percentage, but when the study was publicly challenged by economist David Friedman, one observer calculated that only 1.6 percent explicitly stated that man-made greenhouse gases caused at least 50 percent of global warming.
Where did most of the 97 percent come from, then? Cook had created a category called “explicit endorsement without quantification”—that is, papers in which the author, by Cook’s admission, did not say whether 1 percent or 50 percent or 100 percent of the warming was caused by man. He had also created a category called “implicit endorsement,” for papers that imply (but don’t say) that there is some man-made global warming and don’t quantify it. In other words, he created two categories that he labeled as endorsing a view that they most certainly didn’t.
The 97 percent claim is a deliberate misrepresentation designed to intimidate the public—and numerous scientists whose papers were classified by Cook protested: “Cook survey included 10 of my 122 eligible papers. 5/10 were rated incorrectly. 4/5 were rated as endorse rather than neutral.” —Dr. Richard Tol37 “That is not an accurate representation of my paper . . .” —Dr. Craig Idso “Nope . . . it is not an accurate representation.” —Dr. Nir Shaviv “Cook et al. (2013) is based on a strawman argument . . .” —Dr. Nicola Scafetta
In 1996, Stanford climate scientist Stephen Schneider wrote an influential paper about the ethics of exaggerating the evidence for catastrophic climate change. On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.
For years, the government spread the gospel, treated as nutritionally proved, that a low-fat diet was healthy—a campaign that coincided with record obesity.
Paul Ehrlich, who writes: “Scientists need to be direct and succinct when dealing with the electronic media. One could talk for hours about the uncertainties associated with global warming. But a statement like ‘Pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere could lead to large-scale food shortages’ is entirely accurate scientifically and will catch the public’s attention.” Is such a statement “entirely accurate scientifically”? What about the fact that were it not for the industry that necessarily emits greenhouse gases and were it not for the fact that Ehrlich’s proposals to dismantle it were not followed, millions or billions would have died of starvation?
Fossil fuels are superconcentrated ancient dead plants. When we burn/oxidize them, we increase the amount of CO2, plant food, in the atmosphere. Thus, on top of getting energy, we should get a lot more plant growth—including growth of the most important plants to us, such as food crops.
Below 120 to 150 ppm CO2, most plants die, which means human beings would die. All things being equal, in terms of plant growth, agriculture, et cetera, more CO2 is better. Today’s climate gives us far less CO2 than we would like from a plant-growth perspective. We would prefer the thousands of ppm CO2 that, say, the Cretaceous period had.
What’s most striking is that these extremely positive plant effects of CO2 are scientifically uncontroversial yet practically never mentioned, even by the climate-science community. This is a dereliction of duty. It is our responsibility to look at the big picture, all positives and negatives, without prejudice.
The more fossil fuel we use, the more life expectancy and income we have.
In the decade from 2004 to 2013, worldwide climate-related deaths (including droughts, floods, extreme temperatures, wildfires, and storms) plummeted to a level 88.6 percent below that of the peak decade, 1930 to 1939.2 The year 2013, with 29,404 reported deaths, had 99.4 percent fewer climate-related deaths than the historic record year of 1932, which had 5,073,283 reported deaths for the same category.
There are fewer storm-related deaths than ever. CO2 emissions are not having a detectable effect on storm danger, but the fossil fuel energy that helps us build sturdy buildings and move people away from disaster areas, is.
The more fossil fuel we use, the safer—dramatically, dramatically safer—we become from climate-related dangers.
The United States has had zero deaths from drought in the last eight years. This doesn’t mean there are actually zero, as the database only covers incidents involving ten or more deaths, but it means pretty near zero. Historically, drought is the number-one climate-related cause of death. Worldwide it has gone down by 99.98 percent in the last eighty years for many energy-related reasons: oil-powered drought-relief convoys, more food in general because of more prolific, fossil fuel–based agriculture, and irrigation systems.
Climate is no longer a major cause of death, thanks in large part to fossil fuels. By contrast, there are 1.3 billion people with no electricity, the vast majority of whom will die early deaths, a problem that can be solved only by using more fossil fuels. Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are “fighting” climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous.
The popular climate discussion has the issue backward. It looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability. No matter what, climate will always be naturally hazardous—and the key question will always be whether we have the adaptability to handle it or, better yet, master it.
Consider that in the United States, a large country, we are home to every type of climate imaginable: from polar Alaska to desert California to swampy Florida to scorching Texas. And yet in each state we have a life expectancy of over seventy-five!
Thanks to the internal combustion engine, which in 1992 Al Gore said should be outlawed in twenty-five years (i.e., 2017), we can go anywhere, anytime.
You can choose to expose yourself to hurricanes and flooding on the coasts because you like other features of the area. Or you can go to blizzard-prone areas because you want to ski and snowboard every day. This is the ultimate climate freedom. And we have this freedom, not just once but (to the extent we can afford it, which is closely related to the affordability of energy) throughout the year.
The way to deal with climate danger is to take the high-energy actions necessary to deal with it. The answer is not in promoting inaction in the form of using less of our best form of energy.
In terms of communicating with the public, we would want our leaders to offer precise, objective briefings about evidence, risks, and probabilities with a recognition of the need to balance the risks with other risks (e.g., the hardships of energy loss). We would definitely not want vague talk of “catastrophe” with Hollywood hysteria scenarios. We would want scientists and other thought leaders to welcome debate and be understanding of opponents. We would not want them to bash the inquisitive or skeptical as “deniers.”
I believe that we owe the fossil fuel industry an apology. While the industry has been producing the energy to make our climate more livable, we have treated it as a villain. We owe it the kind of gratitude that we owe anyone who makes our lives much, much better.
We know that the way to make climate livable is not to try to refrain from affecting it but to use cheap energy to technologically master it. Thus, if the undeveloped world is having trouble dealing with climate, it’s not because of our .01 percent change in the atmosphere; it’s because they haven’t followed the examples of China, India, and others who have increased fossil fuels use by hundreds of percent. And the goal should be to help them do so—especially because the benefits of fossil fuels go far beyond climate: cheap, plentiful, reliable energy gives human beings the power to improve every aspect of life, including productivity, food, clothing, and shelter. You can’t be a humanitarian and condemn the energy humanity needs.
Climate-related deaths are down 98 percent worldwide, including in undeveloped countries.
While in the modern world we are taught to focus on any little particle emitted into the air by a power plant, we are not taught to appreciate the incomparably worse diseases those power plants have helped us get out of our air or made us safe from through mass production of pharmaceuticals and vaccinations.
Imagine if the only way you could avoid the danger of cold—historically, cold is a far bigger killer than warmth—was to light a fire in your house every day of the year. You could do things to reduce the amount of smoke you breathed in by using a chimney and opening windows (though at the expense of letting cold in), but the fact remains that you would be breathing in an enormous amount of smoke every day. For many people today, that’s the choice: breathing in smoky air or cold.
Modern homes are heated with advanced furnaces that heat air within a machine and then send the warm air to various locations in the house. The heating is usually done either via clean-burning natural gas, in which case the furnace has an exhaust system to remove any waste from the combustion, or with electrical heating elements powered by mostly faraway smokestacks (which themselves minimize air pollution by diluting and dispersing particulates higher in the air).
We don’t take a safe environment and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous environment and make it far safer.
Someday it might be possible to completely purify coal so that it generates no air pollutants and the materials that would have become air pollutants—nitrogen, sulfur, heavy metals—become valuable commodities. To a great extent, this is what we do with oil. What was once oil pollution dumped into a lake is now the basis for the plastic keyboard I am typing on.
In 1882 Thomas Edison revolutionized the use of coal, both from the production side and from the pollution side, when he built the first commercial, centralized coal-fired electric power plant for New York residents, starting what is the primary use for coal today: the production of electricity.
In the 1870s, according to Daniel Yergin’s The Prize, some five thousand people died annually in kerosene explosions from the lamps in their homes.8 Gasoline is more volatile than kerosene, yet we drive our cars without any fear of explosion.
The role of government is to pass laws based on individual rights and standards set according to science and the current state of technological evolution. The job of industry is to continue that evolution.
There are at least four common fallacies used to discourage big-picture thinking and breed opposition to fossil fuels: the abuse-use fallacy, the false-attribution fallacy, the no-threshold fallacy, and the “artificial” fallacy.
Any technology can be abused. As we have seen, people are dying right now because of bad practices in the wind turbine production chain. It is irrational to say that because a technology or practice can be abused, it ought not be used. I call this the abuse-use fallacy. It is a blueprint for opposing any technology.
Individual abuses do not prove that an entire technology should not be used—they prove it should not be abused.
A U.S. Geological Survey study conducted between 1991 and 2004 examined the quality of water from domestic wells and found: “More than one in five (23 percent) of the sampled wells contained one or more contaminants at a concentration greater than a human-health benchmark. . . . Contaminants most often found at concentrations greater than human-health benchmarks were inorganic chemicals, with all but nitrate derived primarily from natural sources.”12 In other words, more than one in five wells are naturally contaminated according to our government’s standards. Yet we are taught to treat “natural” water as clean and blame all dirty water on industry, especially the fossil fuel industry.
Here’s the truth about groundwater. Every technology uses raw materials that must be mined from the ground, and anytime we drill or mine or dig underground, groundwater can be compromised. Of all the things you can do underground, fracking is the least likely to affect groundwater, because it takes place thousands of feet away from it.
A poison or pollutant is always a combination of substance and dose. If someone mentions just a substance to scare you, independent of the context or the dose, he has given you meaningless, misleading information. He is assuming or expecting you to assume that if a substance is dangerous in some dosage, it is dangerous in all dosages.
When one treats something as poisonous regardless of dosage, he is denying the existence of a threshold at which a substance goes from being benign to harmful. If you deny a threshold, you can make a case for banning anything.
The no-threshold fallacy was used particularly insidiously in opposing nuclear power. People said we should have zero tolerance for radiation—not knowing, apparently, that the potassium in their bone tissue emits radiation, enough so that sleeping with a spouse gives you almost as much radiation as standing right outside a nuclear power plant. Both activities are nowhere near harmful.
Fossil fuels improve our environment by, among other things, empowering us to fight the otherwise overwhelming health hazards of nature. Like all forms of energy, they have risks and by-products, but they also give us the energy and resources to minimize, neutralize, or even reverse those harms. More broadly, if health is our concern, fossil fuels underlie the food and medical care systems that have created the longest life expectancy in history.
The believers in a finite carrying capacity think of the Earth as something that “carries” us by dispensing a certain amount of resources. But if this was true, then why did the caveman have so few resources?
Resources are not taken from nature, but created from nature. What applies to the raw materials of coal, oil, and gas also applies to every raw material in nature—they are all potential resources, with unlimited potential to be rendered valuable by the human mind.
The production of energy increases the production of knowledge, and it is knowledge that enables one generation to begin where the last left off.
I won’t say who I thought won; you can decide for yourself at www.moralcaseforfossilfuels.com.
In this book, I have quoted extensively from certain environmental thought leaders—Paul Ehrlich, Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Amory Lovins, John Holdren—precisely because they are thought leaders: They have had tremendous influence throughout the culture.
Notice that they, and practically all other environmental or Green leaders, express little enthusiasm for the value of cheap, plentiful, reliable energy or the unique ability of the fossil fuel industry to provide it; instead, they keep claiming, without evidence, that expensive, unreliable, unscalable energy will somehow become cheap, reliable, and scalable—unconcerned by what will happen if and when they are wrong and nothing can make up for the energy they’ve taken away from us.
The environmental thought leaders’ opposition to fossil fuels is not a mistaken attempt at pursuing human life as their standard of value. They are too smart and knowledgeable to make such a mistake. Their opposition is a consistent attempt at pursuing their actual standard of value: a pristine environment, unaltered nature.
I’m saying that if fossil fuels created no waste, including no CO2, if they were even cheaper, if they would last practically forever, if there were no resource-depletion concerns, the Green movement would still oppose them.
There are some quotes from a story in the Los Angeles Times called “Fear of Fusion: What if It Works?” Leading environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin: “It’s the worst thing that could happen to our planet.” Paul Ehrlich: Developing fusion for human beings would be “like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.”
With more energy, we have the ability to alter nature more, and we will do so—because transforming our environment, transforming nature, is our means of survival and flourishing. To the antihumanist, that’s precisely the problem. Have you ever heard mankind described as a cancer on the planet? Prince Philip, former head of the World Wildlife Fund, has said, “In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, in order to contribute something to solve overpopulation.” Remember that in chapter 1, David M. Graber, in praising the theme of Bill McKibben’s book, said, “Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”
We don’t want to “save the planet” from human beings; we want to improve the planet for human beings.
For me, the prospect of getting the resources of the industry deployed to actually make a compelling case is beyond exciting. Because I am a capitalist and charge for my services, maybe I will get attacked now for being paid by the fossil fuel industry. But there’s the prejudice again. Why would someone assume that someone who works with fossil fuel companies is corrupt, while those who, say, accept government grants aren’t? As I advise members of the industry on what to say, I don’t say this industry is good because I work with it; I work with this industry because I think it’s good.
The unpopular but moral cause of our time is fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are easy to misunderstand and demonize, but they are absolutely good to use. And they absolutely need to be championed.
Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous—because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.