Book Review – The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

Most people living in Western Civilization take their energy for granted. We enjoy the modern convenience of electricity coming from a plug in the wall or the flip of a switch, well-lit homes, buildings and streets. We live in air-conditioned comfort in warmer regions and stay warm at night thanks to natural gas. We use liquid petroleum products to power our cars, buses, airplanes and ships.

While there are costs and risks associated with using fossil fuels, the benefits clearly greatly outweigh them. Yet there are many people including prominent professors and other activists who demand that humanity give up fossil fuels in the name of the environment or because they believe humans cause climate change. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, they believe that so-called “renewable” energy sources are the answer to all mankind’s energy needs and deplore our use of life-enhancing fossil fuels.

It is fashionable to be disdainful of fossil fuels and to pretend to ourselves and others that our “addiction” to fossil fuels, similar to an addiction to nicotine or alcohol, can be overcome if we just use less of them, find alternatives or give them up altogether.

It often seems that only those in the industry or their spokespersons support and defend fossil fuels, and it almost seems sacrilegious to think that there is a “moral” case for fossil fuels. Indeed, those who do speak in defense of fossil fuels are often accused of being in the pay of the industry, something I have experienced myself. (I’m not).

Moral Case for Fossil Fuels coverIn his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, author Alex Epstein not only makes it clear that there is a moral case for fossil fuels, he makes it abundantly clear that fossil fuels enhance human life on this planet in many ways, and that the costs and externalities involved in their use are manageable. He further makes the point that the very things that fossil fuel opponents wish to preserve – the environment and the climate – can be better managed and coped with because of fossil fuels.

Sources, Uses, and Definitions

This book is composed of nine chapters with bibliography, notes and an index.  In the first three chapters, Epstein provides an overview of the sources and uses of fossil fuels, the benefits of using these energy sources, and many of the objections raised by various doomsday predictors of decades past and present. One example is from 1972 when “…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).” [1] [Emphasis mine]

Obviously none of these things has happened, and indeed now oil and natural gas commodity prices are so low that the industry is facing a recession cycle.  He goes on to cite various other doomsday prophecies that have not come true and in fact their exact opposite have happened. It is significant that the predictions of climate catastrophe due to carbon emissions have been around since the 1980s and that many so-called “tipping points” have been predicted and passed while the global mean temperature has remained largely flat for 18 years, thus invalidating many of the computer models predicting much higher temperatures than are evident from real data.

Updated pause graph 20150721

Epstein points out that as fossil fuel use has increased, so too has human flourishing. He describes how the impetus for renewable energy got its start in the 1970s with the prediction that solar and wind power combined with conservation (using less energy) would replace fossil fuels.

The most striking thing about chapter one is that Epstein cites data to support his claims that as fossil fuel use increases, so do oil and gas reserves, clean water supplies; and air pollution has gone down, as well as climate related deaths.

Epstein also points out exactly what is at stake:

“Today, proposals to restrict fossil fuels are more popular than ever. As mentioned earlier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has demanded that the United States and other industrialized countries cut carbon emissions to 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2050-and the United States has joined hundreds of other countries in agreeing to this goal. And the UN panel assures us that “close to 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies… Around the world, it is fashionable to attack every new fossil fuel development and every new form of fossil fuel technology, from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the United States to oil sands (“tar sands”) in Canada.

To think about dire measures like this without seriously reflecting on the predictions and trends of the last forty years – and the thinking mistakes that led to those wrong predictions – is dangerous…” [Emphasis mine]

Finally, the moral case for fossil fuels is not about the fuels themselves, it is about how they can be used to improve human life on this planet.

In chapters two and three, Epstein describes how important reliable energy is to human life, citing a story from The Gambia where a premature infant died because the hospital did not have a reliable supply of electricity.  He reviews the “energy challenge”: providing cheap, plentiful, reliable and scalable energy to all humans. He points out that if everybody were to have as much access to energy as the average American, world energy production would have to be quadrupled.[2]

The various renewable energy sources promoted by various groups are discussed at length, with the advantages (yes there are some) and disadvantages of each (they are significant) being evaluated. The primary disadvantages of these renewable energy sources are simple: reliability, scalability, intermittency, insufficiency, impact on world food supplies and cost.

The energy technology that currently solves all these problems is fossil fuels. They are widely available, reliable, scalable and cheap. Mature technologies for harvesting and using these fuels are in existence and are continually being improved upon due to market demands, social pressure and governmental regulations.

Environment and Climate

The next three chapters of the book cover some of the issues that are raised as objections to fossil fuel use – the greenhouse effect, how energy can be used to mitigate climate effects, and how we can actually improve our environment.

Epstein recounts how he experienced confusion growing up because his teachers were talking about global warming as if it were scientifically proven. Because skepticism is at the heart of the scientific method, when he went to find alternative views, he learned – as I have – that there are many qualified scientists out there who do not support the “global warming” paradigm or the anthropogenic climate change belief. His discussion of climate change belief and the arguments against it are both well-documented and very compelling. He compares just one observer’s predictions vs actual results and points out that it is computer models that are the predictors of warming.  Because these models do not produce verifiable, forward results that match observed data, they are wrong. (And does anyone really think that a model not supporting the climate change agenda would be publicized? Is Al Gore going to admit he was wrong?)

Actual vs Forecasted Climate Trends

After reviewing the myths about climate change causing extreme weather and that the greenhouse effect causes catastrophic climate change, Epstein goes on to thoroughly debunk the oft-cited “97% of scientists agree there is global warming” canard. This alone is worth the price of the book!

Rounding out the chapter is a discussion of “climate ethics” where he points out other well-known cases where accepted orthodoxy was later proved to be completely wrong. Following this is a discussion of how increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may actually help vegetation and crops.

The chapter about energy and climate effects is insightful because it shows clearly how our use of fossil fuels enables us to blunt and mitigate the adverse effects of our climate. He documents that climate-related deaths from droughts, floods, extreme temperatures, wildfires and storms have actually decreased substantially since the early 20th century, or in other words, as our fossil fuel use has radically increased. He also points out that poor parts of the world – those without the energy resources we have in the West – are more prone to devastating climate effects and higher climate related deaths. This is another example of fossil fuels literally saving lives.

The discussion of climate mastery and climate justice centers on the concepts that “There are two components to mastering climate. One is control over the climate you’re in. Two is the ability to make the most of the climate you’re in.” Fossil fuels enable human beings to select the climate they live in (Florida, anyone?) and give them the tools to live comfortably in that climate (heating and air conditioning).

The concept of “climate justice” centers around the notion that one cannot claim to be a “humanitarian” if they condemn the energy from fossil fuels that humanity needs to thrive. Finally, Epstein points out that “…we owe the fossil fuel industry an apology for the way we’ve treated it on climate and that we owe them a long-overdue thank you.”  I’ll take it step further and say to anyone who works in the fossil fuel industry: You should hold your head high and be proud of what you do for the betterment of humanity. Don’t ever let anyone let you feel ashamed of what you do or who you work for.”

The last three chapters of the book cover the topics of improving the environment by reducing risks and side effects as well as a discussion of sustainability and a look toward the future.

Epstein points out how our environment is much safer today than it was before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Back then, the air in peoples’ homes was dirty from burning dirty fuels in their homes, the water was not clean and water-borne illnesses were rampant, and people were at the mercy of the weather without modern heating and air conditioning.

He takes the argument further by pointing out that high energy machines powered by fossil fuels enable us to mitigate these problems by developing the modern infrastructure that we all take for granted including: central power stations, pipeline-fed natural gas, clean running water from water purification plants, dams, seawalls, robust housing, and others. He provides documentary proof that as fossil fuel use increases, so does access to clean water.

Diseases that used to kill large numbers in epidemics are also on the decline including malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, and others – except in parts of the world without reliable access to fossil fuel energy, where they remain big problems.

The biggest surprises for me in this book were in the chapter about reducing the risks of fossil fuel use. Air pollution has declined from the 1970s by using science to understand the risks and technology to mitigate them.

Air Pollution Graph
Source: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The pollution that resulted from burning coal in the early days has been remarkably reduced in recent years, again from using technology, with the result that one state – North Dakota – which has several coal-burning plants and a lot of energy production also has very clean air.

The discussion of the role of government fits nicely with my libertarian viewpoint, in that the goal of pollution laws should balance property rights along with an individual’s right to be protected against pollution. By placing an emphasis on respecting individual rights including property rights, Epstein places himself squarely in the libertarian/conservative worldview regarding this tension.

Finally, he reviews four common fallacies to foster and foment opposition to fossil fuels: “…the abuse-use fallacy, the false-attribution fallacy, the no-threshold fallacy, and the “artificial” fallacy.” Each of these discussions is a cogent, thought-provoking analysis of common attacks against fossil fuels. Recounting them in detail is beyond the scope of a book review, so I will encourage the reader to review them for themselves.

Rounding out the chapter is a discussion of the “human-centered” view of the environment and the preservation of nature to benefit human life. He makes a compelling point that fossil fuels enable humans to access nature more readily, as well as increasing enjoyment of nature. I particularly enjoyed his discussions regarding sustainability, human ingenuity and how fossil fuels can advance future generations.

In the final chapter of the book he reviews his debate with Bill McKibben, the modern attack on fossil fuels and our future, and understanding the anti-fossil fuel movement. He presents a call to action for the fossil fuels industry as well as for all persons who appreciate living in a modern industrial society.

Conclusion

I like the way Epstein presents his arguments in an unemotional, reasonable tone. He recognizes that there are differing points of view regarding the use of fossil fuels in our society, yet does not take an adversarial tone with those holding those views.

I found his clear writing style to be refreshing, and the book is well-reasoned and well-documented. At 256 pages it will take a little time to read, but it is well worth the time and effort. All told, this is a hugely important book and I recommend it with a 5-star rating.

By Richard D. Turnquist

July 22, 2015

[1] Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Kindle location 104

[2] Ibid Kindle location 591

 

 

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