Using Coal, Oil and Gas, the Moral Choice

Published November 18, 2014

Climate Change Weekly #147

Review: Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Penguin Publishing, November 2014; 248 pages; ISBN-10: 1591847443, ISBN-13: 978-1591847441, $20.89 on Amazon.

In his new book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein makes one of the most compelling arguments for the moral value of fossil fuels and the need to increase their use I have ever read.

Epstein is an ethical humanist; for him, the well-being of human life is the standard of value public policy should maximize. This ethical theory goes back to the ancient Greeks and went virtually unchallenged as a basis for judging right and wrong throughout human history, at least until recently.

Unfortunately, many prominent environmental writers have rejected humanism, instead embracing a biocentric philosophy that views human changes to the environment as morally wrong and unnatural. For those biocentrists, minimizing human impacts on the environment is the primary moral goal. As such, biocentrism is a prescription for human poverty, disease, starvation, and premature death – in other words, an endorsement of the world as experienced by all but the wealthiest individuals for the vast majority of human history.

Epstein points out the development and use of fossil fuels have benefitted the poor far more than the rich, making available to the person of average means, food, goods, and services which even the rulers of old could hardly dream of.

Chapter by chapter, through clear and concise analysis, Epstein demonstrates why fossil fuels are the greatest energy technology of all time; why renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are in no position to replace them; why concerns about global warming are overstated and largely misplaced; how fossil fuel use actually improves environmental quality; and why, with more than 1.3 billion people in the world today without access to electricity and the labor and life-saving bounty it makes available, it would be immoral to artificially restrict growth in the use of fossil fuels to prevent climate change.

Assuming human welfare is one’s primary moral standard, a number of important takeaways from this book arise. I’ll list three:

  • One should look at the big picture when determining the value of using fossil fuels – not just the costs or potential harms to humans. If one has an open mind, it is apparent fossil fuels provide important benefits to humankind, unmatched by any other fuel source at current prices with current technology. The benefits of fossil fuels far outweigh the harmful by-products resulting from their use, even if one believes they contribute to global warming.
  • “Climate is no longer a major cause of deaths, thanks in large part to 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 backwards. 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.”
  • Even if human-caused CO2 emissions do pose a significant threat of dangerous climate change, the way to deal with climate danger is to develop technologies that allow humans to adapt to, mitigate, or prevent climate harms.

Restricting or ending fossil fuel use is a recipe for disaster. It would set human civilization back centuries – a true death knell for present and future generations. The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels makes this point as well or better than any other book I recall reading. The book is easily readable by anyone who has passed high school freshman English, and I encourage all those interested in learning about the threats of global warming and the relative benefits and harms of fossil fuel use to read it with an open mind. It will give you much to think about.



Australian city plans sensible for sea-level rise … Survey: Farmers, scientists differ on global warming … Ocean oscillations and climate cycles … Warming, war, not linked … India moves ahead with coal despite climate claims … U.S.-China climate deal, politics not commitment


Future planning decisions and real estate notices in the Australian coastal city of Shoalhaven will be made in anticipation of sea levels rising by as much as nine inches by 2050. That may seem to be a lot of sea-level rise, but that was the mid-range estimate projected by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia’s science agency. Rejecting the most alarmist estimates, the Shoalhaven council members noted sea-level projections are imprecise and the further out the projection, the less precise they are. Importantly, the council members built a relief valve into their coastal impact planning, something other councils have failed to do. Every seven years the town will compare actual to projected sea levels. If sea-level rise has slowed or risen, adjustments can be made to coastal impact plans.

SOURCE: Moruya Examiner and Moruya Examiner


Farmers and scientists have very different views on the extent, causes, and threats of and relating to global warming. A survey conducted by Purdue University researchers of 6,795 people in the agricultural sector from 2011-12 found more than 90 percent of the scientists and climatologists surveyed say they believe climate change is occurring, though just over 50 percent attribute climate change primarily to human activities. By contrast, just 66 percent of corn producers surveyed say they believe climate change is occurring, with only 8 percent believing human activities are the main cause. According to the survey results, farmers fear climate change less than researchers, recognizing climate change presents potential gains for their industry, while believing the threats can be managed through adaptive practices and technologies.

SOURCE: Purdue University


There is considerable evidence the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) profoundly influence North American climate and are partly responsible for global warming. For example, since the late 1970s, the PDO, AMO, and El Nino/La Nina activity statistically account for most of the recent warming of global average sea surface temperatures. Since natural cycles are responsible for recent global warming, so there is no reason to limit fossil fuel use, currently the foundation for human prosperity.

SOURCE: Dr. Roy Spencer


Joseph Horgan, writing at Scientific American, says environmentalists should stop claiming global warming will lead to more war and conflict. He offers several reasons, including first, war-related injuries and deaths have fallen over the past half-century, despite rising temperatures. And second, he writes, anthropology finds little or no link between resource scarcity and war. Moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is clearly not of one mind on this issue; one chapter in its fifth assessment report concludes there is no strong relationship between warming and war.

SOURCE: Scientific American


In the face of criticism from environmentalists, India has announced plans to double its production of coal in the next five years to meet the country’s soaring energy demand. Upon making the announcement, Piyush Goyal, minister of state with independent charge for power, coal, new and renewable energy described coal as “an essential input for power.” How Goyal’s plans will mesh with those of Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, is unclear. Having promised the 400 million Indians who lack electricity they will soon have it, Modi shares Goyal’s vision of bringing electricity to the masses. However, he promised to achieve widespread electrification with solar power and has doubled an existing levy on coal to fund clean energy. Modi will learn, to his chagrin I suspect, he can’t meet his promise using solar power alone – he will need to use the country’s abundant coal.

SOURCE: Climate News Network


Despite headlines around the world proclaiming a significant breakthrough, the recent announcement by President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping that the two countries have agreed to substantially cut their greenhouse gas emissions is, in reality, much ado about nothing. Neither leader actually committed to any cuts at all, rather they stated they “intended” to reduce emissions. President Obama cannot hit his intended target through executive actions and regulations alone, and Congress’ reaction to Obama’s announcement was sharply negative, suggesting it is almost certain no legislation will pass cutting greenhouse gas emissions. For China’s part, its president did not say the country would cut emissions, but instead he stated emissions were expected to peak around 2030. On an emissions per unit of output basis, this is probably accurate without any agreement as China adopts new, cleaner technology and industrial growth slows. China’s press has hinted the world should not expect any dramatic cuts.

SOURCES: Reuters; BBC; Washington Post

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