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Dr. Daniel Sutter: In defense of fossil fuels

Governments are promising to end fossil fuel use by 2050 or sooner. Fossil Future by Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, argues that this would be tragic. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he believes that expanding the use of fossil fuels is humanity’s only moral course.

I will detail the steps of Mr. Epstein’s argument shortly. Perhaps more is his analysis of standards of value. His standard, human flourishing, contrasts with the standard of minimizing human impact on the environment driving the campaign against fossil fuels.

The argument for fossil fuels has three parts. First, fossil fuels provide inexpensive energy, enabling us to perform inconceivably more work than with just human or animal power. Fossil fuels provide concentrated, on-demand, portable, and scalable energy, or energy we can build lives and an economy around. By contrast, wind and solar provide intermittent energy. And fossil fuels, which provide 80% of energy, have no substitutes in heavy transportation and heat generation.

Second, fossil fuels power climate mastery, making the Earth more livable for humans. We alter the environment in many ways to improve life, like draining swamps to control malaria. Climate mastery, epitomized by the Netherlands’ flood protection system, has reduced extreme weather fatalities per capita by 98% over the past century.

Finally, global warming will not overwhelm our fossil fuel-enabled climate mastery. Melting glaciers after the last Ice Age increased sea level by over 300 feet. Our ancestors, living at a subsistence level, survived. Irrigation, flood control, fertilizer and pesticides will control any impacts of warming. Climate change does not threaten human existence.

This is great news! Still, Fossil Future’s biggest contribution is discussing standards of value for energy. Mr. Epstein employs human flourishing, defined as, “increasing the ability of human beings to live long, healthy, fulfilling lives.” Human flourishing has experienced a true “hockey stick” takeoff over the past 250 years, powered by fossil fuels. Yet the framework also recognizes fossil fuels’ side effects, including air pollution and warming. Human flourishing requires a hospitable environment.

Leading environmentalists, Mr. Epstein argues, value minimizing the impact of humans on the natural environment. Mr. Epstein interprets environmentalist writings within this anti-impact framework. Bill McKibben observes how altering the flow of water in a creek is wrong: “Instead of a world where rain had an independent and mysterious existence, the rain had become a subset of human activity.” Yet undisturbed nature includes disease, droughts, and extreme weather.

The anti-impact framework is ultimately anti-life. Extreme charges should not be made casually, and Mr. Epstein proceeds carefully here. Consider this review of Mr. McKibben’s The End of Nature: “Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”

If you think Mr. Epstein exaggerates, how would you greet a source of cheap energy without pollution or warming side effects? In the late 1980s, a reported breakthrough on nuclear fusion offered just this. And leading environmentalists’ reactions: “disastrous,” “the worst thing that could happen to our planet,” and “like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.”

Vague slogans like, “going green,” “protecting the environment” or “saving the planet” gloss over the anti-life aspect of anti-impact. Most people like polar bears and consequently support action against climate change.

Standards of value matter immensely. Under human flourishing, humanity-enhancing impact is moral. Under the anti-impact standard, any impact of energy use is immoral. And this ultimately drives climate change’s “existential threat” label. Human-caused warming is immoral and unacceptable regardless of whether it hurts us.

Recognizing the anti-impact framework rationalizes some otherwise contradictory policies. Hydro and nuclear power offer electricity without carbon emissions. But they impact the environment and therefore are not green. Reducing human impact, not saving humanity, is the goal.

We cannot hope to feed eight billion people without fossil fuels. Ending fossil fuel use by mid-century will impoverish America and condemn millions to energy poverty and ultimately likely starvation. If people read and engage Alex Epstein’s arguments, perhaps we can ensure an empowered life for every human.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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