Climate Change by What Standard of Value?

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein

As a kid, did you ever hear these old parental songs?

  • Don’t sit so close to the TV! You’ll ruin your eyesight.
  • If you keep doing that, your face is going to stay that way!
  • Keep doing “that” and you’ll go blind!

Did those predicted catastrophes come home to roost? Did you ruin your eyesight, is your face stuck in a funny expression, did you go blind?

As an adult, are you now hearing the climate change song: “pollution from fossil fuels are hazardous to our health, irreversibly ruining our environment, we must take massive and expensive action now”.

Do you recognize, the many historical verses of that ol’ song:

  • Back in 1970 Life Magazine wrote, “in a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution (forget about COVID for a moment) … and by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half”
    • That would trigger global cooling, right?
  • But also in 1970, Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University, sang out “Air pollution … is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone”
    • And then he doubled-down in 1971 saying, “by the year 2000 the UK will be simply a small group of impoverished islands inhabited by some 70 million hungry people”
  • Then in 1986, Dr. James Hansen of the Goddard Space Flight Center, crooned about average global temperatures rising by ½ to 1 degree Fahrenheit between 1990-2000 and then rising another 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the following decade.
    • Of course, that would trigger massive global warming, right?
  • In 2012 environmentalist, Bill McKibben serenaded Duke students with “the choice of doing nothing - of continuing to burn ever more oil and coal - is not a choice, … it will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a similar temperature”
  • And just 3 years ago, in 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rapped out, “the world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?” 
    • She was paraphrasing a United Nations report that insisted “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities” are our only hope.

What actually happened over all those decades? I’ll give you a hint… it is a very different crescendo.

People around the world nearly doubled their use of fossil fuels. And instead of epic catastrophe, we witnessed improvement in human life across the board. Yes! Life got better for billions of people in just a few decades largely because of more fossil fuels. 

  • The global death rate fell significantly
    • the global crude death rate fell from 17.7 per 1,000 to just 7.6 per 1,000 between 1960 and 2016 per the World Bank
  • Fewer children die young
    • Globally, 160 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 1950 improved to just 65 per 1,000 in 2017 per World Health Organization estimates
  • The end of famine is in sight
    • Global average population weighted food supply per person rose from 2,196 calories in 1961 to 2,962 in 2017 according to the United Nations Food & Agriculture organization
      • Undernourishment in the world fell from 37% of the total population in 1969-1971 to under 11% in 2018
      • Tremendous progress
  • More trees and land for mother nature
    • The global tree canopy increased by 865,000 square miles between 1982 and 2016 per the University of Maryland in a 2018 study in Nature
      • Need a point of reference as to how big 865,000 square miles is… well, the entire city of San Francisco, (big, right?) is just 49 square miles. 
      • So, we are talking about nearly 18,000 San Francisco city sized forests!

Yes, in spite of all the expert predictions singing in our ears for decades, the globe's increased use of fossil fuels actually led to billions of people living longer and more fulfilling lives. Sing that tune!

“Fossil fuel technology transforms nature to improve human life on an epic scale. It is the only energy technology that can currently meet the energy needs of all 7+ billion people on this planet. While there are some truly exciting supplemental technologies that may rise to dominance in some distant decade, that does not diminish the greatness or immense value of fossil fuel technology.” Epstein, Alex. The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (p. 34). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Quite the surprise result. Perhaps it is more about the standard of value we use that should determine the song. 

  • If you want to scare people, make it a scary song and light a short fuze.
  • If you want to raise huge amounts of money (that you can control), wait until everyone is really scared, and then tell ‘em you have a plan, but it’ll be expensive, so taxes must go up.
  • If you want to hold a totally pristine nature (think the Genesis Garden of Eden) as your standard of value, then you must get people to take action toward fossil fuel reduction while ignoring the human gains enabled by fossil fuels.
  • However, if “human life” is your standard of value, well, breathe a huge sigh of relief! We are already on a very positive, fossil-fueled path that delivers increasing amounts of energy the world so badly needs. 

Just as the songs of our parents about TV viewing distances and such, proved to be non-catastrophic,  the climate songs being sung to us are not the catastrophes being professed. They do require us however, to ask questions including the actual standard of value all the proposed actions are grounded upon. 

The simple reality is that if human life is the standard of value with which to measure success or failure, we need more energy, from more fossil fuels (along with energy from other sources too) to solve the real human troubles that remain in our wonderful world.  

The next time you hear the siren call of a climate song, stop and ask what the standard of value is behind the plans being put forth.

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