Burning Fossilized Thinking for Clarity

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Over at the web site of The Energy Law Journal is a reply (PDF, from Vol. 37, No. 3) by energy advocate Alex Epstein to a non-review of his best-selling book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (MCFF). The piece is not a point-by-point rebuttal, because, "Such a rebuttal would require that her criticisms and arguments were of the actual content of the book; they overwhelmingly were not."

I would add that such a reply would also be a waste of his and his readers' time. Epstein does much better than that: He takes the opportunity afforded by Harvard's Jody Freeman to introduce readers to his book for the first time, by explaining his overall approach -- and then demonstrating beyond the shadow of a doubt that, whatever Freeman was talking about, it wasn't his book. The latter Epstein does by comparing several passages from Freeman's "review" with passages from the book that contradict them. In the process of doing these two things, I think Epstein will (1) encourage any honest, curious reader to consider his book, and (2) help other fossil fuel advocates anticipate the kinds of evasive, context-dropping, and dismissive attacks they will likely encounter. For the second group of readers, this will be a good refresher. I recommend reading the whole thing, but will provide a couple of excerpts below.

On his overall approach to the question of fossil fuel use, Epstein writes:

In 2007, as a philosopher analyzing popular thinking on numerous cultural, industrial, and political issues, I concluded that popular thinking and discussion about energy and its associated environmental issues was severely flawed. For example, logic dictates that when analyzing any course of action we carefully consider both the positives and negatives of all our alternatives. Yet in popular discussion only the negatives of fossil fuels were considered, while the negatives of "green" sources of energy were all but ignored.


In MCFF, I argue that we have to learn to think clearly and precisely about fossil fuels. Specifically, I highlight three key thinking methods we need to follow:
  • Be clear on our standard of value: is our goal to maximize human flourishing or minimize human impact?
  • Think big picture: look precisely at the positives and negatives of all the alternatives.
  • Use experts as advisers, not authorities: demand clear explanations from experts of what they know, what they don't know, and how they know it -- and use that information to form our own big picture assessment of the best way to promote human flourishing.
These methods are present in every chapter of the book, and they are the keys to understanding and evaluating the book's arguments...
It is too bad Freeman never actually gets around to understanding these arguments, let alone evaluating them. To wit, the following is a quote from Freeman's "review":
Since there is no persuasive evidence that any warming effect is associated with greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, Epstein claims there is no basis to believe predictions about likely warming in the future.

Moreover, Epstein's claim that the climate is not sensitive to CO2 concentrations is contradicted by both the climate models and physical data about past climates, which scientists have collected from a variety of sources, including CO2 concentrations found in ice cores and sedimentary data on the ocean floor. [notes omitted]
"Yet MCFF repeatedly states that there is a warming effect associated with greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere," Epstein replies, before quoting what I thought was one of the more helpful passages of his book on exactly that matter:
A huge source of confusion in our public discussion is the separation of people (including scientists) into 'climate change believers' and 'climate change deniers' -- the latter a not-so-subtle comparison to Holocaust deniers. 'Deniers' are ridiculed for denying the existence of the greenhouse effect, an effect by which certain molecules, including CO2, take infrared light waves that the Earth reflects back toward space and then reflect them back toward the Earth, creating a warming effect. But this is a straw man. Every 'climate change denier' I know of recognizes the existence of the greenhouse effect, and many if not most think man has had some noticeable impact on climate. What they deny is that there is evidence of a catastrophic impact from CO2's warming effect. That is, they are expressing a different opinion about how fossil fuels affect climate -- particularly about the nature and magnitude of their impact.

So why do we have the idea that the greenhouse effect means rapid global warming? Because the proven greenhouse effect is falsely equated with the related but speculative theory that the greenhouse effect of CO2 is dramatically amplified by other effects in the atmosphere, leading to rapid warming instead of the otherwise expected decelerating warming. Some predictions of dramatic global warming (and ultimately catastrophic climate change) posit that the greenhouse effect of CO2 in the atmosphere will greatly amplify water vapor creation in the atmosphere, which could cause much more warming than CO2 acting alone would. This kind of reinforcing interaction is called a positive feedback loop. [notes omitted, bold added]
What I like about this piece, as I did with Epstein's debate with Bill McKibben, is that he does not allow himself to be drawn into squabbling over non-essentials (as McKibben's Gish Gallop was intended to do), but focuses on helping his audience think about the issues themselves. This approach not only promises hope for a more rational debate about energy, but about countless other issues.

-- CAV

No comments: