Monday, October 23, 2017
Book Review: Climate Pragmatism (Rightful Place of Science Series) – edited by Jason Lloyd, Daniel Sarewitz, Ted Nordhaus, and Alex Trembath (2017 - Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, Arizona State University
This is a great book by several contributors and the pragmatic environmentalists of the think tank Breakthrough Institute. The focus is threefold: 1) the importance of energy access for those in developing countries, 2) energy innovation - in both fossil energy and clean/renewable energy, 3) adaptation to potential climate threats from extreme weather and other sources.
The Breakthrough Institute advocates new climate, environmental, and energy policies that balance the needs of human development and climate change mitigation. Human development is primary, climate change mitigation secondary they argue. They also argue that adequate human development leads to better ability of societies to mitigate climate change and adapt to it. Climate change discourse had reached a level where in developing countries the perceived needs of mitigation were hampering efforts at quick, sufficient, and affordable energy access. An ‘either/or’ narrative between development and climate protection had developed.
Climate pragmatism is an approach focused on practical solutions rather than being problem-centric like previous environmental approaches. Near, mid, and long-term solutions are all examined in the model. It ditches the good/bad dichotomy for one of practical/impractical. Ted Nordhaus notes that human development requires not just energy access but modern levels of energy consumption. One end result of that is better overall resilience including better resilience to the effects of climate change, which he calls a ‘co-benefit’ of better living standards. Another co-benefit would be better ability to mitigate climate change. He praises the structure of the Paris agreement where individual countries made pledges that they would work toward decarbonization rather than getting binding agreements with everything tied to specific emissions reductions for each country. He favors human development as the center of policy rather than the environment. The authors favor technological approaches to human problems rather than anti-technological ones sometimes favored by other environmentalists. They like the Paris agreement because they see it as a more optimistic approach different than the squabbling disagreements of past climate conferences. Nordhaus defines the extremes as those like 350.org and others who want to keep emissions at levels which keep Temps from climbing 1.5 deg C and those like the Trump administration officials who do not even see climate change as a viable issue. They think CO2 will likely go higher than 450 ppm and temps will likely go higher than 2 deg C and realizing that we should focus more on adaptation. They also argue against seeing any of those numbers as red lines not to be crossed as uncertainties still abound.
The first section deals with energy access:
“Access to affordable and reliable energy is a prerequisite for human development.”
For many in the world such access has been and continues to be a way out of poverty and poor health. It also fosters education and empowers people in myriad ways. In addition to energy access another requirement is energy equity, or access to an equivalent relative amount of energy as in industrialized countries. This also requires and fosters economic growth. If too much focus is put on mitigating climate change through emissions requirements in these efforts towards energy access and modernization then those developing countries get short-changed, as in some UN initiatives that have been inadequate.
In a nutshell:
“… all humans deserve access to sufficient energy services to achieve the quality of life currently enjoyed by people in economically developed regions of the world. A high-energy planet with universal access to affordable, cleaner, and plentiful energy is the most practical way to secure this socioeconomic development while ensuring environmental protection.”
Economic productivity and social well-being have co-evolved and will continue to do so, even though there may be some potential decoupling in affluent developed countries. Energy access and economic productivity correlate to longer lifespans and better health. They note that today (2017) the poorest 75% of the global population uses just 10% of global energy. Over a billion people lack access to electricity, nearly half of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Somewhere near 3 billion people cook over toxic fires made with wood, dung, coal, or charcoal, often indoors where the health consequences are far worse. It is estimated that this leads to 2 million premature deaths annually around the world as well as millions of cases of childhood lung diseases and pneumonia. They are fire hazards. It increases deforestation. Incidentally, the US State Department under Hillary Clinton initiated a program of providing access to safer cooking methods: safer wood, biomass, and propane stoves to impoverished countries around the world. This program was recently nixed by the new administration.
Urbanization encourages expanded energy access and energy innovation. Urbanization has been growing steadily throughout the world and continues. Higher population densities lead to more efficient societies with lower per capita energy requirements. Rural electrification is also important although less efficient. Overall rural populations are shrinking. Urban and rural energy needs and requirements differ. They argue that urban electrification should be prioritized over rural electrification in most circumstances since more people will be served faster. More people need adequate and safe electricity in the sprawling urban slums more than do in rural areas which have often been the past focus – or at least the archetypal image of energy poverty.
Energy access is a public good and modernizing energy systems is a part of that access, they argue. Public participation with private utilities is required in modernizing energy systems. Electric grids are public/private partnerships. There are many different structures to such partnerships with varying levels of public and private components. Guaranteed profits are balanced with the need to provide inexpensive energy for consumers in some manifestations. Others are varying levels and types of monopolies. Loan guarantees, tariff structuring, legislative support, and incentives for some types of energy are other tools. Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam have vastly increased energy access through public/private partnership. This has led to higher standards of living among the poor in those countries.
Transitioning from biomass to electricity and hydrocarbons for cooking decreases pollution, carbon emissions, and deforestation. UN initiative insistent on energy access and transitioning in developing countries being as low-carbon as possible slows down such transitions since low-carbon technologies cost more and are less reliable. Thus, they argue, energy access and transitions should prioritize the lowest cost solutions over the lowest carbon ones. Government and private partnerships for electrification in Africa have been inadequate as very minimal amounts of electricity were deemed enough in some initiatives but are far lower than per capita consumption in developed countries. Thus, they are generally inadequate to really modernize energy systems. Barebones access to a few lights, a fan, and a few hours of radio is obviously not akin to modernized energy availability. Any new systems need to take into account that their consumers’ energy needs will grow and so the systems need to be scalable. Adequate base load electricity should be sought. In addition to households, energy is required for manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation as well as facilities like hospitals and schools. Those areas need long-term electrification strategies with scalability.
“On-demand grid electricity capable of powering commercial agriculture, modern factories, and megacities in the developing world will drive energy and development strategies for the foreseeable future.”
They point out that energy innovations often happen where and when new energy systems are being deployed, from the upstream development of technologies like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for unconventional gas & oil resources in the 1990’s to current and the increasing of capacity factors in nuclear plants back in the 1970’s. These led to decreased carbon emissions in the case of the hydrocarbons and lower cost for nuclear at that time – although these days nuclear is very often in uneconomic territory compared to other energy sources. Thus, they argue, the expansion of energy access may lead to more innovation. China is an example. The authors claim that they have developed the lowest cost carbon capture and storage tech for coal plants as well as low-cost hydroelectric models. I am a bit skeptical on those numbers but agree places like China and India are ripe for innovation, especially as there are many energy innovation partnerships with the U.S. and Europe. The authors also highlight that energy access and transitions need to be context-appropriate. For instance, countries with significant coal reserves would be expected to utilize coal as it is cheap if produced domestically.
The authors advocate for a high-energy rather than a low-energy climate policy. Human development needs trump decarbonization needs, especially for the developed world. With urbanization and innovation happening in tandem with expanded energy access that process will be optimized for human development and secondarily for decarbonization. Environmental protection and climate mitigation become consumer concerns after initial basic energy and development needs are met. They argue that energy abundance and energy equity are moral imperatives. They argue in favor of a high-energy development model rather than low-energy development as some have proposed.
As energy use increases in developing countries there will be positive effects like moving away from dung, wood, and charcoal fires and negative effects like increased urban air pollution and more atmospheric CO2. The authors note that innovation tends to occur where there is the most demand growth for new technologies. They advocate international collaboration in energy innovation rather than competition. Competition among solar panel manufacturers led to problems for Western manufacturers as China came out clearly as the lowest cost producer of panels. Trade disputes over solar panel manufacture in the early 2010’s did cause problems for American and other Western manufacturers but the free market approach left China as the lowest cost producer and allowed more people to go solar. The decision currently before the Trump administration to put tariffs on Chinese panels will only theoretically help a couple U.S. companies and make going solar more expensive for everyone. The focus should rather be on (as it has) making sure Chinese panels are up to quality specs and environmental standards. Innovation tends to happen where technology is most employed so developing countries will likely see the most innovation.
Clean energy innovation is happening but so is fossil fuel innovation, particularly with natural gas and oil. In terms of cost natural gas is still much cheaper. A 2014 analysis by the Center for Global Development compared renewables only vs. natural gas only energy access for sub-Saharan Africa and found that natural gas could provide energy for 3-4.5 times the amount of people than could renewables alone at comparable cost. Why should the dangers of climate change force renewables instead of gas to provide energy for far less people? Of course, there could also be some combination of both technologies. The sunk costs of large centralized power plants in developed countries leave little incentive for innovation since they are banking on time to recoup the initial costs. Of course, each individual country has its reasons for their own energy paths. Defense concerns led to nuclear power development. Desire for a low-carbon economy led Germany and Denmark to go strongly wind and solar. Desire for energy independence (from OPEC and Qatar in the case of the U.S.) led to the R & D that resulting in the fracking revolution. Energy independence was also a factor in France and Sweden going nuclear. Energy consumption is not expected to grow much in OECD countries but quite a bit in non-OECD countries. They note that the fracking revolution occurred in the U.S. because the infrastructure, the equipment, the leasing policies, and the research was all in-place for a seamless transition. They refer to it as a “locked-in” energy system with “path dependency” – pipelines, power plants, electricity grid, etc. – and see this as a feature of some developed countries but virtually no developing countries. For developing countries fossil fuels are still largely more efficient than renewables albeit renewables are also being deployed knowing that they will continue to come down in price and innovations are likely. Most projections into the future still see fossil fuels as outpacing renewables in new energy development. China is strongly investing in clean energy – for competitive advantage, to alleviate pollution growth, and as a means to keep up an “all-of-the-above” strategy that incorporates energy diversity.
Development of four technology streams is recounted: shale gas, nuclear, carbon capture and sequestration, and solar PV. For each of these technologies there are global maps in the book but due to the small format of the book the lettering is very small as well as fuzzy so a complaint here.
They trace the development of hydraulic fracturing from its inception in the 1940’s to the boom of high-volume hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling that took off beginning around 2006 and in about 10 years became the dominant source of oil & gas and overall energy in the U.S. at the same time dropping U.S. carbon emissions to levels two decades past mainly through replacement of coal plants with natural gas plants. Other countries are as of yet unripe for such developments although a few are readying up: Argentina, China, Mexico, U.K, and Canada – although each of those countries yet have hurdles that the U.S. didn’t have. For example, China has poor pipeline infrastructure for gas, lack of available freshwater in the main fracking areas, and some geological issues. Progress has been very slow globally compared to the U.S. where further developments to keep natural gas, oil, and natural gas liquids cheap and widely available continue to improve.
Although the Breakthrough Institute folks really like nuclear it is the cost that is most problematic with it. They predict most nuclear energy growth in the coming decades in China, South Korea, and the Middle East with U.S. and European firms collaborating. New coolant and fuel designs are being explored in some of these projects. Molten Salt reactors and traveling-wave reactors utilizing spent fuel are a couple designs being explored. Russia is exporting sodium-cooled fast reactor designs they have been using since the 1980’s. There are plans to construct one in China. In contrast, Germany has been decommissioning their nuclear plants in response to the Fukushima disaster.
2014 studies indicate that China by 2030 will consume more electricity than all OECD countries combined and 83% of that electricity will come from coal. With more recent commitments to explore cleaner energy alternatives those numbers will likely drop a bit but still represent a massive growth of coal burning. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects are in progress in many places in the world with varying levels of success. Those with economic incentives like enhanced oil recovery (EOR) through CO2 flooding are more economically successful, such as the Petro Nova project in Texas. The Kemper project in Mississippi was recently abandoned due to cost overruns. U.S. companies are involved in CCS projects in China as well. China has a bigger immediate incentive to reduce air pollution than carbon emissions although CCS can do both. CCS deployment beyond the current pilot projects is still largely up in the air. Countries with energy poverty are more concerned with providing cheap energy than with climate mitigation. One issue is that CCS costs so much that it is hardly competitive against wind and solar let alone natural gas. Really, the future of CCS is unknown but it is very likely that it won’t play a major part in climate mitigation due to cost. Wide acceptance of carbon costing could enhance its deployment.
Solar photovoltaics continue to come down in cost but compared to fossil fuels are quite expensive and provide lower amounts of intermittent and unreliable energy. With storage mainly as lithium-ion battery banks solar PV tech is more reliable but the batteries also significantly increase the cost. It is still not close to being competitive although it can be quite useful for niche applications like off-grid capability and microgrid deployment (typically combined with other energy sources) for applications that require uninterrupted power. As more large (>100 MW) solar power plants get built their capabilities, economics, and long-term prospects can be better evaluated. If solar (and wind) penetration on the electric grids grow there is the issue of overgeneration during sunny (and windy) hours and what to do with the excess energy which adds additional costs either through storing and converting the excess, exporting it, or simply losing it. Thin-film and organic PV are two research trends that may yield better and cheaper solar power at some point in the future but the speed and future effectiveness of solar innovation is still uncertain. The same is true for battery storage and other forms of energy storage.
The authors assert that clean energy and clean energy innovation should be acknowledged as a public good and that responsibility for its development should be shared among nations. Global collaboration is the best way to enhance a public good as history shows. Private-public-philanthropic partnerships are a main way forward. Energy innovation is not cheap and requires society-level funding. Elon Musk collected over $500 million in taxpayer subsidies for the Tesla Model S as well as the technology benefitting from billions invested by governments for EV research over the years. Even fracking and the unlocking of shale gas (and oil) involved initial government research that was invaluable – the Eastern Gas Shales Project and Western Gas Shales Project of the DOE in the 1980’s and further DOE research was instrumental. Thus shale fracking can be seen as a successful public-private partnership that has led to very significant carbon emissions reductions, much cheaper energy, employment, and very significant improvement in air quality. The China-U.S. collaboration on nuclear plants in China with salt-cooled reactors is also a very important partnership with climate mitigating possibilities. Philanthropic input can be referenced to the Green Revolution in agriculture where much of it was funded by research through the Rockefeller and Ford foundations. These days the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is highly invested in energy innovation as well as innovation to develop solutions for many human problems. Philanthropic input transcends geographic boundaries and works on long timelines.
Adaptation is the last of the three focuses. The authors believe we have largely neglected to focus on adaptation to events precipitated and influenced by climate change. I think one problem specific to the U.S. is that adaptation is often depicted strictly as adaptation to climate change rather than adaptation to extreme weather and climatic events regardless of cause. This is problematic here because climate change is a politically polarized subject. I think the focus should be on disaster preparation without reference to the causes and influences. A recent case in point is Hurricane Harvey. Legislatures in the state of Texas had introduced bills to better prepare Houston and other Texas Gulf coastal areas for extreme weather events but they were voted down, likely since they were worded as climate change preparedness rather than disaster preparedness. Since it seems unlikely that we will be able to significantly prevent some serious effects of climate change it also seems important that we begin to focus more on adaptation to specific events that might occur. Thus far, they say, we have over-focused policy on mitigation and neglected adaptation. Neglecting to prepare is seldom a good idea in hindsight. Realistically it is difficult to determine how much of any specific event is attributable to man-made climate change, natural climate change, or weather cycles. People have been dying in hurricanes and extreme weather events long before the industrial age.
The authors state that the international framework on climate adaptation is in disarray because the framework on climate mitigation is in disarray but this need not be so. The goal should be to reduce deaths and injuries due to natural disasters. There are many needs and opportunities to do this in known vulnerable areas. This can happen in many ways: land and resource management, urban planning, hazard insurance, building codes, evacuation planning, and recovery planning.
“Losses caused by disasters are the result of three factors: hazards, exposure, and vulnerability.”
Hazards are events like flooding, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, or hurricanes. Exposure is acknowledgement that much of the global population lives in low-lying coastal areas vulnerable to flooding, storm surges, and tropical storms. Vulnerability takes preparedness into account. If people living in exposed areas are prepared then they are less vulnerable. Poor people are often more vulnerable as are those living in energy poverty. Decreasing vulnerability to hazards should be much prioritized over climate mitigation simply because it directly saves lives in the near-term. Climate mitigation would have been most effective if it was implemented in the 1980’s but then the uncertainties about global warming were much more than today so it would have been disastrous in terms of slowing the alleviation of poverty due to lack of development and subsequent energy access. According to climate scientists we are now stuck with some effects of climate change already “in the pipeline” as the global climate systems adapt to temperature increases on the scale of decades and centuries. It is true that the risks to the future are still uncertain, that avoiding mitigation now could make things much worse. However, that is not known for sure. We do know that reducing vulnerability saves lives and so that focus should come first. Mitigating carbon emissions now does not affect current vulnerabilities but rather future vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability reduction can also be stated as increasing climate resilience. The IPCC definition of climate resilience is the ‘ability of coupled human and natural systems and their constituent parts’ “to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner.”
Examples of effective adaptation strategies are given. One is Nepal’s strategy to alleviate hunger and increase food security. Farmers, breeders, NGO’s, organizations, and government are the collaborators. However, I have heard of totally ineffective recovery in Nepal from the 2015 earthquake partly due to incompetence and corruption. The agricultural initiative and collaboration however is deemed here to have been largely successful with appropriate technologies put in place to prevent future problems with food security. Increasing food security can also be seen as a kind of climate adaptation that increases resilience.
The next example is the one most associated with climate adaptation: flood mitigation engineering in the Netherlands. With an extensive system of dams, dikes, spillovers, and gates the Dutch have been heading off centuries long sea level rise and land subsidence for a long time and have proven that it indeed can be done and done well. They have dealt with the hazard. They also need to continue to keep exposure and vulnerability down through smart land-use and economic policies. This should be seen as a model for long-term disaster preparedness. The Dutch have been working on this collectively since at least the 13th century.
The next example is for cyclone preparedness in India. In October 1999 Cyclone 05B made landfall in northeast India killing 10,000 people. Preparation was minimal. In 2013 Cyclone Phailin hit the same province further south with similar winds and surges but only 44 people were killed. The difference is that after Cyclone 05B India embarked on a preparation strategy that included warning systems, shelters, evacuation plans, and temporary housing. Thus, resilience has been significantly increased. This has been true for other Southeast Asian countries as well. Tsunami preparedness has also been improved since the December 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands.
The authors argue that socio-economic development leads to decreased vulnerability to climate disaster among the poor. Effective democratic government is also helpful.
80% of households in sub-Saharan Africa use charcoal for heating and cooking indoors. This is appalling. Areas around cities have been deforested to make charcoal. This increases soil erosion which in turn makes agriculture more difficult. Risks for landslides are increased by local deforestation and erosion. This was likely a factor in the recent deadly landslide in Sierra Leone that killed over 400 people. Deforestation also reduces carbon uptake by the land. Sub-Saharan Africa needs modern levels of energy and energy services to improve quality of life. It will also increase socio-economic opportunity for those in a poor part of the world with currently low opportunity for advancement. It will also likely increase agricultural yields in areas of food scarcity due to more energy available to run agricultural equipment and irrigation systems.
Heat waves also tend to disproportionately kill vulnerable people such as the elderly and the poor. Access to air conditioning and transportation can help. This was the case during the 1995 heat wave in Chicago that killed 739 people. Both healthy social and economic conditions help decrease vulnerability to heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, storms, and other natural disasters. Better social and economic conditions are often correlated to better energy access and energy modernization. More energy = more adaptive capacity. Better resilience can also feed back to further economic (and social) development. One simple example of this is the clear connection/correlation between more air conditioning availability and more labor productivity. People suffering less discomforts are generally more productive. Thus, human development is synergistic with climate adaptation and is arguably the best climate adaptation strategy.
Effective adaptation can also show the power of collaboration in improving the quality of life and the effectiveness of governments, institutions, and businesses. An improved sense of security is another plus. Adaptation and increased resilience should be built in to development initiatives. By adapting to potential events and increasing resilience we are not only preparing for climate change but preparing for any natural disaster no matter the main or secondary causes. The pragmatic imperative is that preparedness and increased resilience trumps emissions mitigation as a priority. Mitigation seeks to avert catastrophe but no one knows whether or how or when catastrophe will be averted. Adaptation assures that if catastrophe visits in the form of extreme weather events either at historical levels or at levels enhanced by climate change then people will be prepared. Economically, disaster preparedness also saves money as losses are reduced so in that sense it can also be seen as an investment that results at least in palpable damage reduction. For near-term costs we can manifest near-term protection.
We have always adapted and continue to do so. They give some examples: food preservation, using materials like aluminum that resist environmental degradation, satellites for more accurate weather prediction, antifreeze for keeping our engines running, vaccines, insurance, forest management, etc. etc. – it is a vast list and we humans have long been adapters. The evidence is clear that by adapting we can reduce unnecessary deaths and property damage.
Friday, October 6, 2017
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels – by Alex Epstein (Portfolio/Penguin, 2014)
Epstein makes a good argument for the utility of fossil fuels. He also makes a good argument that human well-being is a more valuable standard by which to measure their utility than environmental non-impact. However, while his arguments are successful against a standard of non-impact, they do not hold up if the standard simply becomes a more pragmatic reduction of impact. Thus the book is useful pitted against more radical or extremist environmentalists and weak pitted against moderate pragmatic environmentalists. Epstein is a fellow at the right wing think tank Ayn Rand Institute. He is also a founder at the Center for Industrial Progress. While Epstein acknowledges that fossil fuels are a primary cause of climate change he thinks we can effectively use technology to adapt and mitigate it.
He notes that at the time of writing 87% of global energy use was fossil fuels. He invokes the past specters of unfounded fossil fuel depletion, although at times in the U.S. anyway, there have been temporary shortages. He invokes Amory Lovins’ incorrect predictions about the capabilities of renewable energy. He invokes the wrong assumptions of The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth and biologist Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of mass starvation in light of population increase. He invokes the vastly incorrect predictions of Ehrlich’s protégé, Obama science advisor John Holdren, anti-fossil fuel advocate Bill McKibben, and climate scientist James Hansen about climate effects – all predicted to be worse by now than has occurred – although there is no doubt some significant climate change effects are occurring. Epstein debated Bill McKibben at Duke University in 2012.
One of his main data sources is the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which comes out annually. Here it is clear that increased fossil fuel use (mainly coal and oil) correlates to increased GDP per capita and to increased life expectancy. However, with the overload of particulate matter in China over the last few years the life expectancy correlation may take a hit. There is little doubt that access to affordable energy in developing countries leads to increased human well-being. Most fossil fuel reduction proposals take that into account and exempt developing countries from growth reduction requirements. He correctly notes that in many cases the benefits of fossil fuels outweigh the risks.
Human ingenuity, says Epstein, has increased fossil fuel reserves when most experts predicted depletion. This is true due to technological innovations like hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, 3D and 4D seismic, and other imaging and extraction techniques for mining.
He favors optimism rather than pessimism about fossil fuels. He shows EPA data that air pollutant emissions dropped significantly from 1990 to 2014. What he doesn’t say is that such drops were due in large part to lobbying efforts that the fossil fuel industries opposed such as requirements for scrubbers at coal-burning power plants and replacing of coal plants by natural gas plants which emit far less pollutants. He invokes climate cooling concerns in the early 1970’s as an argument against pessimistic catastrophism. He correctly shows that Jim Hansen’s temperature predictions in the mid-1980’s were off the mark. Temps have increased significantly but far less than Hansen predicted then. However, Epstein also shows temperature data and quite incorrectly concludes that “CO2 is not a particularly powerful driver.”
He gives data that show that climate-related deaths have decreased significantly over time when catastrophists predicted they would increase. This is not surprising since we have better technology, warning systems, and disaster planning than in the past, partly due to prosperity and fossil fuel used to power our technologies.
Based on the past incorrect predictions of experts he suggests that experts should be advisors rather than authorities. I would agree to a certain extent. Knowledge of science does not necessarily translate to knowledge of policy. Policy requires ‘big picture’ assessments. Regarding past fossil fuel use utilizing the standard of human well-being Epstein sees it as a moral victory:
“I think that our fossil fuel use so far has been a moral choice because it has enabled billions of people to live longer and more fulfilling lives,…”
In contrast, people like Bill McKibben have advocated that minimizing impact on the environment should be the standard, presumably at the cost of human well-being. His austerity scenarios back this up. McKibben values preservation of nature at the expense of human well-being. Again, I think Epstein’s arguments work great against extremist views like those of McKibben and his ilk but are rather inconsequential against sensible and pragmatic arguments for reasonable reductions in fossil fuel use and environmental impacts. Cheap, plentiful, scalable, and reliable energy in the form of fossil fuels will continue to be used where applicable until renewable energy becomes cheaper, more plentiful (more efficient), and more reliable so that it can economically and logistically compete and gradually replace fossil fuels.
His arguments for energy access – real energy access via power plants and grids not just a few solar panels – for developing countries are ‘no-brainers.’ Energy is food for our machines, he says, and those machines make the products we need and such manufacturing gives people jobs. About a billion people in the world have no electricity and up to 3 billion have inadequate electricity.
Solar and wind energy suffer from efficiency problems. He notes that per unit of energy produced wind requires well over 10 times the steel and iron than coal and about 100 times that of natural gas. Of course, the intermittency problems of both solar and wind are a big issue limiting their economics and feasibility. He rightly calls out the nonsensical hype of wind and solar. Germany, regardless of their very strong push still relies increasingly on coal in light of phasing out nuclear. Wind and solar have limitations on the grid as well as significant temporary over-generation needs to be exported or stored, or else is lost. He goes through the problems with biomass (wood, solid waste, and biofuels like ethanol) as well. Processing and scalability are the two main issues and in the case of wood and waste they produce CO2 and as much pollutants as coal. Corn ethanol can compete with food corn and inflate food prices. Hydroelectric power is limited by lack of available suitable sites and political/environmental opposition. Nuclear energy is reliable and scalable but is not cheap. Safety is important but the dangers of nuclear are likely over-hyped. Only newer, cheaper, and safer forms of nuclear have a chance of dominating the energy landscape pretty far into the future but that is assuming real technological breakthroughs with fusion or perhaps thorium reactors.
Among the fossil fuels, or hydrocarbons, coal is the most plentiful and in many places the cheapest. While Epstein cheers coal many throughout the world predict its use will decline as it has where natural gas is cheaper and renewables have feasibility. Natural gas is ideal for home heating, base load electricity in most cases, and peak load electricity. Its biggest problem is that it must be pipelined in most cases which keeps it more local, although liquefied natural gas (LNG) that can move via truck and mainly tanker is gaining market share throughout the world. Natural gas is the lightest hydrocarbon and produces the least pollutants and CO2. Oil is highly concentrated (energy dense) and its portability is unrivaled. Thus it and its refined products like gasoline have long been the transport fuel of choice. A vast array of products like plastic and rubber are derived from oil and natural gas liquids (ethane, propane, butanes, natural gasoline, and condensates).
The definition of a resource involves human ingenuity to transform a raw material into something usable. The value and subsequently the price of a resource varies depending on several factors. How much of a resource is readily available depends on availability of technology to extract it, price comparisons with other available resources, and on infrastructure available to process and deliver the resource. Thus we have categories of resource reserves: resource in-place, technically recoverable resource, and economically recoverable resource. These fluctuate according to supply and demand economics.
One important thing he notes is how the availability of oil produced by the oil industry revolutionized agriculture through mechanization and effectively solved world hunger problems – at least those not constrained by local poverty and politics. Mechanized agriculture and crop technology drastically increased yields. Fertilization from natural gas derived nitrogen fertilizers from the Haber-Bosch process is another major part of that picture. Fossil fuel powered water pumping in irrigation is another contributor. Epstein notes that rarely do the fossil fuel producers get any credit for providing the resources that feed us and improve countless lives. Thus he argues that fossil fuel producers should be hailed rather than vilified.
Epstein goes on to be the catastrophist he warns about by predicting billions of unnecessary premature deaths if carbon emissions reductions are implemented on the recommended scale – 80% reductions over several decades. I think that is way off.
He talks about his experiences in high school and college where he was taught the dire realities of global warming. He states that he didn’t like the potential restrictions on behavior implicated in responding to climate change threats. Later he discovered there were a few climate scientists that were skeptical of global warming predictions such as MIT’s Richard Lindzen and Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia. These researchers claim that the effects of global warming are mild and inconsequential. They are not considered to be correct by most climate scientists yet they are exalted by those who oppose implementation of policies to quickly mitigate global warming. He does note that there is uncertainty about the dangers of climate change and that society has unfortunately categorized people into climate change believers and climate change deniers, those who see it as a looming catastrophe and those who see it as inconsequential. The depiction of “climate change denier” is both an unfair subtle jab comparing to ‘holocaust deniers’ and a straw man. While fossil fuels may increase global warming and its effects they also increase our ability to adapt to climate impacts. Many people who believe climate change is occurring also think our best focus should be on adapting to it. Thus the need for adaptation, particularly to extreme weather events which may be enhanced by climate change, can be widely agreed upon.
Epstein defers by noting that climate disasters have always occurred, that climate has always been volatile and dangerous. While that may be true that has nothing to do with anthropogenic enhancements towards the likelihood of increased amount and potency of events. He compares current changes in things like sea level to past changes (sea level has been rising since the end of the last ice age) but fails to acknowledge that impacts could be much worse with astronomically higher coastal populations.
Epstein displays a graph to show that the greenhouse effect is an “extreme diminishing effect – a logarithmically decreasing effect,” as if this makes the anthropogenic effect less – it doesn’t. Sure the initial CO2 in the atmosphere that was there before the industrial age has the most effect. He notes that it is not the greenhouse effect alone that is postulated to lead to catastrophic effects but proposed positive feedbacks that amplify it. He points to doubts about feedbacks and climate sensitivity but fails to mention that the vast majority of climate scientists agree on the range of those effects. He then mentions the uncertainty in climate modeling. Models are based on assumptions and if one or more of those assumptions is off the mark then the future predictions may be incorrect. He shows Jim Hansen’s predictions from 1988 and how he overestimated warming by about 0.2 to 0.4 deg Celsius. Of course the state of climate science was much less certain in 1988 than it is now and the models have been updated. This is classic “cherry-picking” to sow doubt. Next he shows John Christy of the University of Alabama Huntsville’s tropospheric satellite temperature data that also shows that degree of warming has been overpredicted. What he doesn’t mention is that the surface data does show warming consistent with modeling so his refutation is only half or part correct. (animals and humans affected by changing temperatures do not live in the troposphere). My own speculation is that the troposphere or any place further out from the surface of the earth encompasses a vastly larger area than near surface so changes might be muted or altered in some ways.
He shows another graph on ‘accumulated cyclone energy’ which suggests that storm energy has not increased as models predict. He also attacks sea level rise scenarios as unscientific because they are overly based on modeling and refers to numbers that do not match models as “climate dishonesty.” While modeling does have issues and is constantly being refined and reinforced with more data as time goes on I think he is being quite unfair here since the scientists do not see their sometimes inaccurate predictions as ‘unscientific’ or ‘dishonest’ but correct for discrepancies as they occur. Scientific modeling has been used very successfully in many scientific disciplines and although global climate modeling can be seen as quite complex there is no reason to disregard it or downplay its usefulness. He is basically accusing scientists of not being scientific. While he rightfully disses people like Bill McKibben for incorrectly associating the greenhouse effect directly with catastrophic climate change I find it rather silly that he claims to out-science prominent scientists. He does correctly dis the common 97% of scientists agree argument which is incorrect and overused but clearly a majority (I would guess well over 80%) of climate scientists and a lesser amount of other scientists agree. Economic geologists (of which I am one) have a larger percentage that do not agree and this is very likely due to the fact that most are involved in fossil fuel production.
In addressing climate ethics he does rightly point out that several prominent scientists have crossed over into policy too much and made absurd statements – Hansen’s statement that fossil fuel CEOs should be tried for crimes against humanity and nature and the late Stephen Schneider’s argument that scientists should dramatize and make scary the potential effects of climate science to stimulate policy actions. This is unfortunate and I agree with Epstein that it is not ethical and would mislead the public.
Next he introduces the fertilizer effect and so-called ‘global greening,’ whereby increased atmospheric CO2 stimulates plant growth and leads to increased green plant mass. This is undoubtedly true. He invokes the work of climate scientist Craig Idso that shows this and strongly suggests that increased agricultural yields are due not only to fertilizer made from natural gas but also due to increased atmospheric CO2. Of course, most climate scientists do not believe that this positive effect offsets the negative effects of CO2. The fertilizer effect is true of most plants including food and commercial plants but there are some plants that do not benefit from increased CO2. While those who are apt to dis the dangers of climate change will often point out that CO2 is plant food, several studies indicate that the negatives outweigh the positives. Epstein seems to think otherwise and warnings about the dangers of climate change can be chalked up to biases that consider human impacts on the environment to always be negative. Thus, again he accusing scientists of being unscientifically biased and dishonest. I find his argument unconvincing.
Of course, fossil fuels and the technologies they enabled have led to fewer climate-related deaths as we can now much better predict in detail extreme weather events. This is no surprise although Epstein seems to think it is. Also unsurprising is that developed nations have fewer deaths from climate-related events like droughts, storms, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires than developing nations do. Fossil fuels (and really now all energy sources) and their enabled technologies make populations less vulnerable. However, high populations in vulnerable areas particularly near the tropics, the so-called ‘global south,’ are still quite vulnerable. There is no doubt that technology makes us safer.
Epstein rightly berates John Kerry for telling Indonesia, a developing country that is vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, to stop burning coal. However, perhaps they should be berated for excessive underground coal fires and especially for irresponsible land clearing by burning, illegal logging, habitat destruction, and much of this due to palm oil plantations. In some years the smoke from out-of-control land-clearing fires and deforestation in Indonesia has been the number one single source of global carbon emissions.
In adapting to sea level change he points to the Netherlands as many do. They used technology to adapt by building dikes and water drainage systems. Of course, the Netherlands is a small country that does not typically have storm surges like the Atlantic coastal cities of the U.S. sometimes do. Flood control is useful and should be more widely applied as Houston recently discovered.
He considers ‘climate justice,’ the argument from anti-fossil fuel advocates that by burning more fossil fuels we are endangering the poor in particular. He rightly notes that the cheapest and most widely available forms of energy make the climate livable the fastest. The undeveloped world has the right to industrialize and that will make their local climates more livable for them. People working in the fossil fuel industries, particularly those at higher levels, have been demonized quite unfairly by the environmental and climate justice advocates.
Technology has also enabled us to mitigate pollution. Air, water, and soil pollution levels have improved through time, due in part to environmental rules like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act (Epstein does not mention this) and due to technologies like ‘scrubbers’ and other pollution abatement technologies, effluent capture and treatment, water recycling technologies, and many other industrial ‘best practices’ to reduce pollution. Our water treatment technologies are mostly what provide us with clean water since much natural water is naturally tainted: with salt, heavy metals, bacteria and other pathogens, and parasites. Chemicals are used to purify water, water that runs through plastic pipes made from oil and/or copper pipes derived from mining.
He notes the toxicity involved in wind turbine manufacture, specifically the processing of required rare earth elements via hydrofluoric acid often from China. Toxic lakes of effluent that give off foul air that affects local people are one result of this.
He considers the advantages of coal: widely available, usually cheap, and easily transportable. Of course, coal smoke sickens people. The trend has always been toward cleaner coal-burning. From in-home burning which was largely replaced by natural gas, fuel oil, and propane, to centralized coal-burning power plants for electricity to plants with pollution abatement equipment installed to more efficient plants to the possibility (now seeming unlikely) of widespread carbon capture and sequestration at the plants. Coal mining has gotten safer and more mechanized over the decades. Nonetheless, in developed countries coal seems destined to continually decline due to its carbon emissions and pollution and in some places from competition from natural gas and eventually renewables.
He considers rights including property rights, the right to pollute, and the right to a clean environment, and the role of government in these rights. He suggests that rights need to be contextualized, presumably in relativity to alternatives. Here we get into debates about where the lines between acceptable and unacceptable risk need to be drawn. Epstein seems to suggest that pollution levels should be set based on technological ability to reduce pollution. While I agree that should be a factor considered I think impact on humans (and nature to a lesser extent) should be the main criteria.
He mentions four common fallacies invoked in anti-fossil fuel arguments: the abuse-use fallacy, the false-attribution fallacy, the no-threshold fallacy, and the “artificial” fallacy. The use-abuse fallacy is simply arguing that if a technology is potentially dangerous, it should be banned. He uses the anti-fracking movie Gasland as an apt example. The false-attribution fallacy is simply falsely attributing cause and effect – when an effect may have other causes. He uses the flaming water faucets again from Gasland as an example. Although drilling (not hydraulic fracturing) can lead to methane migration into a water supply under certain geological conditions (as can drilling a water well too deep) in those places there may also be significant naturally-occurring methane that had previously migrated into the water – which is why lighting faucets occurred in some of those areas long before the advent of oil & gas drilling. He also argues against media headlines that assume causation based on correlations as is often done, quite irresponsibly in my opinion, in epidemiological and other health studies in which the results are often vague and may be attributable to other causes or multiple causes. The no-threshold fallacy says that a substance is poison regardless of the dosage which is obviously false since many substances are beneficial or neutral at low doses and harmful at high doses. Dose is virtually always a factor is poisoning and pollution. This fallacy has been used extensively by those who oppose nuclear energy. The “artificial” fallacy is simply concluding that man-made, or synthetic substances are harmful simply because nature did not produce them. This is patently false and ridiculous. It has been used to advocate against many industries including the food and health industries. Of course, many naturally-occurring substances are harmful, some at low doses.
Epstein is correct to conclude that development including industrial development, particularly in developing countries, overall has led and will continue to lead to a cleaner environment. Most technologies are becoming more efficient and less wasteful. While one might argue that is not the case in air choked parts of China and India it can still be demonstrated that life and health there has improved overall. While outdoor air pollution may have increased, much more dangerous indoor air pollution mainly from wood and dung cooking fires has decreased, reducing fire risk and pollution that mainly affects women and children.
He also points out that fossil fuels in the past have replaced wood for fuel which in turned preserved forests. Oil also replaced whale oil. The internal combustion engine freed horses and cows from being laborers for humans.
He argues against sustainability and the ideas of “carrying capacity” and finite resources, as argued by Ehrlich and Holdren. Notions of “peak oil” and indeed “peak everything” have been challenged since it is often technology developed through human ingenuity that unlocks new resource potential. He seems to think that makes the concept of finite resources irrelevant and in some cases it does but in others it is still quite relevant. He makes the argument like others that we need not worry because technology will save us. While this is possible it is a very weak argument for inaction on several fronts.
“The basic principle espoused in this book is that we survive by transforming our environment to meet our needs. We maximize resources and we minimize risks.”
He talks about his 2012 debate at Duke University with Bill McKibben. Epstein had little help and actually paid McKibben ten thousand dollars of his own money to debate. McKibben was fresh from the publishing of his influential Rolling Stone article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. McKibben has long called for restrictions on fossil fuel production and may be considered a leading anti-fossil fuel advocate. The article kicked off the divestment movement – divesting from fossil fuels. Epstein felt that McKibben was making a moral argument against fossil fuels and wanted to counter it with a moral argument in favor of fossil fuels.
Epstein complains that in schools we are now taught about the dangers of fossil fuels but not about their benefits. He considers this irrational moral prejudice. He claims that the thought leaders of the anti-fossil fuel movement: Ehrlich, Holdren, Lovins, McKibben, and Al Gore, have exaggerated the negatives of fossil fuels and ignored the positives. He quotes Lovins, Ehrlich, and Jeremy Rifkin opposing nuclear fusion (an inherently safe form of abundant energy for all that has yet to be developed) in the 1980’s to show that they are basically anti-technology. He questions what being “green” even means since being anti-tech is advocating that many people benefit from technology in many ways be denied it. Epstein favors industrial progress as a moral ideal – improving the planet for human beings. Of course that can’t happen if environmental impacts are ignored or downplayed. In terms of media campaigning for fossil fuel companies he thinks they have been too much on the defensive from assaults from environmentalists and should instead be proud and extoll the virtues of fossil fuels. He sees fossil fuel companies as depicting themselves as a necessary evil. The natural gas industry gave the Sierra Club $25 million between 2007 and 2010 when they were promoting the cleaner virtues of gas relative to coal and oil, much of it due to the relationship between then Sierra Club leader Carl Pope and shale gas pioneer Aubrey McClendon. A year or two later the Sierra Club under new leadership was declaring the natural gas industry and their technique of fracking as evil and public enemy number one – of course they kept the money. The fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil & gas industry lately, has long suffered from a PR problem and gaining public acceptance is now a major focus. Effectively explaining the value of their product is the main point of Epstein’s approach but also necessary is convincing the public that they are actually optimizing the minimizing of risks. With delay tactics recently particularly from pipeline opposition there is loss of revenue from delayed project approvals. This also resulted in some lost work and layoffs (me included) during the recent industry downturn.
Epstein calls out candidate Obama who compared the tyranny of oil to the previous tyrannies of fascism and communism, quite an unfair characterization even if just political rhetoric. Epstein offers a summary sentence of his book:
“Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous – because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.”
In conclusion I would again say that Epstein’s arguments are strong against radical anti-fossil fuel advocates but weak against pragmatic environmentalists who have a more well-rounded understanding of energy, environment, and climate. His arguments treating climate change as a minor problem are weak. I agree that technology allows us to adapt to climate-related extreme weather events and adaptation should be a major focus but I also think we need to reduce emissions as much as is practical and devote considerable research and incentives toward reducing emissions.