I remember distinctly the first day of my Research Methods class during my undergraduate work. In talking briefly about ethical decisions we often make, my professor spoke about the ethics of bringing children into a world full of risk, chaos, and uncertainty. Chief among her modicum of concerns was the issue of climate change, and whether or not the child they brought into the world would be able to survive on an Earth ravaged by fossil fuel-induced global warming in 100 years.
Obviously the global warming narrative and the alarmism which often accompanies it should be scrutinized closely, just as all scientific inquiry should be. Our response to climate change should be informed by all relevant information; the benefits of fossil fuels should always accompany Al Gore’s stump speech in our assessment of the morality of fossil fuels. The conversation about the morality of fossil fuels hinges on one key question: are we concerned primarily with human flourishing? If so, then the answer is fairly clear; we must continue to use fossil fuels as long as their benefits outweigh their costs.
Coal, oil, and natural gas have come under increasing criticism lately. Ever since Gasland rolled those clips of people lighting their tap water on fire, and long before then, lawmakers and laymen have asked, “Are they really worth the cost?” For many, fossil fuels have been weighed in the scales and found wanting. However, our answer today should be a loud affirmative, for fossil fuels allow us to do things we otherwise would never dream of doing. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy in 2016, coal, oil, and natural gas account for 85.9% of world energy consumption, and they do it well. Fossil fuels are in stark contrast to their renewable counterparts like wind and solar, which are unreliable and must always count on a more consistent sources of energy to stand in the gap.
Imagine, for just a second, that we hedge our bets on renewable sources of energy and make the jump straight to wind, solar, and the like. How would we power our hospitals? Our cars? Our houses? What if, while people are receiving life-saving surgery, the lights went out and the drills stopped working because the wind stopped blowing and the sun hid behind the clouds? Arguably, this problem is worse for those in the developing world, with almost 4 billion people in general energy poverty according to the World Energy Outlook database. Energy theorist Alex Epstein often cites the example of children born in the Gambia a few weeks premature, which would be nothing more than a hiccup in the United States or England. However, since the Gambia is one of the nations included in that 4 billion, the baby cannot survive because there is no energy to plug in a simple incubator.
As long as ethical language is used in the debate about fossil fuels, and as long as one side tries to gain the moral high ground over another, every facet of the conversation should be taken into account. We should not simply listen to Paul Ehrlich and Bill McKibben wax eloquent about the dangers of rising air pollution without also taking into account the vast benefits of using fossil fuels today, especially when pollution has been dropping in spite of increased fossil fuel use,. Given the manageable effect of global climate change chronicled by Epstein and others, it seems like the benefits far outweigh the costs as far as coal, oil, and natural gas are concerned.
It must also be noted that climate is a dynamic thing - it was changing even before the industrial revolution - and not only is it dynamic, but it is dangerous. Thanks in large part to fossil fuels, climate-related deaths have dropped over 98 percent in the last eighty years because instead of trying to buckle down for a harsh, Victorian winter, we can heat our houses and import food from all over the world, things which were impossible before the advent of fossil fuels.
To be sure, the usefulness of fossil fuels must always be scrutinized in light of the evidence. However, as long as the trends of the free market toward more fossil fuel production comport with the evidence that the benefits far cover the costs, it seems not only legitimate but also imperative that we continue to emphasize fossil fuels in the global marketplace. Should we stop, not only would the developing world pay a high price, but so would future generations. Alex Epstein is instructive here: “[i]f we slow down our progress, including the generation of new ideas, by using inferior energy, we deserve nothing but contempt from future generations—for example, from those who die prematurely because a medical cure comes twenty years later than it needed to.”
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