The latest Energy Law Journal features my response to Harvard Law Professor (and ConocoPhillips Board member) Jody Freeman, the first high-stature intellectual to attempt a rigorous criticism of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
I think it’s worth reading in part because in the beginning I give maybe my best quick summary to date of the moral case for fossil fuels.
Synopsis: This article provides a reply to Harvard law professor Jody Freeman’s contribution to this journal, “A Critical Look at The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” a critique of my 2014 book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (MCFF). MCFF argues that the way we have been taught to think about and discuss energy issues is wrong, and that if we follow a better method of thinking, we will conclude that the proper energy policy for the foreseeable future requires increasing our use of fossil fuels—not dramatically and coercively restricting our fossil fuel use. Unfortunately, instead of engaging the book’s method and attempting to refute its evaluations, Freeman’s article ignores the book’s method and significantly misrepresents its major arguments. This response gives a proof that Freeman’s portrayal of MCFF’s method and content is a straw man, and summarizes the actual arguments of the book. It does so primarily through repeated, side-by-side comparisons of unaltered passages by Freeman purporting to describe MCFF’s viewpoint and unaltered passages from MCFF clearly stating its actual viewpoint. In doing this, this article elucidates some of the book’s actual points that readers might benefit from and perhaps be convinced to explore in more detail—and encourages us to increase the level of intellectual precision in our debate so that we can have a constructive conversation about today’s vital energy and environmental issues.
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.
For example, there was a widespread focus on the dangers of coal mining but almost none on the far greater dangers of rare-earth mining required to produce vital components of wind turbines. There was a widespread focus on the alleged wonders of solar and wind but almost none on the unique positives of hydrocarbon (fossil) fuels, such as the unique energy density of liquid hydrocarbon (oil) fuels.
Just as problematically, the consideration of positives and negatives was not careful. Vague, equivocal claims, such as “climate change is real,” obscured the vital issue of magnitude; whether temperature is increasing geometrically or logarithmically, whether sea levels can be expected to rise twenty feet in several decades (Al Gore’s claim) or two feet in a century makes all the difference in our moral calculations.1
Without far clearer, more precise thinking, our energy choices were destined to be severely wrong. To make the wrong choices about energy, the technology that powers every other technology, is to make every area of life worse. I decided to undertake a study of our energy choices using critical thinking methods that were not being deployed in the existing discussions. My approach method led me to conclude that the proper energy policy for the foreseeable future requires increasing our use of fossil fuels—not dramatically and coercively restricting our fossil fuel use.
I presented my findings in my book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (MCFF), both to offer new, and I believe far more accurate, assessments of the benefits and costs of using rather than restricting fossil fuels, as well as to encourage a far greater degree of precision in the broader debate, turning acrimony into constructive conversation. Thus, even if I was wrong about the magnitudes of the benefits and costs, or those magnitudes changed, we would have a method for decision-making.
That has never been more necessary than at this political moment, when a new administration has promised to dramatically reshape energy policy and many new proposals will be on the table for discussion.
The book has been covered extensively by well-known conservative and libertarian thinkers, who tend to be skeptical of the establishment position that fossil fuels are a self-destructive addiction that we need to rapidly restrict.2
Those commentators have both praised the book and offered interesting challenges of particular assessments or policy prescriptions.