The 3 Concerns About Fossil Fuels

As we learned last time, the three alleged unique risks of fossil fuels are:

  1. catastrophic resource depletion
  2. catastrophic pollution
  3. catastrophic climate change

In this column I want to briefly elaborate on each of those potential risks.

The catastrophic resource depletion argument

This argument claims that because fossil fuels are nonrenewable, because they don’t replenish automatically in the way that the sun or the wind do, we will inevitably deplete them and that will cause a disaster because we depend on them.

You can think of what I just said as the three Ds. We depend on them, deplete them, causing a disaster.

The catastrophic pollution argument

This argument claims that, because producing and using fossil fuels involve emissions and other wastes such as coal dust from coal mining or fluid from fracking, over time our air and water will continuously get dirtier and deadlier.

The catastrophic climate change argument

This argument claims that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are creating a progressively unlivable climate. While this argument often goes by “climate change,” I think that’s way too vague and it also assumes that CO2 has a certain effect without proving it. Instead, I like to start by talking about the issue in terms of CO2 or “the CO2 issue.”

As we’ll see, it’s a clearer way of thinking about the issue to start with the fact that burning fossil fuels releases CO2 and then to investigate the claim that a side effect of this process is catastrophic climate change.

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The basic claim here is that CO2 emissions have a warming influence and that if we have enough of those emissions from using fossil fuels, it will lead to catastrophic climate change. We’ll go in-depth into the mechanics of the warming influence of CO2 but that’s the high-level idea.

The positive impact of energy

Those are the three potential unique risks of fossil fuels. Now, you might think that this covers everything, but there’s one more issue that we have to cover in order to assess the full context.

There’s an underlying assumption that when we talk about energy and environment that the impact of energy is either neutral or negative. A source of energy is either dirty or not dirty.

This is wrong in two ways.

One way is that every source of energy is dirty in the sense that everything has a byproduct in one form or another: in every energy process there is some degree of negative impact. A black-and-white view of “dirty versus clean energy” is counterproductive and leads to wrong decisions.

The other way the negative view of energy and our environment is wrong is that it only takes into account potential negative impacts of energy on our environment, including our climate. To understand the environmental impact of fossil fuels or any other form of energy, and to assess the risks, we need to learn about impacts that are almost never discussed: positive environmental impacts.

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