COMMENTARY: Fossil fuels are a gift that keeps giving

The Paris summit on global warming ended with a triumphant, hands-holding, chipper vow to vastly reduce the world’s use of fossil fuels. Some who would love that, such as pioneering alarmist James Hansen, are nonetheless furious, saying the whole shebang was a fraud that will do next to nothing.

Let’s hope so.

Cheap, powerfully efficient fossil fuels are one of the best things ever to happen to humanity. Oil, natural gas and coal make the modern, industrialized world go. Without them, we wouldn’t have affordable computers, electric lights, TVs, effectively functioning hospitals, machines helping to produce gobs of needed food, transportation that gets you here, there and everywhere and more, much more, endlessly more.

So says Alex Epstein in “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.” As a philosopher, his standard for what counts most in the climate issue is human life, and he clearly, convincingly shows how inexpensive, abundant energy is that without which you would not have the longevity, the nutrition, the health, the degree of safety and the flourishing that are with us now.

At this stage of technological development, we aren’t going to obtain such benefits in more than a niche way with renewable fuels, he says. Windmills go only when the winds blow, and solar panels do their job only when the sun shines. That means they are unreliable on top of other problems. Nuclear energy is much safer than many think and could do a lot in time if it weren’t still so pricey.

But aren’t fossil fuels themselves going to do enormous harm, eventually heating this planet to the point of it being uninhabitable? Secretary of State John Kerry once said “science is absolutely certain” of fearsome outcomes minus significant quelling of carbon emissions. He has cited a study supposedly showing 97 percent of climate scientists say so. It actually showed many merely believing greenhouse gas effects contribute to warming, as do most skeptics.

The issue, Epstein argues, is that the weather system is enormously, puzzlingly complicated and that predictions of what’s going to happen with temperatures have repeatedly been wrong.

Look at Hansen, who once said CEOs of fossil fuel companies should be “tried for crimes against humanity and nature” because they’ve known about the alleged harm they are doing. In 1988, when he was a scientist with NASA, he made prognostications about dangerous warming down the road. We are now at a point down the road where they are far from coming true.

Epstein maintains that fossil fuels remain in large supply and should for a long time and that the industrial society they make possible is crucial in developing new technologies enabling adaptation as warming occurs.

Kerry has said there would be only benefits in dramatically lessening fossil fuel use even without climate catastrophe. Epstein says there could be billions of premature deaths.

Those deaths would happen mostly in poor countries, of course, and the solution of the Paris climate conference is for richer countries to join in sending those sacrificing countries $100 billion a year. The conferees should have listened to those pointing out how corrupt governments enlarge their dictatorial clout by hijacking such aid that can have other ill effects.

As it turns out, the help to the poor countries is not binding. Nor is there anything binding in the rest of what the conference did. It set some goals based on the pledges of individual nations that will have to decide how much they want to disrupt their economies to keep their word. Some analysts say that even if they do follow the pledges, it wouldn’t make much climate difference.

A good bet is that economic damage will in fact be done, but less than if people like Hansen had their way and maybe not enough to disable important innovations better helping to avoid the worst climate eventualities.

Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/31/2015 - 9:43am

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