Hard Evidence vs. The View Looks Good From Here. Not Over There, I said From Here

Bill McKibben and Alex Epstein recently locked intellectual horns in a debate about the Ethics of Fossil Fuel use, a debate hosted by Epstein’s Center for Industrial Progress and alma mater, Duke University. My take on this debate is surely biased by my longtime fandom of McKibben. I admire his constant humility amidst his rise to the status of environmental icon. And I admire his willingness to engage counter-arguments with well-reasoned pleas that appeal to both science and humanity. If his debate against Epstein has the power to change anyone’s mind about the ethics of fossil fuel, it does so not just because of what McKibben says, but more because of how he says it. While Epstein hammers on what he calls the “big picture” humanitarian benefits of fossil fuels, McKibben, visibly flustered by Epstein’s evasions, maintains a cool enough head to pick precise holes in Epstein’s spin on the economic and health benefits associated with wanton burning of fossil fuels.

Right from the start, McKibben picks up where he left off on the “Do the Math” tour and his factually roiling piece in Rolling Stone. He gives fourteen evidence-based and sourced points about how the risks associated with unfairly priced fossil fuel use now outweigh the benefits. Just a few of the risks he summarizes are: increasing frequency of super-storms and damages to infrastructure, rising public health costs, and decreasing agricultural yields with rising global temperatures. Such risks are no longer iffy predictions. They are widely studied and verified in scientific literature. They will happen, and they will happen more and more if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate.

Epstein, however, dismisses all of McKibben’s facts and statistics as “confusing speculation.” “What we need to use is evidence,” Epstein repeats. Epstein’s evidence hinges around two graphics that he doesn’t initially source (though he later reveals that they come from Angus Madison’s Historical Statistics of the World Economy (2008)). The first image suggests that “climate-related deaths” (a phrase Epstein never bothers to explain) have declined throughout the 20th century while fossil fuel consumption and anthropogenic CO2 emissions have gone up. Similarly, he shows an image of life expectancy increasing tremendously over the same period. From these trends, Epstein concludes, simply: “fossil fuels make life better on this planet.” For Epstein, cutting our fossil fuel consumption by 95% by 2050, which McKibben and a host of scientists suggest is necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, “is suicide.” “It would ruin your life,” Epstein says. “Even more, it would ruin the lives of the people on the margins.”

This is essentially the only argument Epstein thinks he needs to make. And it is a difficult one to refute without plunging into a tangled debate about what Epstein’s figures truly show. Rapid industrialization and increasing fossil fuel consumption have no doubt helped raise American and many other peoples’ standards of living throughout the world. Epstein’s problem is that McKibben hasn’t ever tried to refute this. He has always approached the fossil fuel industry with a healthy degree of reverence for its historical and economic significance. In Eaarth, and in the debate against Epstein, McKibben admits that fossil fuels are a “remarkable” source of energy because of their high density, abundance, and cheapness, among other things. McKibben says, over and over, fossil fuels “have been a boon” for our society. What he refutes is the value of cost and risk that America and the world have placed, and continue to place, on the extraction and burning of these fuels. What he refutes is Epstein’s belief that our current use of fossil fuels is still making our planet a better place to live. With point after point, he suggests that we now know too much about the true costs of fossil fuels to keep abusing them in good conscience, or to continue to burn them without paying anything approaching the true cost, or to defend them as good. To counter Epstein’s one evidenced claim that fossil fuels caused the world’s decreasing per-capita mortality during the 20th century, McKibben goes to a well of solid sources to suggest that the relationship is a tangled correlation, not truth, and one that we might want to rethink. He points to a 2010 Center for Disease Control list of ten reasons that mortality declined in the past century. They all “have little do with fossil fuels,” McKibben says. Instead they have to do with innovations like vaccination improvements, motor vehicle safety, healthier mothers and babies, and safer work places. Also, McKibben notes, the countries with the highest life expectancies in the world are all countries that use half or less energy than the U.S. All over the developed world, healthier behavior is correlated with less use of energy and fossil fuels, not more. A cocktail of fossil fuels and industrialization may have helped lift the world out of poverty, but we now have a fuller and detailed consciousness of the harms and risks that they pose. For over an hour, McKibben tries to communicate the fundamentals of this consciousness.

For Epstein, McKibben’s quoting of science-based evidence and climate models is unfair. He declares that McKibben’s studies are being presented “out of context and confusing for an audience that doesn’t know science.” Epstein laughably tells McKibben, “you haven’t provided any real evidence so far” to prove the risks of climate change. At this point – between the 46 and 49 minute-marks – the debate goes tragi-comic (I totally recommend watching this bit). McKibben is noticeably flustered by Epstein’s deflections because McKibben has done nothing else but pepper his speech with sourced information about the risks of climate change. And Epstein is flustered by McKibben’s probings because he clearly has no evidence-based rebuttals for McKibben’s barrage of challenges. Epstein ends the segment by telling McKibben, “You’re not a scientist,” as if, check-mate baby! He proudly asserts, “climate models can’t predict climate.”

Depressingly, a debate between two of the most revered thinkers about the ethics of fossil fuel degenerates into an argument about the merits of climate science. After this segment, McKibben walks away from the podium as a silent assertion that having such a debate is not worth his time. That debate is over, he suggests. The evidence is in and educated people can decide for themselves. Epstein’s skepticism of climate models serves as another powerful and sad reminder that a lot of us, even well-educated experts in the industrial technology sector, don’t yet grasp, or refuse to admit they do, the severity of the problem.

Because of a fundamental disagreement over the severity or nature of the climate crisis, both McKibben and Epstein view themselves as optimists. McKibben points out that he is optimistic about the human potential to shift our society to new energy sources. The technologies exist, he says. Implementing and integrating the technologies into our grid requires innovation, serious funding, and political / social willpower. McKibben frames this prospect as “exciting” because “we are on the edge of the moment when we can make this transition.” He portrays Epstein, a supposed technologist at the head of a Center for Industrial Technology, as the technological skeptic. Epstein is unsure or disinterested in the technological attempt to solve the current crisis. By denying the existence of a crisis altogether, Epstein, a la Shell and Chevron’s PR programs, is able to remain smugly optimistic about the benefits of a fossil fuel economy. Although he favors diversifying energy sources by beefing up nuclear and hydro-power, he promotes riding current rock-busting technologies into the ground, milking every mile we can get out of coal and oil and gas.

Epstein banks his ride-the-boom philosophy on taking a “big picture” view of fossil fuels. He repeatedly says that McKibben does not take seriously the full implications of the drastic cuts on fossil fuel use that McKibben calls for. Epstein says that such cuts would impoverish billions (without providing any evidence how or why). I try to sympathize with Epstein’s “big picture” argument. If you look at the past in a certain way, from say a blimp ride of a few hours that floats through a hundred years of coastline and heartland, you would see immense and wondrous benefits wrought by fossil fuels and cheap energy: an industrial revolution that transformed our standard of living and food system; a transportation revolution that connected the world in lucrative and liberating ways; a technology revolution that provides access to infinite information and entertainment.

But even viewing fossil fuels’ one-hundred-year impact in a solely positive light requires putting up some serious blinders to the ways these fuels are bankrupting our planet and our health. In a one hundred year journey through time and space you would see the earth’s metabolism sky-rocket, rising rates of storms and floods and fires, countless species and peoples wiped off the map, pollutions altering the physical and chemical makeup of air and water, humans living longer but not looking quite so fit doing it. And what if we zoom out further, say in a blimp that condenses ten thousand or ten million years into a few hours? You would see an industrial boom and boon in an ecological instant. McKibben, contrary to what Epstein states about him not taking his evaluation of fossil fuel costs seriously, has dedicated much of his life to taking them very very seriously. He is versed in the scientific literature that takes big-picture looks the past and future of our climate, earth, oceans, and humanity. He trusts and respects scientists who stake their livelihoods and reputations on examining big-picture trends. And, as McKibben so clearly points out, the evidence of the dangers of anthropogenic climate change is piling up, no matter where you look: past, present, or future.

As he demonstrates throughout his debate with Epstein, McKibben stands for highlighting and debating objective evidence, for paying attention to dates and sources, and for challenging a narrow-minded view of the past-century’s boon. Epstein, on the contrary, is the one not taking enough information or its sources seriously. Like a spokesperson for any major gas company, he ardently denies or deflects any new information that gives us a clearer perspective of where we stand on this planet, how we got here, and what we can do about it.

A final highlight from the debate occurs at about the 1:14ish mark, during the question and answer bit. An audience member accuses McKibben of “a lack of integrity” for using an argument “riddled with logical fallacies.” As an example of a logical fallacy, he sites McKibben’s relation of climate change to declining agricultural yields, saying, “I work in sustainable agriculture so I know a little about that …” McKibben responds by saying that he didn’t invent the correlation, but pulled it from a study published in Science suggesting that most of our plants, like us, evolved in the Holocene, which makes them ill-adapted to grow at their best amidst rising temperatures. The study suggests that each degree rise in average temperature will decrease grain yields by 10%. “Battisti and Naylor, Science, 2009,” McKibben says, off the top of his head, correctly sourcing in real time, perfectly willing to engage anyone willing to bring a compelling, or even not-so-compelling, argument.


2 thoughts on “McKibben vs. Epstein: How We Talk About the Ethics of Fossil Fuels

  1. The problem with using catastrophic climate change as a basis to curb fossil fuels is that the evidence is lacking and is indeed contradicted. Saying there are droughts, floods, storms etc doesn’t show a causation with *fossil-fuel induced* climate change.

    Indeed, salient facts, seldom mentioned let alone addressed, throw this idea into serious doubt: the fact that the orbit and orientation of the planet cause the temperatures to greatly change (indeed are the reasons for the periodic ice ages), the fact that CO2 increases have historically actually *lagged behind* temperature increases, and the tight correlation of smaller temperature changes with the solar cycle. These are GIANT contexts that throw your conclusion of *fossil-fuel induced* climate change into serious doubt.

    The climate is one of the most complex systems imaginable to analyze. This explains why the models can’t predict climate. Why they didn’t predict the current 20 year hiatus in temperatures. Why activists used to warn of global *cooling* and then global warming and now just scare us with warnings of big, bad “climate change.”

    But it is not just the dubious nature of claiming *fossil-fuel induced* climate change, it is the measures being proposed on that dubious basis. We are living in the wake of the petro-chemical revolution. Our standard of living is due primarily, not solely, but primarily to fossil fuel-based energies. So when McKibben says he wants to curb 95% of fossil fuels, what I hear is he wants to abolish the literally life-giving source – the thing that will ensure that me, my children, and my grandchildren can eat well, be safe from nature, have access to modern and improving medicine, and generally enjoy life. McKibben is thus promoting what amounts to a death sentence for humanity. He is the real “public enemy #1.”

  2. Fundamentalists know the answers and can predict the future. Scientists understand that “I don’t know” is a more responsible answer. Power-lusters use any fears and crises to gain power. People of self-esteem respect the rights of others, have no urge to rule, and do not envy or begrudge others who produce and achieve. Life is not problems and solutions. Life is tradeoffs. You are free not to use fossil fuels, cars, airplanes, hospitals, reliable electricity, telephones, computers, networks, agricultural machines, their products, or anything transported using fossil fuels. You don’t have to use them.

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