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Is Burning Fossil Fuels Really Immoral?

by Michael Levi
April 17, 2012

Prominent climate scientist Ken Caldeira has published an impassioned plea to those who care about climate change in which he essentially says that building (and presumably continuing to operate) any fossil fuel fired power plants is “immoral”. He is particularly upset by support for natural gas as an alternative to coal: if we emit greenhouse gases half as rapidly as we do today”, he points out, “we will wind up in the same place but it will take us twice as long to get there”. Cutting emissions without ditching fossil fuels entirely thus appears to be essentially worthless in his eyes.

This is an increasingly popular line of thought, and it is badly misguided. Caldeira has done us the favor of laying out the case far more clearly than others have. I want to pick through it and explain why it’s wrong.

Here’s the heart of Caldeira’s logic:

“Economists estimate that it might cost something like 2% of our GDP to convert our energy system into one that does not use the atmosphere as a waste dump. When we burn fossil fuels and release the CO2 into the atmosphere, we are saying ‘I am willing to impose tremendous climate risk on future generations living throughout the world, so that I personally can be 2% richer today.’ I believe this to be fundamentally immoral.”

This makes the decision look easy and lets Calderia get away with all sorts of simplistic arguments later on. But let’s be clear: No economist has argued that it would cost anything like 2 percent of “our” GDP (actually world GDP) to stop burning fossil fuels. Their estimates are for the cost of executing a measured transition from our present system to one involving far lower emissions, and the 2 percent figure is on the low end even for that. The cost of executing the transition that Calderia calls for – one that involves an immediate halt to fossil fuel plant construction – would be substantially higher. (And that ignores problems of harnessing an international response and the like.) It’s fine if Calderia and others think that that higher price is worth paying, but it would be far more persuasive if they said so forthrightly, rather than claiming that those costs don’t exist.

That might also introduce some sort of limiting principle that would stop their logic from applying to pretty much everything we do. Want to eat some bread for dinner? That increases global food prices on the margin, and thus “impos[es] costs on strangers”. I know: it’s a silly analogy. But there’s no logical maneuver that ethically distinguishes this sort of impact from marginal climate damages. If you think that every CO2 molecule we willfully emit is a moral outrage, there are a lot of other things that you ought to oppose.

What’s special about greenhouse gas emissions isn’t the fact that they hurt others at the margin. It’s that this damage often outweighs any benefit that flows from the activities that produce them – and that, when piled up, they can create massive risks. But this doesn’t lead to an absolutist and moralistic hostility toward anything that emits carbon – it leads to sensible weighing of costs and benefits that should drive us to steadily curb our emissions over time. (When I talk about costs and benefits, I mean it not only in the economic sense but in the political one too.) Some activities aren’t worth continuing once we fold in the climate damages they create. Others don’t make sense because their cumulative impact would be too dangerous. Heck, some might even be immoral. But, within this envelope, there are many activities that involve burning fossil fuels that are perfectly sensible and indeed productive, both in an economic sense and in the context of trying to develop a politically successful and sustainable climate strategy.

Calderia argues that such political calculation is “compromised and logically indefensible”. That’s wrong unless you think that caring about climate change means that you must object to all greenhouse gas emissions – in essence, if you think that the damages caused by greenhouse gas emissions are infinite. It’s wrong unless you assume, like Caldeira, that substituting gas for coal (or for that matter deploying more efficient coal-fired power plants) is the last decision that humanity will ever make. But, as far as I can tell, it isn’t. A partial transition from coal to gas need not be forever, just like our current coal-dominated energy system needn’t be forever either. If Caldeira and others want to argue that substituting gas for coal will make it more difficult to ultimately move to zero carbon energy, perhaps on political or economic grounds, then that argument might have real force. So might an explanation for why opposition to all fossil fuels could lead politically to serious emissions-cutting action that’s commensurate with the scale of the climate problem.

Even such arguments, though, would merely lead us back to assessments of costs and benefits, and to sorting through strategic calculations. Accusing opponents of one’s preferred emissions cutting program of being morally inferior is a poor substitute for confronting the real task at hand. Indeed, given how fractured the climate policy debate already is, it’s precisely the opposite of what the world needs.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Christopher Mims

    The most prima facie defensible use of fossil fuels being, naturally, all the hydrocarbons we’re going to have to burn in order to build that post-carbon infrastructure.

  • Posted by janjamm

    Environmental activists are continually brought to their knees by entities that want to greenwash, deny critical issues or strike a reasoned, rational pose. The house is on fire, there is no effective fire department, anywhere. What little is being accomplished is not enough. Our government is ten years behind the action that needs to be taken and we still have no energy plan. To suggest that climate science is being harsh when they bring up the word “moral,” is insulting and debilitating. And, if you want to quantify something, let’s throw around the mounting cost of NOT doing anything. That number, rather than being 2-8%, is infinite and incalculable. No money will replace what is being lost. No money will restore the resources that are disappearing, the animal extinction, the loss of biodiversity. The earth is a delicate balance of factors all of which are coming unglued. Yes, people are starting to scream bloody murder. Being reasonable in the face of the world-wide crisis that is upon us is not just immoral, but a kind of heresy. Shame on you.

  • Posted by Dave Thomas

    Is it immoral to be lazy and take money and assistance from programs funded by tax money taken from people who work hard? Is it immoral to spend time on trivial questions in journalism instead of important questions?

  • Posted by Alice Finkel

    According to the environmentalists of 1970, we should all be dead by now. The endless litany of claims of devastation from human actions should have destroyed the planet several times over by now.

    And still the droning list continues being recycled by the shameful doomsayers of the green left, who would secretly like to see 90% of the human population wiped off the Earth as soon as possible.

    Their pseudoscience of climate catastrophe is sprouting dangerous leaks of credibility, yet they continue to recycle their grossly exaggerated predictions of imminent doom.

    What a sad and sorry lot. Shame on you all.

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    “The banality of evil.”

    Most don’t see the immorality of burning fossil fuels and are calmed by the pseudo-rationality of economic argument; the future is discounted far too rapidly.

  • Posted by Randy

    Caldeira sounds like he needs his diaper changed.

  • Posted by LCarey

    I believe that your carefully constructed argument grossly underestimates the potential costs and unique “fat tail” risks presented by climate disruption. Prof. Caldeira’s argument might be labeled as “shrill”, but at this point the discussion amonst the talking heads and politicos on the topic is literally disconnected from reality – one of the two major political parties has enshrined denial of climate science as a litmus test for public office. No one except scientists seems to take seriously the very real possibility of one or more horrendous effects which are entirely within the realm of possibility (if not probability at this point): turning a substantial portion of the Great Plains into a dust bowl, destroying a substantial portion of the world’s ocean ecosystems thru disruption of pH levels; larger and more dramatic severe weather events, etc. etc. Traditional econometric tools are of very little use in this sphere – just what is the “dollar value” to be placed on a non-neglible risk of destroying a livable environment?

  • Posted by Ken moss

    Type your comment in here…why wasn’t my comment posted?

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