The climate change debate has shifted. It used to be that people opposed to climate change solutions could be labeled as “deniers” because they did not believe (or refused to believe) that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions caused climate change. Now that the climate has begun to change, that point of view is demonstrably invalid. This has lead fossil fuel advocates to subtly change their arguments and environmentalists so far have not caught on.
Case in point: at a recent panel on fracking California’s Monterey Formation of oil shale, fossil fuels advocate and self-styled energy philosopher Alex Epstein made some interesting comments about how climate change is affecting people’s lives. For instance, Epstein said that since fossil fuels have been used on a wide scale, the number of people dying from drought has gone down by 9 percent9%. The statement may be true (note, he did not claim that climate change had reduced drought, only that fewer people have died from drought since climate change started changing weather patterns) but was clearly designed to sound ridiculous and thus produce ridicule from the other panelists. Another panelist, Robert Collier from Next Generation, took the bait hook-line-and-sinker. He responded by saying that he did not feel it necessary to respond to “laughable” climate denialism that any smart person could see was preposterous. This allowed Epstein to chide Collier for making ad hominem attacks while his real argument went unchallenged. Collier looked childish while Epstein did not have to clarify or defend his reasoning.
After the panel I asked Epstein what he meant and it became clear to me why he would try to obfuscate his real point. Epstein explained that although climate change has caused more droughts throughout the world, technological progress, largely fueled by carbon-emitting energy that causes that very climate change, has made it possible to adapt to climate change (there may be more drought, but using fossil fuels we can move water to people who need it). I asked Epstein if he expected our adaptation capabilities to continue in the face of ever-increasing global temperatures and he unequivocally stated that he did. This is the argument that Collier should have responded to because it is the basis of the pro-fossil fuel position and easy to break down.
To see precisely why the pro-fossil fuel argument is invalid, one need only ask them to explain how it will continue to work. For example, the Breakthrough Institute, in a recent issue of their journal, noted that Venice, Italy is developing a complex system of hydraulic pumps and sea-locks to protect the island city from rising sea levels. These engineering feats would not have been possible without the technological advancements wrought by abundant fossil fuel energy. Thus, the cause of climate change will protect us from climate change.
What this argument does not address are the climate change problems that cannot readily be solved by enormous engineering projects. For example, the low-lying island nations of Micronesia and Oceania are not built on wooden pylons, like Venice, and therefore cannot be protected by hydraulic pumps and sea-locks. As sea levels rise, they will sink, displacing their entire population. This will lead to refugee crises wherever these people move to. People in other parts of the world will have their own intractable problems, ranging from prolonged drought to uncontrollable flooding. Some of these problems may be ameliorated by significant technological responses, but assuming that they all will be solvable is dangerous. The new argument against climate change response relies on a weak heuristic: because we have been able to deal with climate change up to now, we will continue to be able to do so in the future.
Obviously, this argument has several faults, not least of which is reliance on teleological reasoning. Unforeseeable disasters and worsening consequences from climate change do not enter into the equation. It should be easy to show that this argument is unfounded, but few environmentalists are pointing out its weaknesses. Environmentalists are being left behind in the climate change debate by hanging on to the debates of the past. Few people, including fossil fuel advocates, still deny climate change. The fossil fuel advocates, for their part, seem to recognize that their arguments have little merit and brilliantly try to hide that fact by dressing their new arguments in the clothes of their former beliefs. Environmentalists will need to recognize that and adjust their arguments accordingly if more people are going to join the call for alternative fuels and significant action to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.