Bill McKibben: Energy Enemy Number One

Bill McKibben, who has been called “the nation’s leading environmentalist,” is leading a movement to destroy the fossil fuel industry, which he calls “Public Enemy Number One.” This is the signature issue of his mega-popular organization under the names “Do the Math“ and “Fossil Free.”

As an energy researcher who knows the indispensability of the fossil fuel industry to my own life and billions of lives around the world, I am doing whatever I can to stop this movement.

My Debate with Bill McKibben

Earlier this month I publicly debated Bill McKibben in order to make the case that his quest “to cut our fossil fuel use by a factor of 20 over the next few decades” is pseudoscientific and suicidal.

Throughout the debate I stressed four points:

  1. For the foreseeable future, fossil fuels are the indispensable source of the abundant, affordable energy that human flourishing depends on.
  2. The proven science about climate illustrates a mere half-degree warming in the last 70 years, including virtually no warming in the last 15—McKibben’s claims of catastrophe are based on the extreme speculation of climate prediction models that can’t predict the climate.
  3. The overall impact of fossil fuel use and the technologies it powers has been to make our climate dramatically safer–climate-related deaths have fallen 98% since 1920.
  4. The world desperately needs more energy–3 times as much if everyone is to get to the same level as Germany–and yet McKibben is calling for 95% of fossil fuels to be illegal.

Readers should watch the debate and draw their own conclusions, but from my vantage point the thing that struck me most about McKibben’s approach was that he was intellectually and emotionally indifferent to the fundamental importance of affordable, abundant energy.

Sloppy Thinking: From Organic Farming to Solar and Wind

For example, in agriculture, where oil and natural gas are the difference between abundant food and mass-starvation, I said:

If Bill McKibben came here tonight…and said, my conclusion is we should ban 95% of food, you would say that’s crazy. But he is saying we should ban 95% of fossil fuels–which is the food of food. Without fossil fuels, billions of people will starve. There is no evidence to the contrary and so to cavalierly talk about that is just…really, really irresponsible because these are real lives. These are people who if we do the wrong thing, they will die and ultimately you know you will suffer too but this people will die and one thing we know is that modern industrial fossil fueled agriculture saves billions of lives.  And what Bill is saying would take them away.

McKibben’s response was to cite a single paper declaring that in one region “organic yields were essentially equal to this point to yields from conventional farming.”

One thing striking about this was his willingness to equate one cherry-picked paper with an objective big-picture analysis–when the stakes are the very survival of billions of people.

But another, even cruder error, is to ignore that “organic” agriculture uses immense amounts of fossil fuels. Unless McKibben has a study to show that men with shovels can equal the production of men with tractors.

This pattern repeated itself time after time–McKibben would rationalize his radical, ruinous prescription with offhand sloppiness.

He exhibited the same sloppiness when discussing the alleged replacements for fossil fuels: solar power and wind power. Since McKibben uses Germany as an exemplar of a “green energy” future, I pointed out that Germany has not replaced a single coal plant with solar and is building over a dozen new coal plants–because solar and wind are nowhere solving their intractable problems of unreliability.

McKibben responded that the unreliability problem, which has rendered solar and wind energy failures for more than 75 years, was no longer a problem–offering as evidence a story he read in that morning’s news.

Renewables really work. There is nothing speculative anymore about them. In fact, and again this is why it’s important to listen to dates and to evidence, there’s a report this morning from the German ministry, energy minister, Stephan Kohler, who works of course in the conservative government of Angela Merkel that the country will easily beat even its own ambitious plans for renewable energy and generate more than half the country’s power that way by 2025 and perhaps as high as two thirds.

Let’s leave aside the fact that, whatever McKibben read in the morning paper, Germany has no energy ministry and therefore no energy minister. McKibben is completely misrepresenting Kohler; see this recent interview with Kohler in which he says: “They say that we could replace power plants operated with fossil fuels by adding more renewable energy sources. My response to them is: It won’t work.”

Further, McKibben, knowingly or not, is regurgitating what amounts to energy accounting fraud. The German government and others cannot replace reliable coal plants with unreliable solar panels and windmills, but to garner international praise they inflate their numbers by pretending that the sun shines 24 hours a day and the wind blows 24 hours a day.

If Bill McKibben were engaging in pseudo-journalism and pseudo-science and pseudo-economics on some obscure blog, I wouldn’t care. But, as I reminded him more than half a dozen times during the debate, he is an intellectual superstar using his enormous platform to call for 95% of our most important source of energy to be outlawed, which, on the basis of everything we know, would ruin billions of lives. Every time I raised McKibben’s stated goal, he dodged the issue, at most voicing empty platitudes such as “I never said it would be easy.”

Tell that to the ambitious young Chinese man who, had nations followed McKibben’s past guidance, would have never gotten his first light bulb, his first refrigerator, his first decent-paying job.

Tell that to the Indian mother whose child would have died of starvation were it not for that country’s fossil-fuel-powered agricultural revolution.

Enemy of Energy

Bill McKibben is Energy Enemy Number One. And he’s particularly dangerous because he is taking the moral high ground against fossil fuels, which is the most powerful rhetorical position to have. But he does not deserve that high ground, and we who value affordable, abundant energy need to take it away from him.

The movement to morally condemn the fossil fuel industry needs to be outmatched by a movement to morally champion the fossil fuel industry and the energy industry more broadly (McKibben opposes the vast majority of nuclear and hydro). We at the Center for Industrial Progress are starting such a movement. Join us.