Energy Clarity: A new framework

A new framework

Today I’m known for championing fossil fuels, but for most of my life I had no particular interest in energy, and to the extent I did, the two forms of energy that I found interesting were nuclear and solar. Those seemed to be the future. The idea of getting excited about energy from three centuries ago–coal or oil or gas–seemed ridiculous.

What changed? Two realizations. One is that cheap, plentiful, reliable energy is far more important to human flourishing than I thought because it’s the industry that powers every other industry. And two, that energy is far more difficult to produce–and therefore replace–than I had thought.

My background is in philosophy, and as I got interested in energy, I discovered that our culture’s energy discussion is fatally flawed–and those flaws are what prevent us from recognizing that our use of fossil fuels is moral.

One problem is that our energy discussion is biased. What I noticed was that for certain forms of energy, namely solar and wind, all I ever heard were positives. With others, especially fossil fuels, all I ever heard were negatives. But when I researched the different production processes, for example, I found that it’s actually far more dangerous to mine for the raw materials in wind turbines–rare earth metals–than for coal. That doesn’t mean that coal is better than wind, but it does mean that we’re not looking at negatives of one and we are looking (only) at negatives of another. If we’re doing that, we are not going to make the right decision.

Is that how you would make a decision about whether to vaccinate your child, for example? Suppose you only looked at the negatives of vaccines and you said, “Hey, vaccines have side effects,” and you didn’t look at the positives. Would you ever vaccinate your child? Never, because you could only see the negatives. If you looked at both sides, you might come to a very different conclusion.

We can’t be biased in our thinking.

The second problem is that our energy discussion is sloppy. Let’s take the issue of CO2 levels. There’s a concern that because CO2 is a warming agent of sorts, when we increase the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, we might expect it to have a warming impact. That’s something that’s important to study and to see how significant it is.

What I found was that when people were talking about CO2 levels, they talked about it very sloppily. They would say things like, “Do you believe that climate change is real?” That question is too vague. I could believe that CO2 has some impact, but not a significant impact, or a significant impact, but not a catastrophic impact. That’s going to make all the difference in the world.

To avoid being sloppy, we have to be clear about the magnitudes involved. To take another example, suppose someone says, “CO2 levels contribute to sea level rise.” Well, is it a one foot contribution in the next century, as the UN says, or is it 20 feet, as Al Gore says in “An Inconvenient Truth”? Those magnitudes make an enormous difference.

To use the vaccines example again, it would be as if you’re deciding whether to vaccinate your child and someone says, “Vaccine side effects are real.” You say, “All right. I want to know the magnitude.” They say, “What are you, a vaccine side effect denier? Don’t question me.” Or maybe they would call it “body change.” “Are you a body change denier? Body change is real.” You’d think, “This is not a helpful way of thinking.”

What we want is the full context. We want to know the positives and negatives and we want to know the magnitudes. We don’t want to be biased or sloppy.

The third thing, which I think is the most important, is that our discussion of energy is anti-human. It doesn’t truly value human life.

You might think, “That’s offensive. Doesn’t everyone value human life?” The answer is no. To value human life in a decision-making process, we really have to hold human life as the standard by which we make our decisions. We have to ask with every decision, “Is this really advancing human life or not, and how much?” When I looked at the energy discussion, it was not measuring things in terms of human life.

Take the climate issue. You have people say, “Oh, I care about CO2 because it’s harmful to human life,” and yet those same opponents of fossil fuels often oppose the two best forms of energy that don’t emit CO2, nuclear power and hydropower. The people who say they care the most about CO2 measurements are the people who hate the two practical ways of reducing them the most.

What’s going on there? I will often ask nuclear opponents, “Why is nuclear so bad?” They’ll say, “It’s unsafe. I really care about safety.” I say, “Great. Let’s go get the data.”

If we rank energy technologies from most safe to least safe, which is the safest technology ever invented? Nuclear power by a long shot. So why do they oppose it? It’s not a serious concern with human safety. If you push nuclear opponents, they’ll start to say, “Well, we’re playing God. It’s unnatural.”

And then you ask about hydroelectric power: why do greens oppose that? They’ll say, “We need free-flowing rivers. It’s unnatural to dam rivers.” My response: “So wait a second, you’re saying CO2 is the biggest problem in the world, and you’re not willing to dam a river to help solve it? You’re not willing to split an atom to help solve it?” What’s going on?

What’s going on is that the standard that we’re using in our energy discussion is not human life. It’s “being green.”

It’s really important to think about what being green means. Being green is not a pro-human standard, because being green means minimizing human impact. If we want to minimize human impact, then that means that we shouldn’t industrialize, we shouldn’t use technology, we shouldn’t develop, we never should’ve built New York City, we never should have a child. Ultimately, North Korea is a much greener country than South Korea when you look in terms of human impact.

In my philosophy, I measure things by human life. I want to maximize human flourishing, not minimize human impact.

Unless we’re committed in our thinking to being unbiased, to being careful, and to being pro-human, we’re going to get the wrong answers.

The key to energy clarity is a pro-human, full-context framework–one where we look carefully at the costs and benefits of our energy alternatives so we can maximize human flourishing.

That’s what I’m going to share with you.