On March 2nd, The Steamboat Institute, in partnership with the Benson Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, hosted a debate on campus with the prompt, “Should America Rapidly Eliminate Fossil Fuel Use to Prevent Climate Catastrophe?”. On the pro-climate change side was the former U.S. General and NATO commander, General Wesley Clark, and pro-fossil fuels advocate was Alex Epstein, a philosopher and author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
The Mission Zero team was intrigued when they were sent a flyer for this event by a faculty partner. We attended, with open minds and ears, and hosted a discussion following the event, attended by General Clark himself, to debrief.
What we witnessed was an intense debate between fact and fiction.
Alex Epstein presented a case emphatically dismissing the current climate crisis, claiming that future technology would save us from any impacts, and argued for the necessity of fossil fuels towards human productivity and flourishing. General Clark argued for urgent intervention to the climate crisis and proposed a transition away from fossil fuels towards a clean-energy-guided future.
Over the course of the debate, Epstein made a series of contentious, unsupported claims supporting two central themes:
- Climate change is not a crisis or a credible threat to human life
- Fossil fuels are imperative and renewable energy is a failure
We will analyze and dismantle some of the major claims Epstein made supporting both themes and provide counterarguments backed by significant research. The following is not an exhaustive analysis of the debate, but a rebuke of the key points.
Theme One: Climate change is not a crisis or a credible threat to human life
Supporting this claim, Epstein pointed to the statistic that climate-related deaths are down by 98% in the last hundred years and emphasized that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections grossly exaggerate the impact of climate change. Further, he claimed that a warmer, more tropical planet is not uninhabitable or hazardous to humans. These factors in tandem, climate change is not a noteworthy threat to humans.
These claims are patently false. One of the most immediate consequences of rising global temperatures is the frequency of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, heatwaves, and storms. In the last 50 years, the number of climate-related disasters has increased by a factor of 5.1 The mass destruction caused by these events costs the world economy 520 billion USD a year and thrusts 26 million people into poverty every year.2 Further, this leads to increased levels of global wealth inequality, mass displacement, and food shortages. Since 2008, climate disasters have displaced over 265 million people.3 While it is technically true that climate disaster deaths have decreased three-fold in the last 50 years, this is thanks to improved early warning systems, increased international aid, and disaster management, and is in no way due to a lessening threat of climate disasters. Further, this number only represents deaths directly from climate events themselves. This is partial cost accounting. The increasingly catastrophic public health, food production, and second-order economic consequences suggest a far greater death toll than can be directly accounted for. Climate disasters are a risk multiplier in that they exacerbate pre-existing problems. When Cyclone Aila tore into the coast of Bangladesh in 2010, unemployment levels skyrocketed to 49% and poverty rose to 22%.4 These risks will only grow with population growth in hazard-exposed areas and the intensifying of these weather events. Epstein also claimed that a warmer climate is not threatening to humans. With global warming comes an increased frequency of heatwaves. Europe’s five hottest summers in the last 500 years have all happened in the last 15 years. Two of these heatwaves—in 2003 and 2010–were responsible for the deaths of nearly 130,000 people.5 In response to the claim that IPCC climate models are drastically overblown and that climate scientists are “catastrophizing,” a team at Berkeley actually systematically evaluated 17 of the most prominent climate models developed between 1970 and 2007, observing changes through 2017. What did they find? 14 of the 17 models closely match actual climate observations, as depicted in the chart below.6
It is also important to note that this data presents the current consequences of climate change, but these consequences do not function on a linear scale, they are exponential. As climate risks exponentially increase so too will the costs to human life.
If hundreds of millions of humans displaced, trillions of dollars of losses to the global economy, and hundreds of thousands of deaths in single extreme weather events, over the course of the last decade doesn’t constitute a “climate” crisis or a credible threat to human life, as Epstein argues, it’s not clear what does.
Theme Two: Fossil fuels are imperative and renewable energy is a failure
Epstein went on to argue that the growth we see in the clean energy space is due to it receiving an unfair advantage, being propped up by government-funded subsidies. Furthermore, he claims specifically that solar and wind are expensive and unreliable.
These claims are fictitious, as well. In 2020, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) tracked $634 billion in energy sector subsidies. They found that over 70% went to fossil fuels while only 20% went to renewable energy.7 Reports by the International Energy Agency (IEA) corroborate this, finding that in many years, fossil fuels receive up to four times the subsidies of renewable energy.8 When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) accounted for the hidden costs of fossil fuels seen in pollution and climate-related damages, fossil fuels cost governments $5.9 trillion in 2020 or 7% of global GDP. If there is any industry that has been propped up by government subsidies and given an unfair advantage, it is the fossil fuel industry.
In terms of energy cost-efficiency, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that electricity generated from fossil fuels costs between 5 and 17 cents per kilowatt-hour (Kwh). Solar, in contrast, averages between 3 and 6 cents per kWh.9 Further, the World Economic Forum found that the costs of solar have dropped by 80% since 2010.10 Estimates by IRENA suggest solar levelized cost of energy LCOE will still fall by 59% over the next decade, while the same metric for wind will compress by 26% for onshore turbines. In general, the costs of renewables across the board have been dropping tremendously, as represented by the chart below.
Renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels are not only less expensive, but they’re becoming rapidly more cost-efficient every year. Epstein equated goals of achieving net-zero to murder, stating that an attempt to remove fossil fuels from an energy-hungry world means death for the developing countries that need them most. I would argue to Mr. Epstein that continued reliance on fossil fuels means murder. By continuing to pump unprecedented levels of carbon into the atmosphere we are creating an uninhabitable world that will lead to our demise if we don’t take bold collective action.
Watch the full debate at CU here:
To learn more about the effects of climate change, the harm of fossil fuels, and the transition to renewable energy:
- WEF Renewable Infrastructure Investment Handbook
- IRENA Power Generation Costs
- IPCC Report– Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability