from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Is Burning Fossil Fuels Really Immoral?

April 17, 2012

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Fossil Fuels

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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.