19 November, 2014

Morals and Fossil Fuels

Review: Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Penguin Publishing, November 2014; 248 pages; ISBN-10: 1591847443, ISBN-13: 978-1591847441, $20.89 on Amazon.
In his new book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein makes one of the most compelling arguments for the moral value of fossil fuels and the need to increase their use I have ever read.
Epstein is an ethical humanist; for him, the well-being of human life is the standard of value public policy should maximize. This ethical theory goes back to the ancient Greeks and went virtually unchallenged as a basis for judging right and wrong throughout human history, at least until recently.
Unfortunately, many prominent environmental writers have rejected humanism, instead embracing a biocentric philosophy that views human changes to the environment as morally wrong and unnatural. For those biocentrists, minimizing human impacts on the environment is the primary moral goal. As such, biocentrism is a prescription for human poverty, disease, starvation, and premature death - in other words, an endorsement of the world as experienced by all but the wealthiest individuals for the vast majority of human history.
Epstein points out the development and use of fossil fuels have benefitted the poor far more than the rich, making available to the person of average means, food, goods, and services which even the rulers of old could hardly dream of.
Chapter by chapter, through clear and concise analysis, Epstein demonstrates why fossil fuels are the greatest energy technology of all time; why renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are in no position to replace them; why concerns about global warming are overstated and largely misplaced; how fossil fuel use actually improves environmental quality; and why, with more than 1.3 billion people in the world today without access to electricity and the labor and life-saving bounty it makes available, it would be immoral to artificially restrict growth in the use of fossil fuels to prevent climate change.
Assuming human welfare is one’s primary moral standard, a number of important takeaways from this book arise. I’ll list three:
  • One should look at the big picture when determining the value of using fossil fuels - not just the costs or potential harms to humans. If one has an open mind, it is apparent fossil fuels provide important benefits to humankind, unmatched by any other fuel source at current prices with current technology. The benefits of fossil fuels far outweigh the harmful by-products resulting from their use, even if one believes they contribute to global warming.
  • “Climate is no longer a major cause of deaths, thanks in large part to fossil fuels. … Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are ‘fighting’ climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous. The popular climate discussion has the issue backwards. It looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability.”
  • Even if human-caused CO2 emissions do pose a significant threat of dangerous climate change, the way to deal with climate danger is to develop technologies that allow humans to adapt to, mitigate, or prevent climate harms.
Restricting or ending fossil fuel use is a recipe for disaster. It would set human civilization back centuries - a true death knell for present and future generations. The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels makes this point as well or better than any other book I recall reading. The book is easily readable by anyone who has passed high school freshman English, and I encourage all those interested in learning about the threats of global warming and the relative benefits and harms of fossil fuel use to read it with an open mind. It will give you much to think about.

05 November, 2014

Inland Water Management

It is music to my ears to see the recognition that the key characteristic of our climate is not so much dryness, although there is plenty of that, but variability. Dorothea Mackellar got it so right with her "droughts and flooding rains". She might well have added "and not much in the middle!" The Millennium Drought followed by record wet years is an excellent recent example. 

I continue to contend that in responding to this fact, two words need to dominate our response-conserve and flexibility. In respect to the latter, storages need to be constructed so that under very dry downstream conditions, the option of allowing small flows to pass is available. It requires acceptance of 'adaptive management'. The variability fact, makes the concept of setting single figure Sustainable Diversion Limits, albeit with adjustment provisions, nonsensical.

Further central issues which strike me are-
  • acceptance of the option of using salt water rather than fresh water to maintain levels in the Lower Lakes, 
  • ensuring Snowy management is required to optimise water conservation as well as electricity generation-particularly with Eucumbene Dam the largest storage in the Murray Darling Basin.

03 October, 2014

Global Warming-US Senior Official's Epiphany

Physicist Steven Koonin says climate science is far from settled and we are a long way from having good enough knowledge to make wise climate policy.
That view is not news to climate skeptics, but it may seem surprising coming from Koonin, who was undersecretary for science in the Obama administration’s Energy Department in the president’s first term.
Koonin says the crucial question isn’t whether climate is changing, which is a settled matter: It is changing and always will change. The crucial question – how will climate change over the next century as a result of both human and natural influences – is more complex and unsettled.
Although human activities could have a powerful effect on climate, they are and will be small in relation to the climate as a whole, Koonin argues. For instance, he notes human additions to atmospheric carbon dioxide will enhance the natural greenhouse effect by just 1 to 2 percent by the middle of this century.
In addition, he writes, ocean cycles and feedbacks can dramatically amplify or mute the climate’s response to human and natural influences, and we neither understand nor can model either of these factors well enough to trust our knowledge when forming public policy.
Concerning climate models, Koonin notes the IPCC uses 55 different models:
Although most of these models are tuned to reproduce the gross features of the Earth’s climate, the marked differences in their details and projections reflect all of the limitations that I have described. For example:
The models differ in their descriptions of the past century’s global average surface temperature by more than three times the entire warming recorded during that time. Such mismatches are also present in many other basic climate factors, including rainfall, which is fundamental to the atmosphere’s energy balance.
Whereas human CO2 emissions have risen 25 percent over the past 16 years, temperature has remained largely flat, a result none of the models predicts, Koonin notes. In addition, average sea level rise hasn’t changed from the level experienced more than 70 years ago, contra the models’ estimates.
Koonin says it will take decades before sufficient, accurate data are available to accurately assess human effects on climate and any dangers they might pose. Accordingly, society must make choices based on uncertain knowledge of future climate, meaning policy actions should be prudent, not radical. Modest, “no regrets” policies are reasonable, he argues. Large-scale, economy-changing policies could be more harmful to people than the climate changes they are meant to prevent, he notes.
“Our tolerance for risk and the priorities that we assign to economic development, poverty reduction, environmental quality, and intergenerational and geographical equity” must have greater influence on our policies than model-based climate prognostications, he argues.
Only by recognizing, rather than ignoring or trying to deny, the limits of our knowledge can society make productive decisions with regard to climate policy, Koonin concludes.

30 September, 2014

Health-An Update

For all those who over the last 12 months have expressed concern and support with my health issues, I would like to say a very heartfelt thank you.

For the record, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer on 9th October last year. I had some 11 inches of my colon and rectum containing three malignant tumours removed on 29th October. Wore a colostomy bag for eight months whilst I had chemotherapy, then had the stoma reversed (“re-connected”) on 26th June this year. Including the original colonoscopy I have now had four general anaesthetics in the last twelve months.

In the last seven days I have had a whole body (chest and abdomen) CT Scan, a blood test for every malady known to man and another colonoscopy this morning. I am probably still “high” from the anaesthetic!

I am delighted to report that the outcome of all these observations is positive. No trace was found of any cancer or other issues of concern and I have been given a clean bill of health. Ongoing monitoring will continue.

I will be forever grateful for many things. I thank God that we live in an age of extraordinary technology with skilful, caring medical practitioners and we are surrounded by caring thoughtful and prayerful friends.

David Boyd