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Frequently Asked Questions
Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, replies to my criticism and questions over at Forbes.com. Overall, I'm dissatisfied with his responses. Here's why, point by point. Alex is in blockquotes, I'm not.
I'll address some of his technical questions later on, but I want to acknowledge that I have not fully worked out how the government should handle every form of pollution and welcome the contribution of others in doing so. But here's my contention: we cannot come up with the best policies until we all agree on the baseline question of whether we are to use a humanist or naturist standard of value.Alex makes it sound like there's a binary choice: either we go 100% with the humanist standard or 100% with the naturist standard. But it's entirely possible to go with a weighted average: say 85% humanist, 15% naturist, or 50/50, or whatever. And as far as I can tell, most people do in fact take an intermediate position, though almost everyone leans humanist.
Given this continuum of possible positions, it's extremely unlikely we will ever "all agree" on the correct weights. Fortunately, Alex exaggerates the importance of this improbable consensus. With simple democratic voting, for example, the best policies will be adopted as long as 50%+1 accept the correct weights. In any case, Alex's case for fossil fuels remains effective as long as most people put high weight on the humanist side.
I disagree with Caplan's assessment of the state of our debate, that "Most people, laymen and philosophers alike, think we should protect the environment primarily for the sake of humanity." Most people, laymen and philosophers alike, have been exposed to sloppy thinking about standard of value (and to environmentalist propaganda) since youth. Thus, most people routinely devalue human life and routinely demean the profound value that is fossil fuels.The key word in my statement is "primarily." Yes, there is plenty of naturist rhetoric out there - plus a dollop of sheer misanthropy. But few people take it very seriously. How can we tell? For starters, look at what Americans' name as the nation's "most important problem." "The economy" almost always tops the list. "The environment" is near the bottom.
Alternately, consider how rarely mainstream politicians advocate any specific policies that clearly impoverish most of their citizens for the sake of unspoiled nature. If voters took naturist standards seriously, politicians could win major elections by saying, "I'm going to impose a 300% tax on fossil fuels to save Mother Earth," or "I'm going to ban meat-eating." This rarely happens.
Alex then moves on to the three questions I posed to him.
"Absolutely against" is a serious overstatement. A sensible utilitarian could recognize that fossil fuels are part of the solution, but still insist that a moderate carbon tax is also part of the solution. Indeed, the sensible utilitarian might say, "Imposing a moderate carbon tax increases the incentive to find ways to produce energy with lower carbon emissions." The fact that we use fossil fuels to clean up fossil fuels does not imply that taxing fossil fuels is self-defeating; you've got to look at the net effect.
True, but the same goes for every plausible moral standard. (Objectivists often appear to disagree, for example, on what "promotes the survival of man qua man.") But pointing out the vagueness of utilitarianism actually makes it even harder to see how Alex's standard functionally diverges from this rival ethical approach. If he wants to clarify, Alex needs to (a) describe what he sees as the well-informed utilitarian position on fossil fuels, then (b) highlight his disagreements with this position.
But there is a principled difference that would apply to any variant of the utilitarian approach.
Is "significant damage or imperiling" a gross or a net standard? I.e., suppose a new energy source gives everyone $5000 per year in improved medical care, but imposes $1000 per year in respiratory disorders. Does your standard say this is permissible or not? If you say no, then many of your arguments for fossil fuels are beside the point. (Think about your time series for weather-related deaths). If you say yes, then it seems like government does have to calculate overall benefits and harms after all.
This is another case where Alex talks as if the world is binary when it plainly isn't. "Preventable" and "dangerous" both lie on a continuum. There is plenty that could have been done to reduce emissions even in early industrial cities. Most obviously: A modest tax on coal. What's the point? Making the air a little less dangerous.
Your position combines a superficially strict standard - no one can be significantly damaged or imperiled - with a massive loophole for "context." Can you see why this is intellectually dissatisfying?
Yes, but you have to subtract the unpleasant side effects of fossil fuels. When you do, the marginal benefits of fossil fuels in rich countries remain unclear.
How can you say this? You've acknowledged that fossil fuels - like every energy source - have some unpleasant side effects. Reducing fossil fuel consumption trades a little extra convenience for a little less unpleasantness. What makes you think this is clearly a bad deal, especially in rich countries?
Yes, but your strongest evidence comes from the developing world. This isn't really relevant to my question.
"Any attempt" would have been "disastrous"? That's absurd. "Would have imposed high costs for small gains" might be true, but I'm still waiting to see the evidence.
By your own standard, wouldn't there be a right to do it if marginal fossil fuel use "significantly damaged or imperiled" anyone? And if you're factoring in context, doesn't the context change when we're focusing on marginal uses?
Trivially true, but you're missing the point. Conventional environmental regulations give detailed orders about how polluters have to reduce pollution. Pollution taxes specify a price and let polluters figure out the cheapest way to comply. There is a lot of evidence that the latter approach roughly halves the cost of pollution clean-up. So why does it fail to pique your interest?
"Requires"? Not really. You don't need sophisticated technologies to tax coal. Technology can definitely make emissions pricing work better, but that's a weaker claim.