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Bill McKibben: Energy Enemy Number One

Bill McKibben, who has been called “the nation’s leading environmentalist,” is leading a movement to destroy the fossil fuel industry, which he calls “Public Enemy Number One.” This is the signature issue of his mega-popular organization 350.org under the names Do the Math and Fossil Free.”

As an energy researcher who knows the indispensability of the fossil fuel industry to my own life and billions of lives around the world, I am doing whatever I can to stop this movement.

My Debate with Bill McKibben

Earlier this month I publicly debated Bill McKibben in order to make the case that his quest “to cut our fossil fuel use by a factor of 20 over the next few decades” is pseudoscientific and suicidal.

Throughout the debate I stressed four points:

  1. For the foreseeable future, fossil fuels are the indispensable source of the abundant, affordable energy that human flourishing depends on.
  2. The proven science about climate illustrates a mere half-degree warming in the last 70 years, including virtually no warming in the last 15McKibben’s claims of catastrophe are based on the extreme speculation of climate prediction models that can’t predict the climate.
  3. The overall impact of fossil fuel use and the technologies it powers has been to make our climate dramatically safer–climate-related deaths have fallen 98% since 1920.
  4. The world desperately needs more energy–3 times as much if everyone is to get to the same level as Germany–and yet McKibben is calling for 95% of fossil fuels to be illegal.

Readers should watch the debate and draw their own conclusions, but from my vantage point the thing that struck me most about McKibben’s approach was that he was intellectually and emotionally indifferent to the fundamental importance of affordable, abundant energy.

Sloppy Thinking: From Organic Farming to Solar and Wind

For example, in agriculture, where oil and natural gas are the difference between abundant food and mass-starvation, I said:

If Bill McKibben came here tonight…and said, my conclusion is we should ban 95% of food, you would say that’s crazy. But he is saying we should ban 95% of fossil fuels–which is the food of food. Without fossil fuels, billions of people will starve. There is no evidence to the contrary and so to cavalierly talk about that is just…really, really irresponsible because these are real lives. These are people who if we do the wrong thing, they will die and ultimately you know you will suffer too but this people will die and one thing we know is that modern industrial fossil fueled agriculture saves billions of lives.  And what Bill is saying would take them away.

McKibben’s response was to cite a single paper declaring that in one region “organic yields were essentially equal to this point to yields from conventional farming.”

One thing striking about this was his willingness to equate one cherry-picked paper with an objective big-picture analysis–when the stakes are the very survival of billions of people.

But another, even cruder error, is to ignore that “organic” agriculture uses immense amounts of fossil fuels. Unless McKibben has a study to show that men with shovels can equal the production of men with tractors.

This pattern repeated itself time after time–McKibben would rationalize his radical, ruinous prescription with offhand sloppiness.

He exhibited the same sloppiness when discussing the alleged replacements for fossil fuels: solar power and wind power. Since McKibben uses Germany as an exemplar of a “green energy” future, I pointed out that Germany has not replaced a single coal plant with solar and is building over a dozen new coal plants–because solar and wind are nowhere solving their intractable problems of unreliability.

McKibben responded that the unreliability problem, which has rendered solar and wind energy failures for more than 75 years, was no longer a problem–offering as evidence a story he read in that morning’s news.

Renewables really work. There is nothing speculative anymore about them. In fact, and again this is why it’s important to listen to dates and to evidence, there’s a report this morning from the German ministry, energy minister, Stephan Kohler, who works of course in the conservative government of Angela Merkel that the country will easily beat even its own ambitious plans for renewable energy and generate more than half the country’s power that way by 2025 and perhaps as high as two thirds.

Let’s leave aside the fact that, whatever McKibben read in the morning paper, Germany has no energy ministry and therefore no energy minister. McKibben is completely misrepresenting Kohler; see this recent interview with Kohler in which he says: “They say that we could replace power plants operated with fossil fuels by adding more renewable energy sources. My response to them is: It won’t work.”

Further, McKibben, knowingly or not, is regurgitating what amounts to energy accounting fraud. The German government and others cannot replace reliable coal plants with unreliable solar panels and windmills, but to garner international praise they inflate their numbers by pretending that the sun shines 24 hours a day and the wind blows 24 hours a day.

If Bill McKibben were engaging in pseudo-journalism and pseudo-science and pseudo-economics on some obscure blog, I wouldn’t care. But, as I reminded him more than half a dozen times during the debate, he is an intellectual superstar using his enormous platform to call for 95% of our most important source of energy to be outlawed, which, on the basis of everything we know, would ruin billions of lives. Every time I raised McKibben’s stated goal, he dodged the issue, at most voicing empty platitudes such as “I never said it would be easy.”

Tell that to the ambitious young Chinese man who, had nations followed McKibben’s past guidance, would have never gotten his first light bulb, his first refrigerator, his first decent-paying job.

Tell that to the Indian mother whose child would have died of starvation were it not for that country’s fossil-fuel-powered agricultural revolution.

Enemy of Energy

Bill McKibben is Energy Enemy Number One. And he’s particularly dangerous because he is taking the moral high ground against fossil fuels, which is the most powerful rhetorical position to have. But he does not deserve that high ground, and we who value affordable, abundant energy need to take it away from him.

The 350.org movement to morally condemn the fossil fuel industry needs to be outmatched by a movement to morally champion the fossil fuel industry and the energy industry more broadly (McKibben opposes the vast majority of nuclear and hydro). We at the Center for Industrial Progress are starting such a movement. Join us.

14 comments

1 garret seinen { 11.30.12 at 10:57 am }

Very well stated Alex. Though our problems are not with the individuals who are able to see the logic of your argument, it is only by presenting the case for abundant energy as it applies to human well-being that it is possible to preserve a modern lifestyle. The McKibbens of this world are a lost species of non humans but their ‘pied piper’ effect must be undone if we are to have a chance. Please continue the fight, gs

2 Conrad { 11.30.12 at 12:42 pm }

Brilliant.

3 Cloud { 11.30.12 at 1:36 pm }

Man qua Man is McKibben’s enemy. Call out evil when you see it. McKibben is too intelligent to be misguided…he’s purely evil.

4 Anthony { 11.30.12 at 4:59 pm }

Smart post. I think one needs to be more forceful in debates of this sort.

Here’s an article from a couple of years ago, which says many of the same things:

Wind and solar versus nuclear.

5 Ray { 11.30.12 at 5:18 pm }

McKibben sounds more like a cultist than an “intellectual superstar”. Maybe he is tring to take Al Gores job as the Elmer Gantry of enviromentalism.

6 rbradley { 11.30.12 at 8:24 pm }

Alex’s approach to the energy debate is unique and powerful. The more debates the better. Let’s hope a bunch of them are held in 2013!

7 rbradley { 12.02.12 at 8:35 am }

Cloud:

You reminded me of a key talking point. The major threat to energy sustainability is statism, which would make McKibben the #1 threat to true energy sustainability.

8 Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That? { 12.02.12 at 9:34 pm }
9 Nick { 12.03.12 at 2:11 pm }

Hi Alex,

Your second point above is really the crux of this whole argument. McKibben isn’t setting out to reduce fossil fuel use for fun, he’s doing it because the world’s weather will be profoundly affected by CO2e emissions. He spends his 10 minute opening statement laying out the evidence upon which he’s basing his concerns and calls for action.

At the beginning of your opening statement, you set aside all of McKibben’s points en masse by saying you didn’t want to respond to them. That’s a… unique way of arguing. But refusing to engage evidence doesn’t help the audience understand reality any better. You implied that McKibben had taken some evidence out of context, but provided no specifics. So one comes away from the debate not knowing: Do you accept all of his evidence, but disagree on the prescription for some unknown reason? Do you not accept some of it due to individual problems? Do you reject all of it due to a fundamental problem? (That last one seems unlikely, given the range of sources, but hey: I’m a completist.)

So, my question for you: what evidence would you require to convince you that we needed to take McKibben’s advice and make these frankly huge CO2e cuts? And why does McKibben’s evidence not rise to that level?

Once your audience knows which evidence you accept or dispute, they can make their own decisions about which of you to trust. I for one won’t be making my choice based on party or who seems like the nicer guy.

10 aepstein { 12.03.12 at 3:54 pm }

Nick,

I don’t think you’re representing what happened very accurately. For example, I engaged him on several of his claims (Germany, storms, agriculture) and showed that he was taking them out of context. More broadly, I explained how all the evidence is that on net fossil fuels make us safer. He had no answer to my point about models, my point about the minor warming so far, and to the declining climate danger. I’m curious why none of those points struck a chord with you, or at least you don’t mention them.

For McKibben to make *15* assertions to the audience that has no context of the debate was just an intellectual intimidation tactic–primarily toward the audience and secondarily toward me (if I’m defending against his deluge, I can’t point out that he’s asking for mass-suicide). The audience was glazed over the whole time; there was no learning, just an attempt to impress. Apparently you were impressed. What if he had made 40? Should I respond to all of those?

Given the chance to do it again I would have elaborated on a few more to drive home the misrepresentation going on, just as I did with the Germany example did.

Listen to Power Hour at industrialprogress.net (the beginnings and ends of the McKibben episodes) for my answer on what I’d take as proof. Essentially, it would be that the risks of the problem outweighed the risks of the solution. And if CGW was a huge problem, everyone should promote nuclear and hydro and seriously look into other technological solutions. That this is not the response of the CGW movement betrays its anti-technology, Deep Green roots.

11 NoFreeWind { 12.04.12 at 10:09 pm }

it’s real simple. Solar is a couple times more expensive than fossil, and of course it only creates electricity, not heating (except bath water maybe) nor fuel. A big reason solar is expensive is because it takes a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to mine the solar panel materials, and construct and install them. Since solar is at the very least a factor of 3x more expensive than traditional sources, I surmise that there is more fossil used to create the solar energy than we use if we had just burned fossil in the first place. Those enormous bulldozers and dump trucks don’t run on hot air. (doesn’t Bill watch Gold Rush to see what mining is all about??)

Wind is less expensive so it uses less fossil to create, but the problems of intermittency are so great that they likely negate any benefit to using wind. Again, all that is lost on Bill and his ilk. It’s never even allowed to be considered.

12 Joel { 12.07.12 at 6:45 am }

Alex, I’d like to thank you for making me more aware of the dangers of not using fossil fuels. However, I’m curious as to how your argument reflects, and indeed seems to contradict, the objectivist philosophy.

The core of your argument was utilitarian in nature, as the figure you opened with ? which suggested that over the previous century “climate danger” decreased as fossil fuel use increased ? equates to considering the question ‘do fossils fuels give rise to the greatest good for the greatest number?’. If one accepts this to be true (putting aside the fact that correlation doesn’t imply causality), the issue here is how can it be determined who is benefiting from these fuels and who is losing out?

I’m not claiming to personally object to this utilitarian perspective, I just wanted to point out that Ayn Rand herself condemned the “the greatest good for the greatest number” as “one of the most vicious slogans ever foisted on humanity”, believing it to be a powerful cover for mass exploitation. Instead she believed that every man is an end within themselves and exists for his own sake — that no man should offer themselves as a sacrifice for others, and neither should any man feed off the sacrifices of others.

You made little attempt to counter McKibben’s arguments regarding how fossil fuel based industrialisation are making the world’s environment a more dangerous place to be — rather you argued that technological progress can protect us from the changing climate. In fact, your analogy that ‘we wouldn’t ban fire because of the smoke’ implicitly acknowledged that hazards are associated with the use of fossil fuels.

But the problem with applying this analogy to fossil fuels is that the ‘smoke’ and the ‘heat’ (i.e. the benefits and hazards) do not originate from the same point, and hence there is no guarantee that the recipients of each will be the same.

So the question I have arises because your argument effectively condones that some people can be used as a means to the end — the end being the progress of humanity in the industrialised world. In which case, how much human sacrifice do you think is acceptable in order for industrial progress to remain unabated? If 100 benefit from fossil fuels while 10 people on the other side of the world die from their impacts is that ok? Could you put a number on this?

I feel that this is a fair interpretation of your argument, as your answer to the problem of the Maldives property and individual rights being damaged by sea level rise was that they should industrialise. You pointed out that the low-lying Netherlands can cope with being below sea level through development. But this is an unfair comparison: the Netherlands is embedded within Europe with access to all the natural resources it needs to industrialise, while the Maldives most abundant natural resource is fish and the nearest other land mass is India 350 km away. In addition, their economy is heavily based upon tourism, and industrialisation would compromise this.

And in any case, should the population not have the right to choose or abstain from industrialisation, rather than being forced into a particular path by a changing climate driven by the industrialised world?

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