A Free-Market Energy Blog

Challenging Bill McKibben and the Green Establishment: The Environmental Case for Fossil Fuels

By -- September 28, 2012

I’m debating Bill McKibben this November on the environmental impact of fossil fuels. Here is a preview.

99.9% of discussion of fossil fuels and our environment ignores the single most important fact about fossil fuels and our environment: fossil fuels have made our environment amazingly good.

The difference between a healthy environment and an unhealthy environment can be summed up in one word, and it’s not “CO2” or “climate” or “temperature.” It’s “development.”

Every region of the world, in its undeveloped state, is full of deadly environmental hazards such as indoor air pollution, bacteria-filled water, excessive cold, excessive heat, lack of rainfall, too much rainfall, powerful storms, disease-carrying insects, lack of sanitation, disease-carrying crops and animals, etc.

And yet some nations, such as the US, have the best air, water, indoor temperature, crops, sanitation, water supplies, storm-protection, disease-prevention, sanitation, and overall environmental quality in human history–while others are plagued by heat waves, cold snaps, drought, storms, crop failures, malaria and dozens of other dread diseases, filth, dung-burning fires, lack of clean drinking water.

The reason for this is development–the improvement of nature to meet human needs. Development means water purification systems, irrigation, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetically-improved crops, dams, sea walls, heating, air conditioning, sturdy homes, drained swamps, central power stations, vaccination, pharmaceuticals, and so on.

Every aspect of development has one common requirement: cheap, plentiful, reliable energy. And we would not have cheap, plentiful, reliable energy without the fossil fuel industry. Fossil fuels have transformed hazardous natural environments the world over into healthy human environments–environments that include an unprecedented ability to explore and safely enjoy nature.

Whether you’re drinking clean drinking water, listening to a thunderstorm with pleasure instead of fear, or going to the Grand Canyon, you should be thanking Big Coal, Big Oil, and Big Gas.

And when you hear heartbreaking stories of children with diseases that we once had but no longer do–malaria, tuberculosis, even the plague–you should commit yourself to bringing about a world that produces more energy. Much more energy–at today’s global level of energy production, only 2.5 billion people out of 7 billion could use as much energy as Europeans do.

Energy Poverty, not CO2, Is the Problem

But to listen to the environmental establishment, the cause of the problems of the bad environments is not the blatant deficiency in energy and development. The alleged problem is the energy that makes development possible: the 85% of energy production that comes from fossil fuels. Generating power from fossil fuels increases the trace percentage of CO2 in our atmosphere. (Revealingly, “environmentalists” find reasons to oppose the other, CO2-free, sources of practical power, nuclear and hydroelectric.) That CO2 is, amazingly, the villain in all our environmental ills.

That the good environments exist is an inconvenient truth. If acknowledged, one could not pretend that the environmental problems of North Mexico vs. the environmental health of South Texas were caused by today’s climate.

Consider this highlight clip from Bill McKibben, “the nation’s leading environmentalist” according to The Boston Globe, in which he blames certain increases in malaria, dengue fever, cholera, and salmonella on CO2-induced climate change.

What about a lack of development, of proper sanitation, and, above all, of the wonderful synthetic malaria-killer that is DDT? More broadly, what about a lack of the cheap, reliable fossil fuel energy that has underlain all of Western industrial and technological development?

It doesn’t even get a mention–let alone the starring role it deserves in any discussion of improving our environment.

Unfortunately, it rarely gets a mention by the other side, either. Advocates and producers of fossil fuels have largely failed to make the environmental case for fossil fuels, and thus ceded the environmental high ground to McKibben and the rest of the catastrophic global warming movement.

McKibben’s Challenge to the Fossil-Fuel Industry

This concession reached a gory climax in July, when McKibben published the article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” in which he called for a movement to condemn and dismantle the fossil fuel industry. He called the fossil fuel industry “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.” “[W]e need,” he has said in his popular book Eaarth (the extra “a” represents a damaged planet) “to cut our fossil fuel use by a factor of twenty over the next few decades.”

The article was a sensation. It received 120,000 “Likes” on Facebook–which an exultant Center for American Progress blogger described as “monster social media numbers of the kind usually reserved for pieces on HuffPost about Kim Kardashian in a bikini.” And it was celebrated by citizens and intellectual elites alike.

McKibben had declared the fossil fuel industry to be immoral, an environmental menace–he had declared open war on the fossil fuel industry–the war was celebrated by the media–and yet the industry was silent. Keep in mind McKibben is no piker–this is a man who in 2009 organized 5200 simultaneous protests for 350.org.

… and My Challenge to McKibben

Someone needed to say something. And not just on a corner of the Internet the environmental establishment could evade, but somewhere that the truth could not be ignored–a public debate, recorded for posterity and promoted around the world.

So I challenged McKibben to a public debate. I stated my reasons on YouTube, and I offered McKibben $10,000 and a venue at Duke University (thanks to the Program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace). To his credit, he quickly accepted.

Thus, on November 5, at Duke University, McKibben will be arguing that “fossil fuels are a risk to the planet.” I will be arguing that “fossil fuels improve the planet.”

This is the first debate ever where a world-class environmentalist will be challenged by the powerful environmental case for fossil fuels. It is an opportunity to show the world how the truth about fossil fuels stacks up against the best the other side has to offer.

But this opportunity will only exist to the extent we can marshal the resources to get the word out.

Please help promote this debate–especially if you are in the free-market energy community or fossil fuel industry. Our official website is www.fossilfueldebate.com, and you can also visit our Facebook page. For more info on how to get involved, you can reach me at alex@alexepstein.com.


  1. rbradley  

    You speak of oil, gas, and coal, and you might also talk more explicitly about a major product from the same–electricity.

    I like Erich Zimmermann’s characterization of electricity as creating the Second Industrial Revolution: http://www.masterresource.org/2011/05/electricity-master-master-resource/



    What are the odds that someone will offer Weepy Bill more than $10,000 to have a last minute scheduling conflict?


  3. Jon Boone  

    Electricity, responsible for about 40% of our energy use, also makes possible the Digital Revolution. And it will undergird the coming revolution wrought by quantum computing. We really ain’t seen nothing yet.

    Since energy is omnipresent and cannot be created or destroyed, humanity’s ability to locate discreet, highly dense amounts of it to fuel machines that convert it to controllable power is the essence of our modernity. For it allows us economies of scale to coordinate convergent activity in time and space, which is what modern hospitals, transportation systems, and protected ecosystems really represent. Why, horror of horrors, the NFL and MLB, not to mention the NBA, couldn’t exist without machines converting high energy densities into modern power. (To say nothing of Pixar….)

    The overarching goal, in terms of economic efficiency and improved ecosystems, should be developing machinery that runs on the densest energies, producing the most power in the smallest space at a scale affordable by all consistent with the most informed notions of public health. McKibbon will likely argue the public health angle, which you should rather easily expose as nonsense, on balance.

    That McKibben and his ilk oppose ALL the machinery run by high density energy sources–nuclear, oil, gasoline, natural gas, and coal, along with reservoirs of impounded water–suggests that they reject modernity, and all of its manifold benefits. McKibben’s evident desire to “return” to a state of nature–an acadian ideal–that never really existed typifies much that is wrong with contemporary environmentalism. It relies upon sloganeering, sophistry, and sentimentalism, too blithely unaware of its sanctimony, its unscience, and its complicity in contributing to the very “problems” it opposes.


  4. Saint  

    Ask McKibbon if he has any idea what the whale population might look like today if not for kerosene. Or what forests might look like. Fossils fuels have been a boon to the environment.


  5. rbradley  


    Or the horse population given the agriculture required to feed them.


  6. Marlo Lewis  

    Alex, an exciting prospect — a debate featuring a genuine clash of visions. Anticipate McKibben relying heavily on the “evidence” of catastrophes that haven’t happened yet!


  7. GuarionexSandoval  

    I think what most people miss when they talk about “our environment” is that the natural environment is not the human environment. There is almost nothing in the human environment that exists in the natural environment except as substrate for the inventiveness of the human mind. And almost any human, dropped “au naturale” into the natural environment, would quickly perish unless specially trained. Furthermore, as Alex points out, the degree to which humans are able to move more deeply into the human environment is the degree to which they will be healthier, happier, richer, and longer-lived. And the degree to which they are able to move more deeply into this human territory depends on the degree to which they have energy to create that world. When there was only muscle power or limited wind and water power, life was short and hard. Thanks to the inventiveness of the human mind in understanding the natural world and figuring out ways to tap, create, and control sources of energy, we have a truly spectacular life in a world of our own design.


  8. Ray  

    McKibben lives in some sort of environmentalist fantasy land. I don’t believe for an instant he would like to live without plentiful cheap energy. When I was a child my father was a field superindtendent for an oil company. We lived out by the oil field at the end of the electric line. We had an outdoor toilet, an outdoor manual water pump, a coal stove, and an ice box. We had electric lights and also kerosene lamps for when the electricity went out. If you wanted a hot bath you had to heat the water on the coal stove. You washed clothes in a tub with a rubboard.
    When we moved into town I was thrilled. We had an electric refrigerator, indoor plumbing and a hot water heater. I was in heaven, no more hauling coal or pumping water. When the environmentalists rhapsodize about getting back to nature, I just laugh at their ignorance. Let them try it and see how they like it.


  9. The Environmental Case for Fossil Fuels | EPA Abuse  

    […] Read more at Master Resource. By Alex Epstein. […]


  10. rbradley  

    This McKibben quote on Rachel Carson caught my eye: “She was the very first person to knock some of the shine off modernity.”

    – Quoted in Eliza Griswold, “The Wild Life of ‘Silent Spring’,” New York Times Magazine, p. 41.


  11. Robert Hargraves  

    You are right that energy poverty keeps civilization in poor countries environmentally unhealthy; electricity is needed for sanitation, water purification, transportation, refrigeration of food, etc. Even Jeffrey Sachs agrees that inexpensive energy technologies are needed in the developing countries. But the best answer for the future really is advanced nuclear power, without the pollution from coal plants. THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, is described at http://www.thoriumenergycheaperthancoal.com


  12. ilma630  

    Alex, go for it! I repeatedly challenge what BmK tweets, but never get a response. His continued alarmism and hatred of conventional fuels (which keeps him in a comfortable, clean and healthy lifestyle, with all modern conveniences) is so overtly hypocritical, it’s unbelievable.

    I heard him speak in person in Cambridge, UK, and what he said then was just unbelievable.

    The while premise of 350 ppm of CO2 is entirely mistaken and unachievable. He is the classic fool who thinks man can control nature. His talk is available here http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/Multimedia.php?Mode=Add&ItemID=Item_Multimedia_441&width=720&height=460 and the Q&A session following here http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/Multimedia.php?Mode=Add&ItemID=Item_Multimedia_460&width=720&height=460

    When Bill speaks, pick him up on anything he tries to use as example and ask for evidence, pick him up on any future projections, and his use of “could” and “might”, as this is all conjecture based on models and unsubstantiated linking of events to man’s CO2 emissions. Don’t let him fob you off, and make him answer hard questions of fact.

    Also, remind him that if he claims to be a Christian, why does he ‘deny’ God’s good gift of oil, coal, gas, and so deny and reject God himself. These energy sources are part of God’s creation, the very thing he called “good”, so he’s completely confused there too! Aks him too why he supports the environmentalist concept of “man is a cancer on Earth” when the Christian message is that man is held in higher regard than Earth, and the death and resurrection of Jesus was to save man, not destroy him. The welfare of man is the Christian’s prime concern, Earth is secondary (although not unimportant, and still requires wise stewardship).

    BmK and his cohorts have long played dirty in their CAGW advocacy and alarmism, so it’s time to call him to account.


  13. rbradley  

    The debate has been held and has received good attention.

    This from Andrew Revkin of the NYT:

    “Watch this video [http://www.livestream.com/windrose/video?clipId=pla_e2f0a23d-0911-474f-affb-03cfb7350a60&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb}of this week’s Duke University debate between carbon campaigner Bill McKibben and carbon defender Alex Epstein to see how this plays out.

    Who won?

    Given that they argued their positions using entirely different framings of costs and benefits, victory is in the eyes of the viewer.”


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