At first glance The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and This Changes Everything are Tweedledum to the other’s Tweedledee. I mean, look at the covers. It may never have occurred to me to read these two together were it not for the matching color scheme.
And no doubt, they seem like contrariwise twins but the differences are deeper than the subject matter. Wish I could have read them unbiased, but as usual, there’s the…
Stuff I brought with me
I stumbled across The Moral Case online. It wasn’t Mr. Epstein’s book I found though. It was an 11 page pdf with the same title.
What it is, the pdf, it’s a sales pitch. Not for a moral case, that’s just the instrument. It’s a pitch for Alex Epstein and his services as a pr guy. It starts with here’s the Problem and ends with contact me directly to discuss how you or your company can win hearts and minds.
There’s great stuff in this little document. If you’re into reading things like how to reframe every issue to take the moral high ground (pg 8) and the six principles of values-based communication that we apply—and teach. My hands down favorite principle? The last one, normalize your hazards. (pg9)
So when I saw Moral Case the book in the library, I had the pdf’s let me show what I can do for you pitch already in my head.
With Naomi Klein, I had a much different bias. I haven’t read her other books, but I’ve read outtakes and reviews. I have some familiarities with her take on things and I tend to agree. She’s critical of corporate global capitalism and neoliberal economic policies and that’s the lense through which she looks.
Epstein, contrariwise, confesses to being a fan of Ayn Rand and the novel Atlas Shrugged. So there’s that.
Changes Everything assumes the reader is familiar with climate change and agrees that it’s caused by humans burning fossil fuel. Moral Case seems to assume that the reader has not read widely and has a stake in not believing that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Klein actually addresses this second point and offers some anaylsis as to what this stake might be.
Klein writes that conservatives are (rightly) afraid that if anthropogenic climate change is happening, then it calls the righteousness of neoliberal-free-market-global-corporate-industrial-capitalism into question. Because (let’s-just-call-it-)capitalism runs and grows on fossil fuels. And if using them is wrecking the planet, then maybe the capitalism isn’t so great.
A Difference in Style
Both have sections on Those who aren’t in agreement with my premise in their books. Which of the two models presented hew most closely with your experiences of people?
Klein goes to a Heartland Institute conference in 2011 and reports on different things that various people said or wrote there. She seems to come with questions like Who are these people? Who are they connected to? Why do they say what they say? The quotes and summations are all from speakers at this conference that happened not so long ago, and interestingly they’re not all on the same page. They often contradict each other. There’s no warming. Well, there’s some, but it’s not caused by emissions. Warming is irrelevant, it’s all a socialist plot. Freedom!
Epstein paints with a much broader brush. For example, he characterizes environmentalists, all of them, as nonhumanists. To get there he starts with a rational sentence. Religion is not the only standard of nonhuman value. (pg 30)
Then he takes on Bill McKibben. He uses a quote, not from McKibben’s first book, but from a 1989 review of that book by someone else. Then he uses a quote from the introduction of McKibben’s 2010 Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. The quote references an earlier work and it’s out of context, so who knows?
Then he talks about an environmental movement in India. In the 1980’s. Again with the 80’s.
There’s a lot of this in Moral Case. Cherry picking. Oversimplification. Misdirection. A narrow range of examples. Damning quotes from 30 or 40 years ago. And omissions. He’s all about omissions.
There is a real difference in the quality of discourse and thought between the two. It’s perhaps best exemplified in how they write about…
Epstein challenges the news from May 13, 2014, when for 1 hour Germany produced 74% of its energy with renewables. Part of his challenge, two graphs showing wind and solar compared to the total production of German electricity.
The problem is that Germany also gets power from hydro and biomass. They both contribute to the total production, but they’re not singled out in the graphs or even mentioned in his Germany section. He writes about wind and solar, making an argument that these are unreliable.
The news was about all renewable sources combined. Epstein represents and discusses only two of them. It’s a neat bit of bait and switch. He saves biomass for the following, not-about-Germany, section.
So how does Klein handle Germany?
She doesn’t harp on May 13. Or percentages. She has a whole different context. She starts by writing about the democratization and decentralization (not nationalization) of power production in Germany. Mostly it’s done through a national tariff program that includes incentives and priority access to the grid.
Then she notes that emissions rose in 2012 and again in 2013, the same time as the German renewable miracle. Why? Because while renewable energy and decentralized production were encouraged and nuclear began to be phased out, coal wasn’t phased out. Some coal replaced nuclear. Some was exported.
Klein isn’t trying to convince the way Epstein is. She’s mapping out territory. He’s trying to provide ammunition for an argument.
Like the claim that fossil fuel use is responsible for the eradication of disease. (pg 145) Here we have omission (germ theory), a tenuous connection (fossil fuels freed up time to do research), and mistaking correlation with causation (graphs comparing a decline in TB with a rise in fossil fuel use).
There’s the claim that in the last 15 years there’s been little or no warming. (pg 104) Another way to say it is the past 15 years have shown 9 of the hottest years on record. Or, look at these graphs from NASA. 15 years isn’t a very long time compared to 135 years.
My favorite is where he has a link to what he says is John Cook’s summary of his (Cook’s)own paper. Now, this is over what I consider a stupid point, but it’s not the point itself, it’s the way Epstein (mis)handles it.
Epstein gives this quote: Cook et al. (2013)found that over 97% [of papers he surveyed] endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions ofgreenhouse gases are the main cause.(pg 110)
There is a footnote. (And while we’re on footnotes, Changes Everything has a well organized, easy to reference footnote section. Moral Case, not so much). The footnote leads to the paper referred to, the paper where he determined this 97% number.
However, that is not the paper the quote comes from. That quote comes from another paper about… agnotology, the study of ignorance and its cultural production. The paper notes …critiques must be based on arguments actually made in the original papers if the process is to be constructive.
Two other papers supporting Cook’s findings are not at all mentioned in Moral Case.
Alex Epstein does not seem to be interested in a constructive process, unless that process is to get paid. If his book were fiction, he’d be characterized as an unreliable narrator. It’s not fiction, explicitly. It’s an expansion of his original pdf. And like his original pdf, it’s got the feel of a con. Like a street hustler trying out for a Vegas slight-of-hand magic show.
If I wasn’t convinced before, researching Epstein’s Moral claims convinced me that anthropogenic climate change is what’s happening.
Klein is certainly convinced. But it’s just a context for what she’s really passionate about, social justice. She also cares about integrity and constructive process. She’s a professional journalist, not a spin doctor/philosopher king. For her, clearly it’s not soundbites, easy answers, ammunition. It’s much more along the lines of what is actually going on? How do these systems work and interact? Are they beneficial for us? Can we change them? How?
She understands that the ends don’t justify the means. It’s all means.
And that means being thorough, not slick.
Written by Andy Bramble