Rick Perry’s tortured relationship with the English language reached new heights (or lows) last week when he somehow connected two very distinct subjects: fossil fuels and sexual assault. “Let me tell you where people are dying, is in Africa, because of the lack of energy they have there,” the energy secretary said during a speech in Washington, D.C. He asked his audience to consider it “from the standpoint of sexual assault. When the lights are on, when you have light that shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.”
Perry’s view of fossil fuels, as an unmitigated good for mankind, is a common one in the Trump administration. Kathleen Hartnett-White, the new head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, has defended coal and oil as the “lifeblood of the modern world” and lamented that policy discussions rarely include the “inestimable human benefits of fossil fuels.” Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, frequently does the same. “God has blessed us with natural resources,” he told Politico in July. “Let’s use them to feed the world. Let’s use them to power the world. Let’s use them to protect the world.”
Next week, the Trump administration reportedly will make this very case on the world stage. At the United Nation climate talks in Bonn, Germany, where countries will discuss next steps for implementing the Paris agreement, U.S. officials plan to argue that fossil fuels are key to fighting climate change, according to The New York Times. Representatives of the coal, natural gas, and nuclear industries reportedly will speak on “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation,” a presentation about “how American energy resources, particularly fossil fuels, can help poor countries meet electricity needs and drive down greenhouse gas emissions.”
Some of these defenses of fossil fuels may sound reasonable enough. Oil and coal have indeed been the “lifeblood of the modern world” for over a hundred years, improving lives and promoting prosperity around the world. And there’s no doubt that access to electricity must be expanded in poor countries. But the Trump administration’s argument conveniently ignores two important realities: the rise of affordable and viable renewable energy, and the scientific consensus that our reliance on fossil fuels will increase human suffering. That’s why the ascendant moral case for fossil fuels is even more pernicious than the climate-change denial on which it rests.
The moral case for fossil fuels, as promulgated on the right, states that fossil fuels have improved humans’ lives for more than a century—mainly through economic growth—and thus will continue to do so. The benefits of oil, gas, and coal consumption, the argument goes, far outweigh the environmental and public health costs, which have been wildly overstated by scientists anyway.
Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001) was one of the first books to make this case. “We are not running out of natural resources,” he wrote. “Acid rain does not kill the forests, and the air and water around us are becoming less and less polluted.” The risks of climate change are also allegedly overstated, and solving it would create more problems that it would fix. “Global warming, though its size and future projections are unrealistically pessimistic, is almost certainly taking place,” he wrote, “but the typical cure of early and radical fossil fuel cutbacks is way worse than our original affliction.” At the end of the book, Lomborg concluded:
We are actually leaving the world a better place than when we got it and this is the really fantastic point about the real state of the world: that mankind’s lot has vastly improved in every significant measurable field and that it is likely to continue to do so.
Thus, this is the very message of the book: children born today—in both the industrialized world and developing countries—will live longer and be healthier, they will get more food, a better education, a higher standard of living, more leisure time and far more possibilities—without the global environment being destroyed.
Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2014) similarly argued that the “benefits of fossil fuels go far beyond climate: cheap, plentiful, reliable energy gives human beings the power to improve every aspect of life, including productivity, food, clothing, and shelter.” But Epstein also took Lomborg’s ideas a step further, arguing that it’s immoral to oppose fossil fuels because humanity has not benefitted equally from the fossil-fuel revolution. “You can’t be a humanitarian and condemn the energy humanity needs,” he wrote. “To oppose fossil fuels is ultimately to oppose the underdeveloped world.” Epstein went so far as to say, “I believe that we owe the fossil fuel industry an apology. While the industry has been producing the energy to make our climate more livable, we have treated it as a villain. We owe it the kind of gratitude that we owe anyone who makes our lives much, much better.”
The Trump administration espouses similar views. Last month, at a regional oil summit in South Africa, Perry called for a “a global clean coal alliance” and bemoaned the “culture of shame” surrounding fossil fuels. “If you admit you support fossil fuels, it’s like saying you’ve made some huge social error,” he said. “But it’s in fossil fuels that you will see real growth.” Perhaps no Trump official is moralistic about fossil fuels than EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “True environmentalism from my perspective is using natural resources that God has blessed us with to feed the world,” he said last month. Like Epstein, Pruitt also accuses modern environmentalists of valuing untouched land over human prosperity. If given an apple orchard that could feed the hungry, Pruitt said, environmentalists “would say it’s so pristine and we shouldn’t touch it.”
This is a false characterization of modern environmentalism, which argues instead that mankind cannot prosper in the long run if it continues to burn fossil fuels at the current rate. “The view that nature and humanity are inextricably bound together more accurately captures the environmental perspective,” Jody Freeman, a ConocoPhillips board member and founding director of Harvard’s environmental law program, wrote in acriticismof Epstein’s book. “Those who argue for a shift to cleaner energy are not working to save the planet for its own sake but rather to avoid disastrous long-term consequences tohumans.” For instance: “Sea-level rise may be greater than even the best-built seawalls can manage. Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and floods, could be severe enough to lead to the dislocation of large populations, which can’t easily be returned home. Drought and heat waves could affect crop and meat production, disrupting the food supply. Changes to ecosystems may cause the extinction of highly valuable plant and animal species, the benefit of which would be lost forever.”
These impacts directly threaten human life and prosperity. Scientists aren’t the only ones who say so; insurance companies, economists, and the U.S. military do, too. Even many fossil-fuel companies acknowledge the threat of climate change. “The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” ExxonMobil states on its website. “Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect.” BP’s site states, “So why do companies that produce oil and gas want to see more done to tackle climate change? The first reason is simply that we want the planet to be sustainable in the future. We have the same hopes and fears for our children and grandchildren as anyone else.”
The moral case for fossil fuels also ignores, or outright denies, advances in renewable energy. Electricity no longer has to come from coal or oil. Solar and wind technologies are cheaper and easier to deploy than they were even five years ago; solar energy is quickly becoming the cheapest source of new electricity. And renewables aren’t just available to major economies: Developing countries invest more in renewables than rich countries do. In Africa, there are “huge untapped resources for renewable energy,” and scientists believe rising electricity demand could be met with renewable sources “at a similar cost to conventional fossil fuel generation.”
In other words, developing countries can grow without following the fossil-fueled path of America and other developed nations. “Emerging economies can benefit from what we have learned, and take advantage of the low carbon technologies we have invented,” Freeman wrote. Perhaps that is the real moral obligation: “To help developing economies grow in a way that will not put their populations at greater risk in the future.”
Most of the world won’t be persuaded by the Trump administration’s moral case for fossil fuels. “It will probably be largely ignored,” Andrew Light, a former State Department climate advisor now working with the World Resources Institute, said about America’s planned presentation for next week’s climate talks. “Everyone agrees that we need to rapidly research the non-fossil sector and scale up its capacity for deployment.”
That includes developing countries. “The African Union has coordinated African support for the Paris Agreement, bringing the continent together as one voice to speak on climate change,” Christina Golubski, the assistant director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, wrote in June. “So far, the continent’s proactive approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation conveys hope for the future of the planet. Given the continent’s size and rapid growth, its recognition of the importance to balance economic growth with low-carbon efforts might help ensure—even without the U.S.—that the goals of the Paris Agreement can be achieved.”
But plenty of Americans are receptive to the administration’s moral argument. As Light said, “It could be that [Trump officials] want to telegraph back home to fossil fuel interests and political contributors that they are going to continue to stand by fossil fuels,” he said. “They want to speak to those people who believe that action on climate change is a war coal and coal communities.” The real danger is that Trump’s message connects not only with industry powers and coal country voters, but the broader Republican Party. Not too long ago, there was fairly broad agreement within the GOP that climate change was real, caused by humans, and required action. Not anymore, as The New York Times’ Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton wrote in June:
The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.
That partisan chasm gave rise in prominence to climate-change deniers, whose beliefs are now shared by abouthalf of Republicans. If tens of millions of Americans believe that global warming is a hoax—or that it’s result of natural earth cycles and not a cause for concern—then it’s hardly a stretch for them to believe that burning fossil fuels is actually healthy for the planet. Climate denialism, in other words, is just the gateway drug; fossil-fuel moralism is the deadly stuff—and thanks to the Trump administration, it could become an epidemic.