Is it “Moral” to Restrict Fossil Fuel Use to Mitigate Future Sea Level Rise?

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


Organizations of all sorts are scrambling to get their ducks in a row in preparations for The People’s Climate March (we are not making this up) scheduled in NYC on September 21st as a prelude to the U. N.’s Climate Summit on the 23rd.  President Obama has pledged to be at the Summit.  The leaders of China, India, Australia, Germany, Canada, among others, have better things to do.

One of the pre-Summit events being held by several sponsors of The People’s Climate March is a Capitol Hill briefing scheduled for Thursday, the 18th. The Franciscan Action Network, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands (there is no way we could have made up that collaboration) are hosting a briefing titled “The Impact of Sea Level Rise Right Now: Stories of the Lived Experience and the Moral Call to Action.”

The bottom line of the briefing will be that:

Climate change is a moral, non-partisan and pragmatic issue which can be addressed by solutions with multiple co-benefits. We urge legislators to join global business, faith, scientific, health and military leaders in acknowledging that climate disruptions are real, happening now, and requiring our nation’s leaders to act.

It is interesting that they juxtapose a “moral issue” with calls for “policies to reduce national and global greenhouse gas emissions.” Interesting, we say, because there is a soon-to-be released and incredibly compelling book written by the Center for Industrial Progress’s Alex Epstein titled The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Its main premise is that both the short- and long-term benefits of using fossil fuels greatly outweigh the risks of any climate change that may occur as the result of the accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. Epstein argues that the “moral” thing to do is to continue (and expand) the use fossil fuels:

If we look at the big picture of fossil fuels compared with the alternatives, the overall impact of using fossil fuels is to make the world a far better place. We are morally obligated to use more fossil fuels for the sake of our economy and our environment.

The primary case against expansion of current fossil fuel use involves the risk from anthropogenic climate change.  However, here, the threats are overstated—especially by organizations (like many of those behind The People’s Climate March) that favor centralized government control of energy production (and most everything else).

The sea level rise concerns that are to be described in the Hill briefing will undoubtedly fall into the “overstated” category. According to the briefing’s flier:

“The U.S. National Climate Assessment projected that sea levels will rise 1 to 4 feet by 2100, affecting 39 percent of the U.S. population and impacting the very futures of many coastal communities and small island nations.”

We imagine that the focus will be on the high end of the 1 to 4 foot range (and beyond), even as a plethora of new science argues for an outcome nearer to the low end.

The current decadal rate of sea level rise is about 3 mm (.12 in) per year, which would result in about a foot of sea level rise during the 21st century. There  is a lot of recent research that concludes that a large increase in this rate of rise as a result of the melting of Greenland’s and/or Antarctica’s glaciers is unlikely.

The statistical models most responsible for the high-end sea level rise projections used have been shown to be questionable and thus unreliable. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the future projection of temperature rise made by climate models (upon which the sea level rise projections are based) have been shown by a growing body of scientific research to be overestimated by about 40 percent.

Taken together, the latest science argues that the case for rapid and disruptive sea level rise is flimsy at best.

Undoubtedly, sea levels will continue to rise into the future, in part, from the earth’s temperature increase as a result of human carbon dioxide emissions resulting from our use of fossil fuels. Appropriate adaptations will be necessary. However, signs point to a rather modest rise in sea levels accompanying a rather modest rise in temperature—a pace at which our adaptive response can keep up.

So long as this is remains case, the continued use of fossil fuels to power the developed world and the expanded use to help provide safe, reliable, and cheap electricity to the more than 1 billion people in the underdeveloped world that currently live without any (or very minimal) access to it is a no-brainer.  That’s where the moral imperative should lie.