In a debate about climate change Monday night at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Robert Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist and member of the famed Massachusetts political clan, took on Alex Epstein – a young philosopher, author and fervent defender of fossil fuels.
The Free to Be Coalition – a conservative-leaning organization dedicated to intellectual diversity on college campuses – hosted the event in the University Memorial Center. CU Regent Heidi Ganahl, who introduced the speakers, helped found Free to Be last year.
“These days, you can seldom find real debates over important public issues on college campuses,” said Ganahl, who acknowledged the existence of climate change. “We at Free to Be believe that what is lacking is respectful and intellectual combat.”
She said goals for the event included modelling for “students what feisty collaborative debate looks like” and re-examining “the intersection between right and wrong.”
Epstein and Kennedy both agreed that climate change is happening, that humans contribute to it meaningfully and that free-market market capitalism is the way out.
That’s about all that can be said for common ground between the two — at least regarding last night’s event, where barbs were tossed early and audience members had no trouble chiming in with applause and the occasional jeer.
Energy and Daily Life
Cahill Kellegan, a second-year graduate student in the geology program at the Colorado School of Mines, drove up from Golden. The event’s focus on energy piqued his interest.
He came with a friend – another Mines student working on solar panel technology.
The United States has limited its carbon dioxide emissions by tenfold in recent years, Kellegan said, mostly via its early adoption of natural gas, which he described as far less carbon-intensive than other fossil fuels.
“It’s been the most influential thing for us in terms of cutting CO2 emissions,” he said, “so I’d like to see that happening elsewhere.”
That pro-energy, conservative-but-concerned take on the climate crisis was not the one Epstein brought to the debate.
He placed the high quality of life widely enjoyed in the industrialized world squarely at the feet of fossils fuels and the cheap, reliable energy they provide.
Economically, Epstein took a protectionist stance cautioning the U.S. against losing ground to the developing world over environmental concerns. He tempered that with a more humanist aspiration of expanding the industrialized way of life to those very parts of the world.
“Low cost, reliable energy is far more important to the amazing way of life that billions of us have and that billions of people aspire to than I realized,” Epstein said.
He said that no renewable power source – barring nuclear – comes close to coal, oil or natural gas in terms of reliability or cost efficiency.
Epstein believes that jeopardizing that powerful techno-societal sustenance is unwarranted.
He characterized the findings of climate scientists as inconclusive and blown out of proportion by an alarmist environmental movement backed by the left.
“What’s actually happening in the world is that, yes – we’re having an influence,” he said. “But that influence is far milder and more manageable” than many make it out to be.
He characterized global warming rooted in human carbon emissions as a “manageable side effect with an amazing benefit.”
Epstein also had a notably lax attitude toward the natural environment.
“We live in the cleanest environment that anyone’s ever lived in in history in terms of sanitation, clean water,” and clean air, Epstein said.
“A huge part of it is because we use low-cost energy and machines to take the environment, which is naturally dirty and dangerous in many ways, and make it cleaner,” he said.
That was one of numerous fundamental ideological breaks between Epstein and Kennedy, whose points wouldn’t have been out of place at the Sierra Club or within the global Waterkeeper Alliance he founded.
Between allusions to high-impact imagery like oil spills or melting ice caps and references to blunt, powerful statistics, Kennedy put forth a particularly bleak outlook.
“We’re living in a science-fiction nightmare because of carbon,” Kennedy said. “This is not something that’s going to happen in the future. It’s happening today.”
The Almighty Market
Surprisingly, Kennedy may have been more focused on the economy than Epstein – and not in the pandering, vaguely leftist terms many Democrats bring to campuses like CU.
“True free market capitalism,” Kennedy said, would be America’s best course of action. It’s something he said “we don’t have in this country. We have corporate, crony capitalism.”
Kennedy took aim at the subsidies and favorable legislation lobbyists have passed on behalf of the fossil fuels industry.
Today, he said, the way those firms are regulated (or not) in the U.S. doesn’t hold them accountable for their negative externalities – namely carbon dioxide emissions.
He characterized that as a fundamental, decidedly anti-capitalist flaw in the market.
In spite of their hugely divergent conclusions about climate change, Kennedy and Epstein agreed that governments should not ban fossil fuels.
“I don’t think that kind of aggressive government intervention will have a good outcome,” Kennedy said.
Ganahl said the centrist, if not right-of-center economic attitudes both speakers promoted, was not something Free to Be aimed for when planning the event.
“Our student committee tried to find really interesting speakers that had different perspectives,” before figuring out, “whose schedules would work and how we could get both of them to Colorado at the same time.”
Ganahl described herself as an “all-of-the-above energy person,” who believes “we should support all types of energy production and let the free markets figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
She said she misses “People agreeing to listen to both sides of an issue and have feisty collaborative debate,” on college campuses.
“That used to be fun for people and I think we’ve gotten away from that in our country,” she said.
Her hope was “that we can get back to looking at both sides of an issue, because I think the best solutions come from both ends.”