A Free-Market Energy Blog

Cowen on ‘Fossil Future’: Expert Failure?

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- February 15, 2024

“I don’t agree with many (any?) of [Alex Epstein’s] points in his response, and it is conspicuously lacking in arguments about climate itself.”  Tyler Cowen

“It’s sad that a guy as smart as Tyler not only 1) irresponsibly commented on a book he was not willing to read carefully, but also 2) refused to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever.” Alex Epstein

It was distributed on social media by the director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan programs office, Jigar Shah, described as “The man in charge of how the US spends $400bn to shift away from fossil fuels.” Shah forwarded Tyler Cowen’s post (at Marginal Revolution) critiquing Alex Epstein’s book, Fossil Future: Why Human Flourishing Requires Using More Oil, Gas, and Coal–Not Less.

A ‘classical liberal’ handing an intellectual gift to a DOE grifter? An intellectual Green Light on the climate road to serfdom? I guess the Mercatus Center (headed by Cowen) is protected from the angry climate mob, but what gives?


Tyler Cowen is pretty close to a genius and covers more issues in the sciences, humanities, and arts than anyone else in the world. (I think I am right on this.) He was once a classical liberal/libertarian. He has aged into different views. Perhaps he has outgrown the doctrinaire and is onto the truth in matters in which I (and others) disagree with him. Another view is that he has a bit of “Joseph Schumpeter” contrarianism in him–and/or does not want to offend but keep his reach wide with political correctness.

Anyway, on the subjects of climate alarm and forced energy transformation, which I have lived and breathed for several decades, I differ profoundly with Tyler. This issue is so fundamental and complex on multiple levels that it requires a lot of multidisciplinary study that I do not believe he has done, being a generalist, even a genius generalist.

My overall views on the science and policy of climate change are summarized in my rebuttal to Jonathan Adler’s (peculiar) quest to make a classical-liberal case for judicial activism and activist policy otherwise. I rebutted Adler’s brief response, and his longer (quasi-promised) rebuttal to my original piece has not materialized.

Cowen’s Critique

Below, I repost Tyler’s criticisms juxtaposed with my rebuttal. I give Tyler the white pieces by putting his prose in green. I also should note that Tyler’s is a quick review rather than a scholarly in-depth review where footnotes would make it easier to see where his reliance is coming from. So, assuming he has ammo in the closet, I hope he will respond in more detail–or just ask me the hard questions. I challenge him and Jonathan Adler and any others in/near the classical liberal camp to debate.

Cowen: My overall view is this: it is a good rebuttal to “the unrealistic ones,” who don’t see the benefits of fossil fuels.  But it does not rebut a properly steelmanned case for a transition away from fossil fuels.

Comment: This (very small) concession has also been made over the decades by Paul Ehrlich, Amory Lovins, James Hansen, John Holdren and other leading fossil-fuel critics. It is that coal, oil, and gas were once good but no longer are sustainable. No favors to Epstein here.

I view the steelmanned case as this: we cannot simply keep on producing increasing amounts of carbon emissions for centuries on end.  We thus need some trajectory where — at a pace we can debate — carbon emissions end up declining.  I’ve stressed on MR many times that climate change is not in fact an existential risk, but it could be a civilization-destroying risk if we just keep on boosting carbon emissions without end.  I don’t know a serious scientist who takes issue with that claim.

Comment: This assumes what has to be debated. “We need” as in expert government planning? Calling Adam Smith (“Man of System“), F. A. Hayek (“The Fatal Conceit”), and Roger Koppl “Expert Failure“).

The sweeping statement “we cannot simply keep on producing increasing amounts of carbon emissions for centuries on end” is very vague–and problematic on close inspection. First, the forcing effect of GHGs peters out over time as the atmosphere fills up with carbon dioxide (the ‘saturation effect’). There is a gob of room between what helps the plants and what is dangerous for human health.

Centuries from now? To know the “problem” and the ‘solution’ is surely a pretense of knowledge regarding a trace gas that is known to be beneficial in multiples of today’s level under laboratory conditions. It can also be argued that the positive ‘fat tail’ of CO2 enrichment is an insurance policy against global cooling (thought to be the case a half century ago) or an outbreak of massive coincident volcanoes.

Tyler’s distinction between “existential risk” (not to him) and “could be …civilization-destroying risk” downplays a key argument of Epstein: climate mastery from the use of non-substitutable fossil fuels (versus wind and solar in particular). In other words, physical climate can be far worse in the future yet be neutral or “better” in business and economic terms because of fossil-fuel-enabled, capitalist progress.

In a number of places, such as pp. 251-252, and most significantly chapter nine, Epstein denies the likelihood of climate apocalypse, but I just don’t see that he has much of a counter to the standard, more quantitative accounts. 

Comment: Tyler is out of date on this one. The “fat tail” analyses have been scaled back in the peer-reviewed literature and in the IPCC reports, which have reduced the top end of climate sensitivity estimates from climate models with a greater degree of confidence.

Further, the mainstream range of climate sensitivity is from models that are running too hot (see Spencer 2024 and his rebuttal to Gavin Schmidt). It is quite arguable that the “climate change” externality is positive with CO2 science being far more settled than climate-model science.

He should try to publish his more optimistic take using actual models, and see if it can survive peer review.  Why should I be convinced in the meantime?  I found chapter nine the weakest part of the book.  Maybe he feels he wouldn’t get a fair knock by trying to publish his alternative take through “the standard process,” but as it stands his casual take doesn’t come close to overturning what I consider to be the most rational, consensus-based Bayesian estimate of the consequences of making no transition to green energy.

Comment: Models and expert review in the Malthusian tradition? What is the track record of such since the MIT/Club of Rome model of the early 1970s? Dismal. Malthus in-Malthus out modeling is as speculative today as fifty years ago. Climate models might well be worse than nothing.

I am also impressed by how many different kinds of scientists accept these conclusions, and see these conclusions mirrored in their own research.  If you ask say the oceanographers, they will give you a broadly consistent account as the climate scientists proper.

Comment: About what, exactly? Settled or unsettled science? If Tyler wants to point out a particular hypothesis, that issue will surely have a counter-thesis, the more alarmist the more so [such as the repetitive Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC)] scare.

Nor is there, for my taste, enough discussion of how much climate risk we should be willing to take on.  It is not just about “beliefs most likely to be true.”  Note that the less you believe in climate models, the more you should be worried about tail risk.  In these matters, do not assume that uncertainty is the friend of inaction.

Comment: Again, Tyler is out of date with “fat tail risk” by 15 years or more (see Judith Curry, Robert Murphy, and Robert Bradley).

And what about climate policy risk, all pain and no gain in the present and for the knowable future? Uncertainty is the enemy of (government) action from Day 1. Net zero is the “fat tail” threat of today.

So I really do think we need to deviate from the world’s recent course with respect to fossil fuels.  Now, we can believe that claim and simultaneously believe it would be better if Burkina Faso were much richer, even though that likely would be accompanied by more fossil fuel use, at least for a considerable period of time.

Comment: Who is “we”? Experts and government? Tyler goes vague with his second sentence, suggesting that Genius He could model what the “optimal” fossil-fuel usage would be, and global government could implement it short of “government failure”.

Epstein focuses on the Burkina Faso sort of issue, and buries the long-term risk of no real adjustment.  But we do have to adjust.  Why could he not have had the subtitle: “Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas for a while, and Then Less”?  Then I would be happier.  In economic language, you could say he is not considering enough of the margins.

Comment: “We” (as in government) have to adjust to an extreme hypothetical? How about the free market and personal and societal wealth adjusting in a decentralized way? (Epstein himself refutes Cowen for the strawman of advocating open-ended increases in fossil fuel usage.)

I would not speculate about when the economics of energy will portend a shift from the stock energy age so well recognized by W. S. Jevons in 1865. The fossil-fuel era could be quite young. And Hayek has warned against those who would state that forced conservation should start ‘now’ with so-called depleting minerals (or ‘depleting’ livable climate). Question: would Tyler have pulled the phase-down trigger years or decades ago? To what cost and benefit?

I think he is also too pessimistic about the long-run and even medium-run futures of alternative energy sources.  More generally, I don’t think a few book chapters — by anyone with any point of view — can really settle that.  I find the market data on green investments more convincing than his more abstract arguments (yes, I know a lot of those investments are driven by subsidies and regulation, but there is genuine change afoot).

Comment: Does Tyler understand the concept of energy density and how dilute, intermittent substitutes cannot substitute in mass for consumer-chosen, taxpayer-neutral energies? Green energy failures can easily be understood in terms of consumer preference and energy physics. Wind, solar, and EVs have a long history of demonstration and rejection in a free market. (Commercial nuclear too.) Energy history matters.

I worry about his list of experts presented on pp. 29-30.  Mostly they are very weak, and this returns to my point about steelmanning.

Comment: Tyler is referring to alarmist experts chosen by Epstein, not skeptic/optimist experts. And Tyler is off base. James Hansen, the father of the climate alarm (in 1988), is a very top scientist for his side and active today in the technical literature. Michael Mann is the ‘father’ of the IPCC’s swing to high-sensitivity warming as author of the controversial ‘Hockey Stick’ temperature reconstruction. The other five are mainstream science biggies, and then there is Al Gore (politics) and Amory Lovins (energy policy). Most on Epstein’s list are go-to’s for the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and other mainstream publications. His list is fine, although more examples could be given.

In his inscription to the book Epstein calls me a contrarian — but he is the contrarian here!  And I believe his position is likely to retain that designation.  There is a lot in the book which is good, and true, nonetheless I fear the final message of the work will lower rather than raise social welfare.

Comment: Epstein is right. As someone considered on the classical liberal side of things, Cowen is a contrarian. And in this case, he is not the scholar I know.

For another point of view, here are various Bryan Caplan posts defending Epstein’s arguments.  In any case, I thank Alex for the book.

Comment: I would welcome a debate between Cowen and Bryan Caplan where the former will have to bone up on the issues and get specific about his arguments. But before this, I would encourage Cowen to interview Stephen Koonin (author of Unsettled) or Judith Curry side-by-side with the alarmist/forced energy transformationist of choice.

Overall Comment

Alex Epstein’s rebuttal to Cowen is extensive and devastating. Cowen’s dismissive response to Epstein is unscholarly–and arrogant in the extreme. I again reference my “Law and Liberty” rebuttal (to Jonathan Adler) for a full case for Epstein over Cowen.

The intellectual and practical case for not pricing or otherwise regulating CO2 has grown stronger, not weaker, over time. Time increases adaptation on the one hand and diminishes mitigation (per metric ton) on the other. And it is reaching the point of ‘game over’ as climate policy is currently structured. The climate math, with a tripartite fossil fuel boom several decades into the climate alarm, is a clear market signal of (as Epstein says) a Fossil Future.

Climate models are not scientific in the sense of having known correct physical equations or being testable. Data, data, data points toward global lukewarming, rather unspectacular extreme weather trends, and Global Greening (from CO2).

Meanwhile, wind/solar/batteries are causing physical energy shortages and price spikes, and government failure abounds with wasted forays in technical dead ends.

The great climate debate is much more about analytic failure and government failure than market failure, and there is little reason to see this changing in the next decades.

Appendix A: Epstein Rebuttal to Cowen #2

I can sympathize with the desire for a shorter rebuttal. The reason I approached it in the (long) way I did is that the essence of what Tyler did was not argue against me, but rather severely misrepresent my view as well as the mainstream view my book focuses its opposition on.

For me to claim that a highly respected economist is distorting things to this extent is to make a serious, and to many implausible, accusation. The only way I could think of to make good on it was to give abundant primary source references to Fossil Future doing the exact opposite of what Tyler says.

Re: wanting a point-by-point response, as I explained in my piece, Tyler’s “points” were almost exclusively either 1) responses to his own distortions of what I wrote or 2) empty dismissals, confidently delivered due to having already strawmanned/written-off my argument.

So there was not really anything to respond to. I did a kind of point-by-point in my piece, but it was to highlight the distortion/dismissal tactic. It’s sad that a guy as smart as Tyler not only 1) irresponsibly commented on a book he was not willing to read carefully, but also 2) refused to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Leave a Reply