“Epstein focuses on the ‘big picture’ facts of how fossil fuels are helping the world’s populations to live longer, better, safer lives, while managing the side-effects of increasing CO2 emissions.”
After his successful book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2014), philosopher Alex Epstein spent several years speaking at seminars, at corporate meetings, and in webinars to help people understand why the apocalyptical view of future climate and fossil fuels reliance are wrong. At the same time, Epstein zealously asked questions and listened to his “Energy Champions” to better understand how to break through the mainstream narrative with his sound intellectual case.
The result is a reframed energy/climate discussion in his 430-page tome, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas – Not Less, which challenges the “expert” opinion of impact of rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the atmosphere in light of humanity’s huge gains from carbon-based energy usage.
Besides dismantling the apocalyptical narrative that fossil fuels are making the world “a worse and worse place to live,” Epstein focuses on the “big picture” facts of how fossil fuels are helping the world’s populations to live longer, better, safer lives, while managing the side-effects of increasing CO2 emissions.
By framing the climate discussion around the fact of human improvements since fossil fuel use began, Epstein takes on the mainstream’s “knowledge system.” driven by the climate experts, which is shown to be anti-human and anti-energy (ignoring human progress to date). As for the future, with growing world population, Epstein frames his climate discussion on “the livability of the planet,” which continues to improve despite rising CO2 levels.
In fact, more carbon in the atmosphere has contributed to dramatic increases in crop yields, further aided by man’s ability to use fossil fuels to create fertilizers that boost food output and the fuel to power farm machinery that eases the human effort needed in agriculture.
Senate Testimony: 2016
The height of the folly about climate policy and the restriction and ultimate elimination of fossil fuels from human use, in the name of avoiding a planetary disaster, came during a 2016 U.S. Senate hearing in which Epstein was testifying as an energy expert based on his writings.
The Moral Case had become a Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller at that point. The exchange between Epstein and liberal California Senator Barbara Boxer has become a classic.
SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: Mr. Epstein, are you a scientist?
ALEX EPSTEIN: No, philosopher.
SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: You’re a philosopher?
ALEX EPSTEIN: Yes.
SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: Okay. Well, this is the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. I think it’s interesting we have a philosopher here talking about an issue…
ALEX EPSTEIN: It’s to teach you how to think more clearly.
Thinking clearly and critically about energy and climate change is important, especially when considering policies being promoted that would radically restructure the world and the U.S. economies and societies in the name of limiting carbon emissions that otherwise are projected to cook the planet.
Data, Not Speculation
Those scientists and policymakers who, like Epstein, are thinking critically about this subject are not attacked over the accuracy of their data and facts, their interpretations of them, or their resulting policy recommendations. They are dismissed for daring to counter the existing climate narrative. That narrative is often divorced from the data, but the terminology is used to hype fear of carbon emissions and climate change.
The public’s ignorance of the data and climate change is not surprising in a world focused on 30- second sound bites from the mainstream media who embraces the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to reporting news. Epstein’s decade-old mission has been to counter the misinformation in short, compelling ways.
In the Moral Case (2014), Epstein argued that the world would use more fossil fuels in the future to improve lives despite the embrace of renewable energy by the anti-impact (deep ecology) experts. Global fossil-fuel reliance, 80 percent at present, has grown and continues to grow despite the recent surge in investment in new renewable energy generating capacity. Solar and wind renewables account for only 3% of world energy use after decades of investment, which has occurred in response to mandates and subsidies.
Lost on the renewables promoters is that their success has been due to the existence of reliable fossil fuel backup power supplies. As we see with the growing number of grid blackouts, the loss of this 24/7 fossil fuel backup power means grids become more fragile due to the intermittency of wind and solar power and subject to brownouts and blackouts. Meanwhile, according to Epstein, the world has become a better place to live. For him, “human flourishing” has been critically important for the poorest people on the planet who have benefited from a reduced rate of extreme poverty.
Epstein cites a college survey in the U.K. about world poverty, which is defined as living on less than $2 a day. The survey’s question was: “In the last 30 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…?” Respondents were offered three choices: “decreased,” “remained more-or-less the same,” and “increased.”
The responses showed: 55% of respondents said increased, 33% said the same, and just 12% said decreased. According to World Bank data, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty in 1980 was 42%, which has fallen to under 10% today. That is hundreds of millions of people who are living better today due in large part to the use of fossil fuels.
Anti-impact climate experts ignore this reality, but it is a critical measure of human progress. Global warming is an issue that Epstein acknowledges, and in fact devotes three chapters to.
He points out that the planet has warmed by 1ºC over the past 170 years. However, climate-related disaster deaths continue to fall to all-time lows. In fact, there has been a 98% decline in disaster deaths over the last century. This is due to “climate mastery” by society that is accomplished with the aid of fossil fuel-powered machines and equipment.
From irrigation to heating and cooling equipment, as well as our ability to construct sturdy buildings and create early warning systems are how the climate has been mastered. However, mastering the climate does not absolve us from ignoring the negative side-effects attributable to fossil fuel use – heat waves, droughts, floods, storms, and wildfires – but it is equally wrong for our “knowledge system” to ignore the economic and human benefits that come from using fossil fuels.
Fossil Future’s 11 chapters are organized into four parts: Framework, Benefits, Climate Side Effects, and A Flourishing Fossil Future.
In Framework, Epstein dismisses the anti-impact framework of the climate alarmists, and focuses on “human flourishing,” which he demonstrates with hockey-stick charts that show how world life expectancy, world population growth, and world GDP per capita have soared despite constant increases in CO2.
The Benefits from fossil fuel use have led to reduced air pollution, sharp declines in world death rates from floods, and especially for flood deaths in G7 developed countries, among other benefits. The world’s population has gained from more plant growth and greater crop yields due to the natural fertilization effect from the increased CO2 emissions.
More food coupled with improved medicines and health care have led to significant increases in human longevity and improved living standards. In addition, these benefits contribute to our mastery of the climate that has helped address the Climate Side-Effects from fossil fuel use. As part of his examination of fossil fuel side-effects, Epstein asks about the risks from rising CO2 emissions on the human flourishing framework?
Rising CO2 levels could have implications for temperatures, precipitation patterns, and sea levels around the world. Rising CO2 levels might impact plant life and oceans, and maybe even lead to mass species extinctions. As Epstein says, these are all possible impacts, but given the level of climate data and computer models, the impacts cannot be predicted with any degree of precision.
However, the answers fall into two categories: the “CO2 benefit denial” and the “deliberate over-statement.” The climate experts focus only on those negative side-effects and deny any positive benefits. CO2 is both a warming gas and a fertilizing gas, but the experts will only talk about the warming aspect.
Not only is this short-sighted, but it also becomes a disservice to mankind. Although Epstein did not point this out, American journalist, essayist, satirist, cultural critic, and scholar of American English H. L. Mencken did. “A demagogue is one who knowingly tells untruths to those he believes to be morons.”
Epstein’s latest book is important for people wanting to understand the full scope of climate change and its impact on the planet and society. Not only is Fossil Future a guidebook for why fossil fuels are critical for human flourishing, but Epstein also helps readers learn how to talk with anti-fossil fuel activists.
He is particularly hard on energy industry executives for failing to actively engage those who want to eliminate fossil fuels and reorient the discussion framework. Contrary to arguing to 100 as their opponents due, energy executives seem to only argue to zero, which Epstein shows helps the opposition in making its case against fossil fuels.
Epstein’s two books in the past seven years show how the climate and fossil fuel dialogue can be reoriented. He has delivered both the data and the mechanism to change the dialogue.
A more balanced discussion from his efforts will produce a less scary and more promising outlook that is justified by the full spectrum of data and is desperately needed in today’s polarized world.
Allen Brooks is author of ENERGY MUSINGS, where an earlier version of this book review appeared (June 14, 2022). Energy Musings contains articles and analyses dealing with important issues and developments within the energy industry, including historical perspective, with potentially significant implications for executives planning their companies’ future.