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Epstein vs. Harvard Law’s Freeman: ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’ (Energy Law Journal exchange is prime time–and it’s Freeman’s turn)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 6, 2017

“But upon closer scrutiny, Epstein’s characterizations are often straw men; his own assertions are strikingly misleading or demonstrably wrong; and his evidence is typically weak and selective or completely beside the point.”

– Jody Freeman, “A Critical Look at The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.” 36 Energy L.J. 327 (2015).

“This response gives a proof that Freeman’s portrayal of MCFF’s method and content is a straw man, and summarizes the actual arguments of the book. It does so primarily through repeated, side-by-side comparisons of unaltered passages by Freeman purporting to describe MCFF’s viewpoint and unaltered passages from MCFF clearly stating its actual viewpoint.”

– Alex Epstein. “A Straw Man Attack on The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” (38 Energy L.J. 79 (2017), p. 79.

It is happening for all to see in the prestigious Energy Law Journal. Harvard law professor Jody Freeman published “A Critical Look at The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” in 2015, and energy philosopher Alex Epstein has now rejoined in the same journal.

Jody Freeman has some serious work to do.

Freeman, for background, is the Archibald Cox Professor of Law and Founding Director, Environmental Law Program, Harvard Law School. Professor Freeman is also an independent director of ConocoPhillips, where she is on the Public Policy Committee.

What is apparent in Epstein’s rebuttal–replete with side-by-side quotations–is that Freeman did not carefully read The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels in key places. And neither did her small band of researchers, who she names (p. 327):

The author is indebted to Douglas Dockery, Jack Goldsmith, Seth Hoedl, Richard Lazarus, Michael Oppenheimer, Ari Peskoe and Joel Schwartz for their very careful reviews and helpful suggestions. Ephraim McDowell and Susan Pelletier provided superb research and editorial assistance, and made invaluable contributions to the critique.

But she states quite the opposite (p. 327): “This article carefully examines Epstein’s main arguments, assessing their persuasiveness in light of both logic and the best evidence available.”

Evidently, the editors of the Energy Law Journal thought otherwise and gave Epstein full license to expose what was a below-par review.

On Climate Change

Professor Freeman grievously accuses Epstein of not believing in a warming effect of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. With Epstein’s clear passages from his book, she and her seven are exposed. Moreover, in Epstein’s words:

Freeman’s charge not only ignores the lengthy argument MCFF offers against climate catastrophism, but it also ignores a subchapter called “But What If . . . ?” devoted to a hypothetical scenario in which we faced a climate catastrophe from fossil fuels. That section explains what a proper response to this challenge of adverse climate impacts would look like, including the role of technology in helping us cope with climate challenges (p. 88).

In MCFF, I argue that there is no persuasive evidence for catastrophic global warming—and that, far more important, whatever climate challenges we face in the years ahead, fossil fuels can play an overwhelmingly positive role in helping us master a climate that is inherently dangerous to human life.  Freeman does her readers a disservice by ignoring those arguments, denying the failure of climate models to make accurate climate forecasts, and pretending that MCFF denies the effects of CO2 (p. 89).

A particularly large straw man is erected by Freeman:

The article disputes Epstein’s central claim that because fossil energy has delivered enormous social benefits in the past, there is absolutely no reason to change course and diversify our energy supply in the future.

Epstein rebuts:

In MCFF, I call for people being free to use the best energy at any point in time—including wind and solar if they ever become practical. But I insist that we be honest about the prospects for any form of energy, including the fact that even with expensive subsidies and mandates, wind and solar provide an extremely costly 1.9% of the world’s energy because these industries have not solved the two basic problems: the “intermittency problem” and the “diluteness problem” (p. 83)….

Yet MCFF doesn’t dismiss the possibility that solar, wind, and biofuels could one day provide cheap, plentiful, reliable energy—it simply demands that we honestly acknowledge the fact that it hasn’t happened yet and there is no evidence it will happen any time in the foreseeable future (p. 83).

Regarding climate change, Epstein carefully sets forth his humanistic standard:

In MCFF, I argue that, to assess the climate-related impacts of fossil fuel use, we have to carefully assess the consequences to human flourishing of: (1) the warming impact of CO2; (2) the fertilizing effect of CO2; and (3) the energy effect of affordable energy for all climate danger (p. 85).

He rebuts the catastrophic warming view in favor of the global lukewarming view:

The belief that increases in CO2 will cause runaway warming are based on speculative climate dynamics represented in models that have utterly failed to predict climate. Global average temperatures and CO2 levels are near all-time lows from a geological perspective; today’s CO2 levels are an estimated 5% of their all-time high (a highly fertile period).


Warming is almost universally desired among civilizations, with cold-related deaths dramatically greater than heat-related deaths. In general, life thrives under warmer conditions —as demonstrated by the dramatic decline in biomass and biodiversity from the equator to the poles.

And what about the benefits of anthropogenic warming, Epstein asks?

The widely-ignored fertilizing effect of CO2 is significant and positive, yet ignored; a proper energy and environmental discussion must take it into account.  Increasing CO2 levels is a proven driver of plant growth, which is why greenhouses contain three times as much CO2 as our atmosphere.  Satellite data show dramatic increases in plant growth in uninhabited locations as CO2 levels have increased over the past several decades. Increased CO2 has also contributed significantly to crop yields and helped millions avoid malnutrition or starvation….

Freeman ignores the fertilizer effect and the energy effect. Instead, she repeatedly asserts that I deny the existence of any warming, and she justifies claims of catastrophic warming by appealing to “evidence” I explicitly deal with in the book.

Epstein’s grand conclusion?

After examining the effect of fossil fuels on air, sanitation, water quality, and human health, I conclude the overall impact of fossil fuels on environmental quality and more broadly, human well-being, is tremendously positive. Fossil fuels don’t only help us transform our environment for the better; they help us transform ourselves for the better through health technology (p. 90).


The ball is back in Jody Freeman’s court. She will not only have to take on the ‘global lukewarming’ school, she will have to deal with what energy diluteness and energy intermittency means for the environment and the economy.

While looking forward to her rebuttal to Epstein’s, one would hope to have a debate at Harvard University between the two–or even between Epstein and John Holdren. The current and past presidents of the United States should be in the front row for that one!

One Comment for “Epstein vs. Harvard Law’s Freeman: ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’ (Energy Law Journal exchange is prime time–and it’s Freeman’s turn)”

  1. John W. Garrett  

    As a long term shareholder of ConocoPhillips (and Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil), I am appalled and disgusted by the spineless and base failure to confront and disabuse the climate nutters.


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