Alex Epstein, author of the forthcoming book Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less, has generously given New Ideal permission to share with our readers an excerpt from chapter 1 prior to the book’s May 24 publication. In this passage, Epstein challenges readers to keep an active mind as he presents a viewpoint that “totally contradicts what trusted source after trusted source tells us: that experts, especially climate scientists, have reached a near-unanimous consensus that fossil fuel use needs to be rapidly eliminated.”
Save the World with . . . Fossil Fuels?
In this book I’m going to try to persuade you of something that may seem crazy to you — something that definitely used to seem crazy to me.
I’m going to try to persuade you that if you want to make the world a better place, one of the best things you can do is fight for more fossil fuel use — more burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.
While we are almost universally told that more fossil fuel use will destroy the world, I am going to make the case that more fossil fuel use will actually make the world a far better place, a place where billions more people will have the opportunity to flourish, including: to pull themselves out of poverty, to have a chance to pursue their dreams, and — this will likely seem craziest of all — to experience higher environmental quality and less danger from climate.
I am not going to make the case for more fossil fuel use by making some “climate change denier” argument that fossil fuels’ CO2 emissions aren’t impacting climate; I totally acknowledge that they have contributed to the 1°C warming we’ve experienced over the last one-hundred-plus years, and they will contribute to further warming going forward. But I will argue that the negative climate impacts of fossil fuels will be far, far outweighed by the unique benefits of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels, which provide 80 percent of the world’s energy, have and will continue to have the unique benefit of providing low-cost, reliable energy to billions of people in thousands of places — a benefit that is desperately needed in a world where some 3 billion people still use less electricity than a typical American refrigerator.1 Contrary to claims that solar and wind are rapidly replacing fossil fuels, fossil fuel use is still growing, while intermittent solar and wind energy, after generations on the market, provide just 3 percent of the world’s energy — and that 3 percent is totally dependent on fossil fuels, especially natural gas, for 24/7 backup. Solar and wind are nowhere near being able to replace the energy that fossil fuels provide today, let alone the far greater amounts of energy humanity needs going forward.2
One of the key benefits of more fossil fuel use, I will argue, will be powering our enormous and growing ability to master climate danger, whether natural or man-made — an ability that has made the average person on Earth 50 times less likely to die from a climate-related disaster than they were in the 1°C colder world of one hundred years ago.3
Because fossil fuel use is so vital to the world’s future, I will argue, today’s proposed policies to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel use would, if fully implemented, have truly apocalyptic consequences — making the world an impoverished, dangerous, and miserable place for most people. And even if fossil fuel elimination policies aren’t fully implemented — which they won’t be, given the expressed intent of China, Russia, and India to increase their fossil fuel use — even widespread restrictions on fossil fuel use that fall far short of elimination will shorten and inflict misery on billions of lives, especially in the poorest parts of the world.
Obviously, you wouldn’t want to participate in the movement to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel use if it actually meant inflicting these kinds of harms on other people, and you would want to fight for more fossil fuel use if it actually made the world a far better place.
But is there really any chance that I’m right?
Questioning the “Expert” Moral Case for Eliminating Fossil Fuels
The idea that more fossil fuel use is something profoundly beneficial that you should fight for, and that eliminating fossil fuel use is something profoundly destructive that you should fight against, totally contradicts what trusted source after trusted source tells us: that experts, especially climate scientists, have reached a near-unanimous consensus that fossil fuel use needs to be rapidly eliminated.
This argument we hear for this conclusion, which I call “the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels,” usually goes something like this:
CO2 emissions from the world’s massive use of fossil fuels are causing catastrophic climate change — including ever-worse heat waves, storms, floods, wildfires, and droughts.
Catastrophic climate change, along with other negative side-effects of fossil fuel use, such as air pollution and water pollution, make us morally obligated to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel use and reach “net-zero” CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest — so as to limit warming to 1.5°C, or at the absolute most 2°C, over preindustrial, pre–fossil fuel temperatures.
What will replace fossil fuels? Green, renewable energy, solar and wind energy especially, which are already rapidly replacing fossil fuels at lower cost, and, with sufficient political will, can soon power the world.
The only people who oppose the rapid elimination of fossil fuels and its replacement by green energy are “deniers and delayers”— above all, the fossil fuel industry — who are placing their short-term convenience and profits above people and the planet.
This “moral case for eliminating fossil fuels” is not portrayed as one competing view among many. It is portrayed as the near-unanimous consensus of experts by a wide variety of trusted sources, including:
- leading news institutions, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC;
- the spokespeople of numerous public scientific institutions, above all the prestigious United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC);
- the spokespeople of every major government around the world, all of whom have signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement, which calls for the rapid elimination of fossil fuel use to prevent climate catastrophe; and
- the leaders of leading financial institutions (such as BlackRock) and corporations (such as Apple), who have signed on to “net-zero” or “100 percent renewable” pledges, claiming that they are moral and practical.
When so many trusted sources are telling us there is an expert consensus for fossil fuel elimination, it may be hard to imagine the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels isn’t at least basically right. Sure, maybe people don’t know the exact-amount magnitude of climate catastrophe that we face, or exactly the best way to replace fossil fuels with renewables, but there’s no way the “experts” could be totally wrong, as this Alex Epstein guy is arguing. So it may feel safe to oppose fossil fuels, and certainly there’s no need to go out on a limb and fight against fossil fuel elimination.
However, there are two factors that I urge you to consider before putting down this book.
The first factor is that, although we should certainly take it seriously when so many trusted sources tell us that something is the expert view, we know that throughout history what the general public is told the “experts” think has sometimes proved to be very wrong. In fact, some of history’s greatest evils — racism, slavery, eugenics — have been justified as supported by “the experts.”
The second factor is that the allegedly expert policy of rapidly eliminating fossil fuel use involves an incredibly radical and potentially disastrous change in how we use energy. We are being told that we must do away with fossil fuels, the source of 80 percent of the world’s energy, in a world where billions of people desperately lack energy. And we are being told that intermittent solar and wind, which provide just 3 percent of the world’s energy after many decades on the market, and which today depend on fossil fuels for 24/7 backup, will definitely be able to replace the 80 percent of energy we get from fossil fuels plus provide most of the additional energy the world needs — in less than 30 years.
If these radical changes do not work out, billions of people will have no chance at having affordable, reliable energy.
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Do you have a comment or question?
- Robert Bryce, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations (New York: PublicAffairs 2020), 73; and “Statistical Review of World Energy — All Data, 1965 – 2020,” BP, 2021, bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review‑of‑world-energy.html.
- BP, “Statistical Review of World Energy — 1965–2020.”
- For every million people on earth, annual deaths from climate-related causes (extreme temperature, drought, flood, storms, wildfires, . . .) declined 98 percent — from an average of 247 per year during the 1920s to 2.5 per year during the 2010s. Data on disaster deaths come from EM‑DAT, CRED/ UC Louvain, Brussels, Belgium — emdat.be (D. Guha-Sapir).
Population estimates for the 1920s come from the Maddison Database 2010 at the Groningen Growth and Development Centre, Faculty of Economics and Business at University of Groningen (for years not shown, the population is assumed to have grown at a steady rate), rug.nl/ggdc/historicaldevelopment/maddison/releases/maddison-database-2010.
Population estimates for the 2010s come from World Bank, United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects: 2019 Revision, Census reports and other statistical publications from national statistical offices, Eurostat: Demographic Statistics, United Nations Statistical Division, Population and Vital Statistics Report, U.S. Census Bureau: International Database, Secretariat of the Pacific Community: Statistics and Demography Programme, “Population, Total,” data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL.