ORLANDO – Alex Epstein argues that using fossil fuels is not only a moral good, but that the planet should be using much more of them.
Epstein, along with many others, have been warning for years that restricting fossil fuels would lead to blackouts, high energy costs, and an energy crisis – which is what has happened in the past couple years.
Epstein told Cowboy State Daily people should be pointing out that these predictions are becoming true, and it’s an opportunity to change how people think about energy. He said we might see oil companies stop apologizing for producing oil and actually defend the benefits of fossil fuel use.
“I think the more you sort of shift the mainstream culture, the more they’ll follow. And the more examples we have of CEOs speaking up successfully, the more they’ll do it,” he said.
Most Controversial Idea
At the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change in Orlando, Florida, Epstein was the keynote speaker at the Feb. 24 event. He’s the author of Fossil Future, and he said that the point he argues for in the book, which is that we should be using more fossil fuels going forward, is the most controversial idea in the world.
“And I say this is the most controversial idea in the world because the least controversial idea in the world is that we should rapidly eliminate fossil fuels,” Epstein said.
Epstein argues that fossil fuels provide cost-effective energy, which is essential to human flourishing.
“I think the number one goal when you’re thinking of global issues … it should be global human flourishing,” Epstein said at a panel discussion on Feb. 23. “Human flourishing means humans live to their highest potential. It means human beings having the opportunity to live long lives, healthy lives, safe lives, opportunity-filled lives that can be fulfilling.”
He explains in Fossil Future that the way we think of fossil fuels is by solely looking at the negative impacts, which distorts our understanding of their impact.
This includes the impact of carbon dioxide emissions on climate, the impact of pollution on people’s health, and the impact on the environment.
The problem with this view, Epstein said, is that it completely ignores the benefits of the cost-effective energy that fossil fuels provide. It’s a lot like looking at a medicine solely in terms of the negative side effects, with no consideration of its health benefits.
So, for example, we look at fossil fuels as impacting the climate, he explained. Yet, according to the non-partisan International Disaster Database, the number of climate related deaths has plummeted 98% since 1920.
According to research by University of Colorado – Boulder professor Roger Pielke Jr., costs of natural disasters are declining, when the figures are controlled properly for changes in wealth over time. So, accurately assessing trends in damage costs over time must adjust for changes in development. A hurricane hitting Miami Beach created fewer damage costs because there was less development to be impacted.
Lives are saved because of improved weather radar, better warning systems, better transportation to evacuate people before storms hit, and better infrastructure. Epstein argues that all that is technology that is made of materials derived from fossil fuels, constructed with fossil fuel-powered machinery, or powered by fossil fuels.
“Nature doesn’t give us a stable, safe climate that we make dangerous. It gives us an ever-changing, dangerous climate that we need to make safe,” Epstein said.
For another example of how we ignore the benefits of fossil fuels, Epstein points to a 2021 study by Harvard and United Kingdom universities that concluded that fossil fuels are responsible for 1 in 5 deaths, which is over 8 million deaths annually.
This flies in the face of the strong correlations between per capita fossil fuel use and life expectancy.
According to World Bank Data and BP Statistical Review of World Energy, since 1980, India has increased its fossil fuel use by 700%. During that period the country’s life expectancy rose by almost 16 years. In the same period, China increased its fossil fuel use by 600%, and its life expectancy increased by almost 10 years.
In the time the human race has been using fossil fuels, life expectancy globally has doubled.
Epstein argues these strong correlations between per-capita fossil fuel use and increasing life expectancy is causal, and that studies that ignore the benefits of fossil fuels are carried out by immoral activists.
“Billions of people have brought themselves out of poverty by using uniquely cost-effective fossil fuels to power factories, farms, vehicles, and appliances,” Epstein said.
How To Think
Epstein has long been criticized for not having a background in science. He is a philosopher.
In 2017, he explained his pro-fossil fuel ideas during testimony in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
In a now-famous exchange, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, spoke with disdain over Epstein’s background in philosophy, to which Epstein replied, “It’s to teach you how to think.”
Soon after, Boxer spoke approvingly of another man who testified about the role faith played in environmental policy, and Epstein later commented that the senator didn’t think philosophy had any role in energy policy but somehow religion did.
Epstein spoke about his background during his keynote speech, arguing that, as much as people view philosophy as entirely impractical, it’s the most practical field one can pursue.
“Philosophy studies the basic ideas that guide all of our thinking and all of our actions,” Epstein said.
He said he divides philosophy into three basic categories: thinking methods, assumptions and values.
“All of those have huge implications for how you think about something, and how you communicate,” he explained.
It was his love of philosophy that got him interested in energy. He saw that people were not carefully weighing the benefits and side effects of fossil fuel use. They were only looking at the negatives, and so they weren’t thinking clearly about the issue. In turn, policies were being crafted that would cause great harm through energy poverty.
He saw the issue as one where he could make a difference.
Net Zero Failing
Epstein said that the consequences of our hostility toward fossil fuels are beginning to show in what he says are the failures of net zero movements, which seek to make civilization globally neutral in its carbon emissions.
Efforts to replace fossil fuels with wind and solar are actually replacing only 20% of our total energy use, which is electricity. The bulk of global energy use is heavy industry and transportation, of which wind and solar provide almost zero. And since wind and solar are intermittent, they require reliable generation sources, which is primarily coal and natural gas. So, the total fossil fuel use globally has grown.
The net zero movement “has had very little success in reducing fossil fuel use. They haven’t reduced it, they’ve slowed its growth. But even that has caused the global energy crisis,” Epstein said.
Energy Scarce World
While Epstein doesn’t dispute that carbon dioxide impacts the climate, he does dispute that it’s going to result in catastrophic outcomes, especially in a world empowered with cost-effective energy from fossil fuels. As seen with the rapid reductions in deaths from natural disasters, an empowered world can protect itself from any impacts from climate change, he said.
In a panel discussion at the Orlando conference, Epstein explained that the world is actually energy scarce. While net-zero policies have caused rapidly rising energy costs for wealthy countries, they’re also attempting to deprive the developing world of the opportunity to prosper by trying to keep them from using coal.
“A third of the world is using wood and animal dung as their main fuel for heating and cooking. We have 3 billion people using less electricity annually than a typical American refrigerator. We have 6 billion people who use an amount of energy we would consider unacceptable. So the world just needs far more energy,” Epstein said.
Arguing to 100
Epstein said that this perspective is being poorly communicated, even by fossil fuel supporters. He explained what he calls arguing to 100. Typically, supporters of fossil fuels — whether it be oil companies or people who disagree with net zero policies — try to defend against claims that fossil fuels are a net detriment. When talking about energy, Epstein said, we need to reframe the issue to something people can agree on.
He said Martin Luther King did this by reframing the issue of civil rights around the idea that people should be judged by the content of the character and not their skin color. Many people could accept that idea as being the overall goal that we should work toward. So, when arguing for any specific policy, King was able to link it to a goal people agreed with.
Epstein said that, when it comes to energy, people will agree that human flourishing is a goal they can agree with, and when they see that cost-effective energy is essential toward that goal, they’re much more likely to be persuaded.
“This is what I call arguing to 100,” Epstein said.
Epstein has debated a number of people in the anti-fossil fuel movement. This includes Bruce Nilles, senior campaign director for the Sierra Club who is now executive director of Climate Imperative, an organization spending billions to eliminate natural gas use in the home.
He also debated Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist, author and journalist who has written extensively on the impact of global warming. He’s also debated Climate Scientist Andrew Dressler and environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr.
He doesn’t argue that we’ll use fossil fuels forever. In a recent response to a critical review of his book, Epstein said the issue is that the anti-fossil fuel movement wants to rapidly eliminate fossil fuels, and it’s all based on irrational thinking about energy.
While much of the world argues that if we don’t eliminate fossil fuels, we’ll see catastrophic results, Epstein said the real catastrophe is in depriving the world of the most cost-effective energy.
“If you just look at this basic calculation and carefully weighing the benefits and the side effects, it’s obvious that we need more fossil fuels. The benefits of expanding, at least for the next few decades, are just so overwhelming. And it is absolutely the apocalypse to try to rapidly reduce them,” Epstein said.
Cowboy State Daily energy reporter Killough is attending the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change in Orlando, Florida.