Reprinted from Law & Liberty
Philosopher and energy expert Alex Epstein sets himself two goals in his new book, Fossil Future—one significantly more difficult than the other. The first is to persuade readers worried about climate change that burning more oil, gas, and coal will actually benefit society. That might seem like the hard one, but it is child’s play next to the real argument: that the planet and its living ecosystem exist to serve human beings and their purposes, not the other way around.
While views about the impact of fossil fuels should be subject to change in response to the kinds of data Epstein summons, those who believe that human beings have a moral imperative to impact the Earth as little as possible—a mindset he calls an “anti-impact framework”—might be harder to convince.
Adherents to an anti-impact framework, Epstein argues, will tend to exaggerate the negative effects of fossil fuels, minimize their advantages, and inveigh against their use simply because they change the way the natural systems around us function. They see that impact—even if it yields benefits for human beings in terms of food, shelter, and general prosperity—as an evil to be avoided at all costs. That’s a difficult mental block to overcome.
The difference between worrying about climate change because of shifting weather patterns, and worrying about it because of the threat of moral revenge from Gaia, can be seen in debates over energy policy. Epstein points out that anyone who thinks that climate change could be an end-of-the-world scenario should immediately support any possible alternative that promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But many of the most strident and vocal climate activists refuse to consider nuclear energy as an option, despite it being clean, safe, reliable, affordable, and technologically proven.
That might seem irrational, but it is perfectly consistent with the last half-century of the organized environmental movement, which itself embodies Epstein’s anti-impact framework. In part because of its association with nuclear weapons (and the close connection between the green and antiwar movements in the 1970s), environmentalists long ago categorized nuclear energy as an unnatural technology to be shunned. Many people today are also concerned about possible meltdowns and natural disasters, of course, but the environmental movement’s antipathy to nuclear energy was established long before anyone had heard of Chernobyl or Fukushima. Thus, the one technology that could realistically replace hydrocarbon combustion as a source of reliable power has been taken off the table in many parts of the world, even amidst what climate activists insist is a rapidly unfolding planetary disaster.
The point about alternatives that can realistically replace oil and gas is an important one. Epstein provides climate worriers with a lot of information they probably haven’t previously been exposed to, including a remedial lesson on the physics and chemistry of energy production. This is enough to debunk breezy suggestions that renewable technologies like solar and wind can seamlessly be swapped in to replace decommissioned coal and natural gas power plants. Renewables simply don’t have the physical properties necessary to be direct replacements.
Fossil fuels are energy-dense, and easily stored and transported. The electricity they produce is dispatchable—that is, it can be calibrated and deployed to meet fluctuating demand in real time. Solar and wind have none of those attributes, which puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of affordability, scalability, and reliability. That doesn’t mean that they have no place in a future energy mix, but it means their capacity to replace hydrocarbon sources has been dramatically—and recklessly—overhyped by their promoters.
Again, reasonable people could more readily understand differences like these if their judgment weren’t colored by (usually unexamined) moral assumptions about humans defiling the Earth’s natural purity. We all have good reasons to want environmental amenities like clean air and clean water—we desire those things because they improve our quality of life. But the logic of much environmental activism now demands that we lower our standard of living in order to protect an idealized version of the natural world. Some climate activists even suggest economic “de-growth” as the only acceptable reaction to the perils of climate change—reducing our material prosperity as an explicit goal. But given that most people are not radical environmentalists, we must ask why so many people remain hostile to the technologies and material infrastructure that have advanced our health, wealth, and happiness so much over the last couple of centuries.
The reasons go beyond environmental sentimentalism and generations of pop culture content like Bambi, Captain Planet, and Avatar. Many of the people who advocate for the end of fossil fuels, and many millions more who passively support them, have never had to make any real sacrifices to achieve their goals. Renewable energy advocates—whether from the Natural Resources Defense Council or the infamous subsidized green energy start-up Solyndra—have long sold the American people on a beguiling bargain: Not only are fossil fuels dirty and causing dangerous climate change, but renewable alternatives are just as cheap and reliable as oil and gas. The transition will be a win-win scenario with no real hard costs for either taxpayers or ratepayers to bear. Only Exxon Mobil executives or Saudi royals could possibly object.
Epstein pushes back against this ideologically motivated thinking, introducing some economic realism into the discussion. He fills the book with valuable data on the massive economic advantages of fossil fuels, and how they make many of the amenities of civilization both possible, and affordable to the masses. He looks at the science of climate change and finds that predictions of catastrophic future warming and sea-level rise are wildly exaggerated. Finally, he makes the case that the natural world is not an automatically perfect and nurturing place, but is in fact a hostile environment to human well-being that has only been made habitable by massive human interventions.
Fossil Future shares some premises and arguments with several other recent books in the “environmental realist” genre, many of which Epstein references. Bjorn Lomborg’s False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, and Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century all approach environmental challenges in a way that is fundamentally at odds with the “anti-impact” worldview that Epstein sets out to debunk.
This growing body of literature is encouraging to see, and builds on such earlier volumes of environmental optimism as Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource (1983). However, these authors’ well-researched arguments can only go so far in persuading the sorts of people who are more worried about protecting “pristine” tracts of land than about people living in poverty because of lack of access to affordable energy.
Yet, Epstein and the other environmental realists will likely see their arguments bolstered by real-world events now unfolding. I wrote in National Review last October that the global energy crisis that was then brewing would likely fuel a backlash to anti-fossil fuel policies as prices rose and reliability was imperiled. In December, I explained here at Law & Liberty that the contradictions of the environmental movement had become so profound that its tenets were making even the development of renewable energy infrastructure difficult. Since then, developments have only increased many observers’ skepticism about decarbonizing before adequate replacements are available. And last month, CNBC reported that “The Ukraine war has upended the energy transition.”
In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute described this green crackup in more detail, explaining how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely mark the end of the climate movement as we have known it for the last few decades. While Nordhaus doesn’t entirely endorse Epstein’s view of fossil fuels, he focuses on the practical reality of energy policy, recognizing the serious threats to human prosperity and security that arise from insufficient access to affordable and reliable energy. As for pie-in-the-sky renewable advocates (whom he describes as “smoking [their] own supply”), Nordhaus points out that they “have confused the subsidy-driven growth of renewable energy with evidence that the world is ready to rapidly transition off fossil fuels.”
It’s true that many people have long been attracted to the anti-impact framework, but that’s only because, as noted above, the environmental advocates proposing green energy policies repeatedly offer assurances that they’ll be cost-free, or that whatever costs are incurred will be paid by billionaires, oil companies, or foreign regimes. Once a big bill comes due—in terms of dollars, standard of living, and geopolitical security—people’s commitment to maintaining the planet in a state of Edenic purity begins to wane rapidly.
As President Joe Biden has learned in the last few months, nothing will kill your popularity faster than expensive energy—in his case, spiking gas prices. And populist outrage over $5.00 a gallon gas is merely the beginning. The decarbonization strategies of climate campaigners would produce economic dislocations far more extreme than what we’re seeing today. A 2021 Competitive Enterprise Institute survey found that, when polled, 35 percent of Americans were unwilling to spend even a dollar a month to counter the effects of climate change, with another 15 percent unwilling to spend more than $10. Given that major legislation addressing climate change like the Green New Deal would end up costing Americans tens of thousands of dollars per household, this does not bode well for the deployment of ambitious climate policy.
Not everyone will be persuaded that the cost-benefit ratio of continued fossil fuel use is as rosy as Epstein argues, but anyone with an open mind and a desire to see human beings live and prosper will likely acquire a more positive view of oil, gas, and coal than any New York Times feature or university seminar would acknowledge. That, combined with the chickens of climate policy coming home to roost in economic and security terms, will likely see a more welcoming environment for the view of economic progress espoused in Fossil Future.