Figure 1. What if the ‘experts’ have gotten everything about the future of energy wrong? Source: Alex Epstein
“In this book, I’m going to try to persuade you of something that may seem crazy to you…
“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…to experience higher environmental quality and less danger from climate.”
He encourages his readers to enlist in his fight for using more coal, oil and natural gas, and to reject “the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels.”
As a scientist and a proud 45-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, I disagree with him but I wanted to read his book in order to understand the logic and supporting evidence behind his positions.
I was completely unprepared for what I found.
In Fossil Future, Epstein develops a conspiracy theory to explain why the experts have gotten everything wrong.
There is a deep state organization that has created and spread fake news about fossil fuels and climate change. The purpose of the book is to open our eyes so we can rise up and stop the madness before current policies “have truly apocalyptic consequences.”
The Knowledge System Distorts Scientific Information
Epstein describes a shadow structure that he calls “our knowledge system.” It synthesizes and disseminates research about energy and climate change to policy makers and to the public.
“I am referring to the mainstream knowledge system: institutions and people that overwhelmingly influence the ideas and policies of today, including our ideas and policies regarding fossil fuels.”
The knowledge system consists of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.S. National Climate Assessment, the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). These “synthesizing bodies” routinely manipulate and omit crucial information in order to conform to the knowledge system‘s guiding principle “that fossil fuel use needs to be rapidly eliminated.”
This “moral case for the elimination of fossil fuels” is its mission, vision and sole purpose. Competing cases are rejected.
Once the knowledge system has organized, refined and condensed research information, it is passed along to disseminators for distribution to policy makers and to the public.
Disseminators include The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC; the spokespeople for the IPCC and the governments that signed the Paris Climate Agreement; and the leaders of corporations like Black Rock and Apple that have articulated “net-zero” or “100 precent renewable” pledges.
By the time this information gets to the public, the research upon which it is based has been distorted beyond recognition.
The knowledge system probably began as a conceptual framework for Epstein. He may have been trying to understand how information that he considers wrong has gained public approval.
The knowledge system that he describes in Fossil Future, however, comes across as a living, breathing organism. It has the character of a corporation with a charter, officers, and employees whose mission is to manipulate information about energy and climate in order to deceive the public.
The Knowledge System Chooses Designated Experts
The knowledge system has among its staff what Epstein calls “designated experts.”
These are individuals or institutions selected by the knowledge system be its public spokespeople and to represent the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels. They include the IPCC, Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, James Hansen, Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Michael Mann and Amory Lovins.
After studying the writing and speeches by these experts, Epstein discovered that they systematically ignore the benefits of fossil fuels.
“As a deep believer in expert knowledge who found that the supposedly expert moral case for eliminating fossil fuels, as he understood it, was making the egregious moral error of calling for the elimination of fossil fuels while ignoring their massive, life-or-death benefits, I went directly to the source: the leading experts who make the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels.”
The experts either don’t understand or don’t care about the tremendous benefits that fossil fuels have over all other sources of energy.
“Shockingly, they exhibit no concern about the prospect of losing these benefits, including what would happen to the billions of people who currently lack cost-effective energy or the billions of people who would lose cost-effective energy if fossil fuels were rapidly eliminated without a miraculous alternative.”
Most experts oppose all cost-effective forms of energy including nuclear and hydroelectric power regardless of CO2emissions. That is because they do not meet the knowledge system‘s standard of “green” or “renewable.”
Epstein, therefore, rejects the credentials of these spokespeople because they don’t meet his definition of an expert.
“Observe that our leading designated experts on what to do about fossil fuels are almost exclusively people who are experts not on energy but rather on energy’s negative side-effects—so-called environmental experts…I don’t consider someone an environmental expert unless they acknowledge the massive environment-improving benefits of cost-effective energy, which our designated experts do not.”
That is not surprising since the starting point for Fossil Future is that experts can’t be trusted and have gotten everything wrong.
The Anti-Human Standard of Evaluation
The knowledge system deliberately misleads the public by promoting ideas and policies that are counter to the flourishing of human life.
Human flourishing is the only appropriate standard by which to determine energy and climate policy. Policies that do not promote human flourishing are by definition “anti-human.”
“Standards of evaluation can be pro-human (for example, I use the standard of “advancing human flourishing”) but also anti-human (for example, the elevation of a particular race or class at the expense of the rest of humanity).
Epstein argues that fossil fuels are the most affordable, reliable, versatile and scalable source of energy. They are the only hope for the billions of people in developing countries who are struggling and dying for lack of cost-effective fossil energy.
The evaluation standard used by our knowledge system favors expansion of green, renewable energy at the expense of fossil energy. It ignores that most of human material progress over the last 200 years is because of the productivity of machines that run on fossil fuels.
Solar and wind cannot possibly meet the requirements for current or future human flourishing. Human flourishing in the modern world requires fossil energy.
Today’s proposed policies to eliminate fossil fuel will make the world “an impoverished, dangerous and miserable place for most people.” That is anti-human.
Science’s Poor Track Record
Epstein explains that science experts have a track record of supporting anti-human policies. As proof, he cites the early 20th historical example of eugenics, the belief that intelligence has a genetic or racial component. He condemns this as an example of how science experts can’t be trusted.
“I have long been haunted by the fact that some of the worst ideas in history (such as slavery, racism and eugenics) were successfully spread as the consensus of ‘the experts’.”
What he doesn’t explain that eugenics was discredited and renounced in the 1930s by the entire scientific community. It took research to discover that early hypotheses linking race and intelligence were wrong.
Epstein lays out the poor track record of climate change predictions over the last 50 years. He cites this as proof that climate change is an exaggeration by science experts who can’t be trusted.
What he doesn’t explain or understand is that humans are chronically bad at all predictions. If human progress was predicated on accurate predictions, we would still live in caves.
Science is a work in progress. It is a very human enterprise. It moves forward, like people, by making predictions based on hypotheses, getting it wrong, recalibrating, and trying to do better the next time.
Epstein’s believes that the industrial progress of the last 200 years is because of machines powered by fossil fuels. Those machines were invented by scientists. He has faith that scientific technology will find solutions to climate change’s negative side effects in the future.
It is ironic that he disparages the same science community when it comes to climate change. He can’t have it both ways.
Fossil Future is A Straw Man
The principal arguments in Fossil Future are fallacies. They exist only in Epstein’s imagination. They are not real.
Fossil Future is a straw man.
A straw man is an argument that distorts an opposing position into an extreme version of itself and then argues against that extreme version.
“The straw man fallacy avoids the opponent’s actual argument and instead argues against an inaccurate caricature of it.”
“Experts can’t be trusted” is a straw man. “The knowledge system” is a straw man. “Designated experts” is a straw man. “The moral case for eliminating fossil fuels” is a straw man.
Epstein is arguing with a scarecrow. He can make any argument he wants but the straw man can’t argue back. That makes his position seem infallible.
Experts can’t be trusted
Once he has launched the “experts can’t be trusted” straw man, he’s half way home. If the experts have gotten everything about the future of energy wrong, then Alex Epstein is here with the right position that we already live in the best of all possible worlds.
The problem is that none of us treat experts like that in our daily lives.
When was the last time you chose a surgeon, an attorney, an investment advisor or a tax accountant who wasn’t an expert? Have you hired amateurs lately to work with you in your business?
Epstein can’t make it past the flyleaf of Fossil Future if he doesn’t convince the reader that experts can’t be trusted.
Epstein is heavy on the benefits of fossil fuels but disturbingly light on their negative effects on the earth or human flourishing. He acts like these subjects are a new frontier that has yet to be explored.
“Let me be clear: we absolutely need to study and consider the negative side-effects attributed to fossil fuels.”
Spoiler alert. Exhaustive research on the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change is precisely why so many experts recommend a radical re-thinking of our energy use patterns.
The knowledge system does not exist.
There is no organization or structure in between research and the public. Epstein observes,
“Whenever we hear about what the “experts” think, we need to keep in mind that most of us have no direct access to what most expert researchers in a field think.”
Seriously? Perhaps he hasn’t discovered the internet. We can access tens of thousands of free research papers on energy, climate change and public policy at any time.
I would like Alex Epstein to take me on a tour of the knowledge system‘s headquarters, introduce me to its executives, and show me the offices where research data is filtered and distorted.
There are no designated experts.
Since there is no knowledge system, there’s no one to hire experts to broadcast its distorted, anti-human moral case against fossil fuels.
Every field and industry has opinion leaders because of the depth of their knowledge and experience. Energy and climate change are not exceptions.
There is no moral case for the elimination of fossil fuels.
There are very few scientists or organizations that favor completely eliminating fossil fuels yet Epstein represents this as the norm. If eliminating fossil fuels is not the norm but is a minority position, then his entire argument falls apart.
There is no longer some anti-human monster trying to destroy human flourishing. There are just smart people who are trying to find ways to maintain human prosperity with cleaner energy.
Certainly there are experts and organizations that are alarmist. Those can be found in any group of humans. Failed predictions and even bad scholarship are sadly found in many areas of society, not only in climate science.
The exceptions, however, do not prove the rule.
If we strip away Epstein’s straw man arguments, what is left?
- A (completely unoriginal) thesis that fossil fuels are responsible for most of the material progress of modern society.
- A man who believes that humanity is going in the wrong direction toward a world of lower living standards.
- A man who cannot accept that the benefits of fossil fuel use may not outweigh the environmental damage that they have created.
- A man who is willing to bet against science on climate change but bet everything on the same science community to find ways of accessing unlimited fossil fuels, and manage the negative effects of climate change.
The problem is that he cannot win a fact-based argument for his beliefs. so he has manufactured an imaginary universe populated by straw men.
If you accept the straw men, his positions look rational and appealing. Readers with limited knowledge of energy and climate change may not even recognize the straw men. Many are already conditioned by politics to accept deep state, fake news and untrustworthy expert memes.
Readers with greater knowledge of energy and climate change may disagree with his positions but simply not take Epstein seriously.
Epstein is narrowly focused. He doesn’t see the larger system needs that are the backdrop for his narrow focus on fossil fuels and climate change.
For example, he believes that there are no practical limits to fossil energy supply yet his own graphs show that reserves have flattened over the last decade or so.
The bigger picture is that more than half of the energy and ever used since 1800 was consumed during the last 30 years (Figure 2). If global GDP grows at 3% per year, we will need twice as much energy and materials in the next 30 years as we used in the last 10,000 years. That will will double again by 2080.
Figure 2. Half of all global energy and oil consumed since 1800 was in the last 30 years. Energy supply needs to double again by 2050 to meet projected GDP growth of 3% Source: OWID & Labyrinth Consulting Services, IncWhat will be left of the natural world if we are successful? What will happen to human flourishing if we are not?
Epstein thinks that human flourishing and nature are separate and disconnected entities. He doesn’t understand that there will not be any human flourishing in a degraded world environment and ecosystem.
“Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know.”
A recent study showed that the total world wildlife population has declined by 69% since 1970 (Figure 3). This is not about species extinction but about the populations in the natural world plummeting.
The reason for this shocking drop in animal population is loss of habitat to human expansion and the unsustainable use of our planet’s resources by humans.
This is not an anti-human standard. These are facts and numbers don’t lie.
Resource use including fossil fuels, climate change and a damaged biosphere are interlinked system problems that do not show up on Alex Epstein’s radar screed.
Figure 3 There has been a 69% decrease in wildlife populations since 1970. Source: World Wildlife Federation (2022)
There are well-reasoned opinions on all sides of the climate change debate and disagreements about how much risk to attach to a warming climate but most accept what Epstein cannot: the correlation between fossil fuel use and increased CO2 emissions is strong and will only get worse unless humans change consumption patterns.
Investor flight from fossil fuel companies has not abated and few commercial banks will them money. Most world governments are moving forward with laws, regulations and agreements to limit carbon emissions. Many more corporations than Black Rock and Apple have made net zero pledges. These things are happening in spite of Alex Epstein’s effort to become the world’s leading champion of fossil fuels.
In the long run, it doesn’t really matter whether Epstein is right or wrong because the earth will have the final vote.
The train that Epstein is trying to stop left the station a long time ago.