Despite the prevailing narrative, there are compelling arguments for the continued use of fossil fuels.
Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal and Natural Gas — Not Less By Alex Epstein | Portfolio, USA | 2022, 480 pages
Alex Epstein first shot to fame in 2014 with his counter-cultural bestseller, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
In it, he provided an assertive defence of fuels which enable so many aspects of modern life, but which many suggest threaten our survival in the long-term.
His new work, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal and Natural Gas — Not Less, continues in the same vein.
In the decade since Epstein’s emergence on the fringes of the climate debate, concerns about rising temperatures have grown with the effect that governments have committed themselves to ever-more radical decarbonisation policies, in particular the increased use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Epstein accepts the scientific evidence that the increases in greenhouse gas emissions in recent centuries due to human activity have increased the Earth’s temperatures. At the same time, he rejects the central premise of the modern environmental movement by maintaining that this does not threaten the survival of our species.
Instead, he convincingly argues that the widespread availability of fossil fuels has been crucial in leading to an unprecedented improvement in living standards in the developed world.
Not only do fossil fuels allow us to do more things and enjoy a more comfortable existence, Epstein also writes that they help humanity to guard against natural disasters and the negative impact of a gradually changing climate. For this reason, we need more fossil fuel use, not less. He writes:
“[M]ore 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.”
Epstein maintains that it is especially vital that the billions of people in what he calls the “unempowered world”, who currently use almost no energy, can enjoy the benefits which so many of us take for granted.
One example of the suffering which energy poverty imposes is the fact that almost 800 million people have no access to electricity, while around 2.4 billion people still rely on wood and animal dung to cook and heat their homes.
Without easy access to oil, gas and coal, people living in these environments will never escape an existence which involves so much daily hardship.
Energy use is clearly correlated with various measurements of human progress (such as increased life expectancy), and the author cites the examples of China and India whose economic rise has largely been fuelled by coal and other fossil fuels.
Their rise forms part of an often unheralded advance in living standards which has occurred in recent decades, in which the extreme poverty rate worldwide has decreased from 35% in 1990 to less than 10% today.
Epstein insists that this transformation could not have happened without fossil fuels, and he maintains that they enjoy a range of advantages including greater affordability, reliability, versatility and scalability.
When it comes to the statistics he cites, again it is difficult to argue with Epstein’s stance.
Fossil fuels provide 80% of the world’s energy, whereas solar and wind power provide just 3%. Crucially, unlike wind and solar, fossil fuels are not an intermittent source of energy. They can be more easily stored and transported, and far more energy is concentrated within them.
Contrary to the claims of some commentators, they are also not running out: proven oil and gas reserves have increased in recent decades, thanks in part due to new technologies being used to extract them like fracking, which the green movement continues to fight against tenaciously.
In the area of mobile energy, oil is especially important, and is responsible for meeting virtually all humanity’s needs in the areas of shipping, aviation and heavy-duty trucking, without which the global economy would come to a shuddering halt.
Throughout the book, Epstein describes the multitude of other ways in which fossil fuels make life possible, including the powering of agricultural and industrial equipment and the use of fossil fuel materials in a wide variety of synthetic materials.
There is something more at the core of Epstein’s argument other than the evidence attesting to the importance of high-quality energy sources.
He is a philosopher by training, and he believes that the refusal of many to acknowledge the aforementioned facts stems from the popularity of an anti-impact worldview. Those who hold this viewpoint tend to seek to minimise if not eliminate the impact which humans have on a world they consider naturally safe and untainted. This also helps to explain why green activists have long opposed the use of nuclear or even hydroelectric power, neither of which contribute to emissions significantly.
Rejecting this view outright, Epstein proposes an alternative framework based around “human flourishing”, one which considers the negative impacts of carbon dioxide emissions in the context of the “climate mastery” benefits which come from having abundant supplies of energy available and being more prosperous.
This ability to cope with the vagaries of the world around us has resulted in climate-related deaths falling by 98% over the last century, even while carbon dioxide levels increased. In a similar way, technological improvements in the area of flood protection — many of which are made possible by the availability of fossil fuels — means that over 100 million now live below the level of high tide in their home area.
Epstein does not deny that the increased use of fossil fuels which he seeks will likely accelerate the pace of global warming. Instead, he simply maintains that the benefits of expanding access to energy greatly outweigh the drawbacks, while also elaborating upon the reasons why he believes many people exaggerate the risks which climate change poses.
There are many things to admire about Epstein’s central argument — in particular the insistence on recognising the importance of affordable energy to continued human prosperity and progress.
At a time when increasingly alarmist rhetoric is accelerating unwise policies, his calm and reasoned take (along with that of others like the author of False Alarm, Bjorn Lomborg) is more needed now than ever.
That being said, Fossil Future does not represent a major advance on Epstein’s earlier book. It covers much of the same ground and at times his analysis is too simplistic.
There are significant differences between different fossil fuels, for example, with natural gas producing only half the emissions produced by coal. Indeed, the shift from coal to gas in electricity generation in the United States has been the cause of major emissions reductions there.
Yet though he compares different energy sources, Epstein does not devote enough attention to the question of whether some fossil fuels should be favoured over others.
Even those inclined to agree with his arguments may also be perturbed by the lack of concern which Epstein has about the risks posed by climate change, compared to the attitude of Lomborg — who likens the process to having “a long-term chronic condition like diabetes — a problem that needs attention and focus, but one that we can live with.”
Epstein’s lack of scientific qualifications is another drawback, and even though he presents a cogent explanation for why the media may be overestimating the problem of climate change, many people will not take this argument seriously until it is made more firmly by specialists in the area of climate science.
In spite of this, Epstein has once again succeeded in focusing attention on facts which cannot be avoided.
“The fossil fuel elimination movement is powerful only because it has a moral monopoly, meaning that it is widely considered the only moral position,” he tells us. This is true, and by presenting readers with an alternative moral and philosophical framework with which we can examine these issues, Alex Epstein has again made a valuable contribution.