I rarely gush about a book, but The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein is an exception. I, like the author, was raised in an orthodox “green” environment where everything I’ve ever been taught and every person I’ve ever known has been unequivocal: climate change is dangerous, humans are causing it, and anything but immediate action against the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions will damage the future of humanity. I never fully bought the mania around climate change, out of a gut feeling that we weren’t being told the complete story, but didn’t take the time to sit down and figure out why, until I picked up this book.
Epstein’s book makes the exact opposite case, and it’s worth listening to: that to stop the productive harnessing of fossil fuel energy would be devastating to today’s and future humans, and moreover, if we want healthier lives, cleaner air, and a safer environment now and in the future, we should be encouraging more fossil fuel use and supporting the industry that develops these resources.
(In case you were wondering, Epstein adamantly denies taking any money from the fossil fuel industry).
The book starts by focusing on reframing the cultural debate around climate change. The author emphasizes using a human standard of value instead of an environmental (nature first) standard of value, and he provides plenty of support for why, to humans, the benefits of cheap, plentiful and reliable energy in the form of fossil fuels far outweigh the risks.
In short, humans mostly benefit from impacting our environment: nature and climate are inherently dangerous to our species and we make it safer. The mechanism by which we make our environment safer and more productive for human life is cheap, plentiful and reliable energy, that right now only exists in fossil fuels. Epstein looks at supposedly renewable alternatives like wind and solar and how uneconomical they are, not to mention unreliable. He addresses arguments about the costs of fossil fuel consumption, from pollution to ecosystem impact to climate change, essentially in the same way: that cheap energy makes our lives safer, our environment cleaner, and allows us to control out climate for our own flourishing and comfort. He takes us to remote parts of the world where electricity is not commonplace, where premature babies die from lack of incubation, where labs can’t use microscopes to study disease and create cures, where farms can’t get irrigated and crops can’t get to market, all because of a lack of cheap, plentiful and reliable energy.
Far from being the global warming-denying screed I expected, he actually spends very little time talking about climate change at all. He does address the fact that there is little consensus among scientists about how much climate change humanity should expect to see in the next couple centuries, and looks at the dubious historical record of such predictive models (including that of Paul Ehrlich, about whom I recently read in The Bet). He acknowledges that carbon emissions probably do have a minor impact on global temperatures–but that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter compared to the immense wealth to be gained by humanity because of it. The ability of humans to innovate and adapt to their changing environments is made possible by fossil fuels, and our continuing progress as a civilization–including the rise out of poverty for billions around the globe–requires cheap, plentiful and reliable fossil fuel energy. Plus–and this is a case he made plenty of times–fossil fuel usage is linked to cleaner and healthier environments as technology and innovation advances (made possible again by you guessed it, fossil fuels).
One thing I wish he had addressed was the issue of energy export. One of the reasons America’s air and water has gotten so much cleaner, despite using more and more fossil fuels over the last half century, is because we have exported so much of our energy-intensive activities to China and elsewhere, where fossil fuel pollution is a serious problem. I have no doubt that the Chinese, like us, can develop technologies to limit pollution as well, and in any event, it wouldn’t be a reason not to burn fossil fuels as much as a reason to regulate their emissions, but it would have been a good point to make as the third world industrializes and starts to reap the benefits of fossil fuel energy.
He does make a good case against pollution (for the strict purpose of preventing negative externalities, not dissuading fossil fuel use). However, he doesn’t reconcile his support for antipollution regulation with his general support of carbon-burning industries. He could say, without hurting his argument, that there’s nothing wrong with risk managing (potentially) catastrophic global warming by taxing or capping CO2 emissions as a matter of policy. Though regressive, that would be a fair tax priced into everything as the cost of civilization, and would have little impact on encouraging new energy development. I think this oversight is due only to the fact that that’s not really the point of his book. He wrote this book not to lobby for individual policy, but to fight back against cultural anti-fossil fuel prejudice advocated by environmentalists and progressives who prioritize nature over human life. At this task he did an laudable and astounding job. I would not be surprised to see Epstein quickly emerge as a leading spokesperson for an alternative environmental discourse in the future.