Read Fossil Future
I have a terrible habit of underestimating Alex Epstein.
When I first heard about his The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, I figured it was right-wing hackery and ignored it.
How wrong I was.
When I finally opened the book, I discovered a tall stack of thoughtful and compelling arguments.
Earlier this year, Epstein released his follow-up book, Fossil Future.
This time around, I knew the book would be good. But I waited months to actually take a look, because I kept telling myself, “He’s just repeating himself. It won’t say anything new.”
Now that I’ve read Epstein’s second book, I must again sigh, “How wrong I was.” The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels was great, but Fossil Future is almost perfect. Indeed, Epstein argues so skillfully that I’m done saying, “I’d need to study climate science for years to really know what’s going on.” Why? Because Epstein is amazingly good at leveraging what the reader already knows. I now understand the issue well enough to enthusiastically support fossil fuels, and staunchly oppose their regulation.
The most notable virtues of the book:
Deep self-awareness of thoughtful readers’ likely skepticism:
When so many trusted sources are telling us there is an expert consensus for fossil fuel elimination, it may be hard to imagine the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels isn’t at least basically right. Sure, maybe people don’t know the exact- amount magnitude of climate catastrophe that we face, or exactly the best way to replace fossil fuels with renewables, but there’s no way the “experts” could be totally wrong, as this Alex Epstein guy is arguing…
However, there are two factors that I urge you to consider before putting down this book.
The first factor is that, although we should certainly take it seriously when so many trusted sources tell us that something is the expert view, we know that throughout history what the general public is told the “experts” think has sometimes proved to be very wrong. In fact, some of history’s greatest evils— racism, slavery, eugenics— have been justified as supported by “the experts.”
The second factor is that the allegedly expert policy of rapidly eliminating fossil fuel use involves an incredibly radical and potentially disastrous change in how we use energy. We are being told that we must do away with fossil fuels, the source of 80 percent of the world’s energy, in a world where billions of people desperately lack energy. And we are being told that intermittent solar and wind, which provide just 3 percent of the world’s energy after many decades on the market, and which today depend on fossil fuels for 24/7 backup, will definitely be able to replace the 80 percent of energy we get from fossil fuels plus provide most of the additional energy the world needs— in less than 30 years.
If these radical changes do not work out, billions of people will have no chance at having affordable, reliable energy.
Deep reflection on how expertise errs:
When we hear that a person is totally contradicting what we’re told the “experts” think, it’s easy to assume that person will be dismissive of expertise.
So let me be clear from the outset: that’s not me.
I absolutely recognize that in a modern, specialized society, we need to rely on experts— specialists— to help us evaluate what to do about crucial issues in their area of expertise, from how to fix a leak in our homes, to how to treat COVID- 19, to what diet to adopt, to what to do about fossil fuels.
But I also recognize that what we’re told the “experts” think can be very, very wrong.
As a philosopher who has studied the history of ideas extensively, 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.” This fact has motivated me to think extensively about the questions: How do I rely on experts responsibly? How do I gain the crucial benefit of acting on expert knowledge while avoiding becoming one of the many people throughout history who supports something very wrong because they were told the “experts” endorsed it?
You might think that answering these questions is impossible because we would need to know, as outsiders to fields such as nutrition, virology, climate science, and energy, when experts who have been researching those fields for decades are making mistakes in their research.
Happily, this turns out not to be the case, because most of the time when what we’re told the “experts” think turns out to be very wrong, it is not because most of the actual expert researchers in a field are very wrong about their field. It is because the system we rely on to tell us what experts think is significantly distorting what actual experts think. And if we know how this distortion works, we can often spot it at work and protect ourselves against it.
The main problem to focus on, then, is flaws in what Epstein calls “the knowledge system”: The transmission belt from detailed technical discoveries known only to a few researchers to the Big Picture the public hears on tv.
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. We are being told what experts think through a system of institutions and people that performs four crucial functions: (1) engage in expert research about the world, (2) synthesize the essentials from expert research, (3) disseminate essential expert knowledge to the rest of us, and (4) help us evaluate what actions to take on the basis of expert knowledge. Understanding how this system, which I call our “knowledge system,” works and how it can go wrong is the key to being able to spot when what we’re told the “experts” think is very wrong— about fossil fuels or anything else.
For Epstein, it’s probably the “evaluation” problem that’s most severe. Which is why his background in philosophy is so relevant and practical:
There are two major ways in which our knowledge system’s method of evaluation can go wrong — often catastrophically wrong—which we must be
constantly vigilant for: (1) using an anti-human “standard of evaluation” and (2) failing to consider the full context.
I’ve previously written about the absurd “implications” even smart people often draw from the science of human intelligence. Imagine my pleasure when Epstein gets on my bandwagon:
Consider the historical example of the widespread conclusion among genetic experts that intelligence has some genetic component. In the early twentieth century in the U.S., mainstream evaluators used the conclusion that intelligence has some genetic component to justify policies of forced sterilization of those judged to be less intelligent. Similar conclusions about genetic intelligence or other forms of genetic “fitness” were used to justify genocide around the world, including the Holocaust.
Today, most of us regard forced sterilization, let alone genocide, as horrific— and, I believe, rightly so. The fact that someone does not have a very high IQ does not mean that they have no right to have children— which, for many of us, is an essential life goal. But in the early twentieth century, the prevailing standard of much of the mainstream knowledge system was, in effect, “maximizing intelligence and other desirable genetic attributes” — at the expense of individual lives and rights. By this anti-human standard, forced sterilization was totally justified.
Epstein is well-aware that just calling your opponents “anti-human” will persuade no reasonable person. Instead, he goes to great lengths to convince us that this harsh assessment is empirically justified. Starting with:
One cause for suspicion is the insistence not just on rapidly eliminating fossil fuels but on replacing them with exclusively “green” or “renewable” energy. These two terms refer primarily to intermittent solar and wind energy, always excluding nuclear energy and usually excluding large- scale hydroelectric energy — even though nuclear and hydro are the world’s two largest sources of non-carbon energy. A pro-human approach to reducing or CO2 emissions would eagerly embrace all forms of cost-effective non-carbon energy so as to produce as much non-carbon energy as possible — not limit itself to “green” or “renewable” energy, especially when it is already advocating eliminating 80 percent of our global energy in a world that needs much more energy.
A second cause for suspicion that an anti-human standard is at work in “expert” calls for fossil fuel elimination is the use of the term “climate change,” meaning “man-made climate change,” as an unequivocal negative. From a human flourishing perspective, climate change is not inherently bad— and climate change that involves more warming and more CO2 (plant food) in the atmosphere will surely have many positives even if they are significantly outweighed by negatives.
On a human flourishing standard, we want to avoid not “climate change” but “climate danger”— and we want to increase “climate livability” by adapting to and mastering climate, not simply refrain from impacting climate.
Elsewhere, Epstein remarks:
If a knowledgeable person on a pro-human framework believed that CO2 emissions were catastrophic or apocalyptic, they would view the situation as an unprecedented tragedy: the energy source that makes the planet livable will also render it unlivable.
But we do not see this from our knowledge system at all. Instead, it is commonplace to express unmitigated enthusiasm about the prospect of losing fossil fuels.
Tyler Cowen might tell you that these are mere ad hominem arguments that prove nothing. But that’s utterly wrong. If you can show that, “People in movement X are somewhat unreliable,” that is a powerful reason to moderately discount what they say. If you can show that, “People in movement X are extremely unreliable,” that is a powerful reason to heavily discount what they say.
Tyler might urge us to “learn from everyone,” but in a world of scarce time, that’s impossible. We must ration our attention - and rationing by credibility is one of the best ways to do so.
Fossil Future is packed with ultra-reasonable statements that ought to give even hostile readers pause. Just one:
Let me be clear: we absolutely need to study and consider the negative side-effects attributed to fossil fuels, such as increased heat waves, droughts, wildfires, etc. Just as it is completely wrong of our knowledge system to ignore fossil fuels’ benefits, it also would be completely wrong of me or anyone else to ignore fossil fuels’ side-effects — especially their side-effects of greatest concern, CO2 emissions.
But we cannot make good policy decisions about these side-effects if we don’t know the benefits that will be lost in trying to avoid them — benefits such as affordable food, clothing, shelter, and medical care that ultra cost-effective energy from fossil fuels make possible.
A knowledge system that advocates eliminating cost-effective sources of energy by focusing exclusively on their side-effects while ignoring their
benefits is a broken knowledge system, even if it is right about their side effects.
Just as a knowledge system that advocates for the elimination of vaccines and antibiotics on the basis of their side- effects, while ignoring the profound benefits of inoculating and curing disease, is a broken knowledge system for evaluating vaccines and antibiotics— even if it gets the side effects right.
Which raises the question: If our knowledge system is so wrong about the benefits of fossil fuels, could it also be significantly wrong about the allegedly catastrophic climate side-effects of fossil fuels?
Another ultra-reasonable passage:
Regardless of what you believe about the impacts of rising CO2 levels on the planet’s future, if you are knowledgeable about the state of the world today, you must acknowledge that more human beings are flourishing than at any point in history — and if you’re at all knowledgeable about the ways fossil fuels power our world, you must recognize the use of these fuels as a major contributor to our unprecedented level of human flourishing.
This positive evaluation of the world and of fossil fuels’ role in it should hold, even if you believe that rising CO2 levels will lead to such negative climate impacts that they will overwhelm our fossil- fueled climate mastery abilities and the benefits of fossil fuels to every other aspect of life. Such a view would be expressed something like this: “Fossil fuels have made the world a better and better place to live, including a place where we are far safer from climate— but tragically, in the future, their negative side-effects will be so adverse that it’s worth depriving billions of people of fossil fuels’ massive benefits.”
That would at least be a coherent claim.
But today’s knowledge system, especially its designated experts, does not acknowledge this at all. Revealingly, it treats today’s world, including climate, as being in a horrible state due to fossil fuels — whose benefits it portrays as having already been overwhelmed by negative side-effects.
Tyler, again, might warn that trusting Epstein because he expresses these ultra-reasonable thoughts is a “reverse ad hominem” (my words, not Tyler’s). The ad hominem fallacy says, “A is a bad guy, so his views are false.” The reverse ad hominem says, “A is a great guy, so his views are true.” I protest that there’s no fallacy here. Saying ultra-reasonable things signals credibility, and the rational response to credibility is credence. Moderate credibility ought to inspire moderate credence. High credibility ought to inspire high credence.
The root problem with our “knowledge system,” according to Epstein, is what he calls the “anti-impact standard.” Instead of judging policy based on its effects on human well-being, we keep trying to protect the nature from human beings. That, he says, is the best explanation for why environmental activists commonly oppose every viable energy option. Even wind and solar!
While solar and wind are supported by our knowledge system in theory, in practice they face widespread local opposition because these “green,” “renewable” sources of energy involve enormous amounts of mining, take up huge amounts of space that would otherwise be occupied by humans or wildlife, and involve unprecedented amounts of long-distance electric transmission lines. On all these counts they are facing opposition that makes them even harder to develop (on top of their fundamental problems with cost- effectiveness).
Contrary to what you’ve heard, nature isn’t “delicately balanced.” Untamed nature is hellish, and massively “tampering” with nature is essential for our quality of life:
The Earth is not a naturally nurturing “delicate balance” but rather a naturally (1) dynamic, (2) deficient, and (3) dangerous place that we must massively impact if we are to survive and flourish.
1. Dynamic: Our natural environment, including climate, is a highly dynamic system, even if we have zero impact. This is why human life was ruled by natural changes in conditions, such as changes from plentiful rainfall to drought, for millennia.
2. Deficient: From the perspective of human flourishing — human beings living long, healthy, opportunity-filled lives — the planet is not naturally sufficient. It is deficient. That’s why the historical life expectancy was under thirty.
3. Dangerous: Our natural environment is dangerous. We are naturally threatened by organisms that are deliberately trying to destroy us, from large predators to small parasites. We are also naturally threatened by inanimate factors such as the dangerous climate and weather conditions that exist everywhere around the globe.
My term for the reality of the relationship between Earth and human beings is the “wild potential” premise. The potential in “wild potential” refers to the fact that Earth has the potential to be a highly livable place if we impact it positively enough.
One of the things humans are great at “tampering” with is how the climate affects us. Human ingenuity, powered almost entirely by fossil fuels, makes the Earth’s incredibly variable weather conditions safe and comfortable for humans. Epstein calls this “climate mastery”:
The best metric of climate danger is climate-related disaster deaths — a
statistic that includes deaths from extreme temperatures, drought, wildfires, storms, and floods… And the rate of climate disaster deaths has decreased by 98 percent over the last century (the only period for which we have decent data)…
In a given year, the average person’s chance of dying from a climate-related disaster is about three in one million. That’s 1/42nd the average person’s chance of dying in an auto accident, which is about one-hundred fifteen in one million.
The plummeting of climate-related disaster deaths, denied by our knowledge system, has two implications:
1. Given that rising CO2 levels correlate with dramatically decreasing climate deaths, designated-experts’ supposedly scientific claims of rising CO2’s terribly negative long- term impacts on climate may be significantly distorted, just as designated experts’ past, supposedly scientific claims of terrible climate impacts have proved wildly distorted…
2. Fossil-fueled climate mastery is an enormously powerful force that can overcome massive natural climate danger. Ultra-cost-effective fossil fuel energy powers the machines that produce unprecedented protection from climate — from construction machines that build weather- resilient buildings to heating machines that produce warmth when it’s cold to cooling machines that produce cool air when it’s hot to irrigation machines that alleviate drought to automobiles that enable us to evacuate areas when necessary.
Epstein repeatedly acknowledges that fossil fuels cause climate change. But:
We should think of potential global climate change from human impact as a change not from safe to dangerous but from dangerous to dangerous. We are taught to think of “climate change” as binary: we had a good climate, and we changed it to a bad climate. But if we recognize the natural danger of the global climate system, we see that any significant human impacts on climate are not taking a naturally safe global climate system and changing it to an unnaturally dangerous one but rather taking one dangerous global climate system and changing it into another dangerous global climate system. The new climate system could be more dangerous overall or less dangerous overall, and we should not assume either one.
“But what about X?” Trust me: For almost any X you have in mind, Fossil Future has answers. The book runs almost 500 pages, but you can tell that Epstein spent a lot of time deleting excess verbiage to make every word count. In coming weeks, I’ll run posts analyzing the book’s top original contributions, along with my rare reservations. For now, I urge you to buy the book and read it carefully.
This review is a wonderful model of clear and comprehensive thinking. I will re-read it several times, learning more and savoring it each time. It will influence how I structure my talking points when I discuss things with my friends, many of whom are intelligent but reluctant to evaluate critically what has become the standard climate interpretation. Thank you for this post!
> “But what about X?” Trust me: For almost any X you have in mind, Fossil Future has answers.
What does Epstein say about particulate air pollution from burning coal? (It seems to me like coal is pretty clearly anti-human because of its immediate health effects, in a way that's not true of fossil fuels or CO2 production in general.)