355 Epstein on Energy

Rick Perry, the former Governor of Texas who served as Secretary of Energy in President Trump’s cabinet, recently urged everyone concerned with our energy crisis to read Alex Epstein’s Fossil Future:  Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More, Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less (New York:  Penguin Publishing Group, c. 2022;  Kindle Edition).  For a decade Epstein has been researching, writing, and speaking on energy issues, and he’s committed to providing a reasonable alternative to the radical environmentalism which has increasingly dominated America’s public policies.  Though he deals adeptly with scientific data, he’s most concerned with philosophical principles and practical reason, for as G.K. Chesterton once noted:  “Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy” (“The Revival of Philosophy-Why?,” In Defense of Sanity).

Of all the philosophies needing a revival, common-sense Aristotelianism is stands out.  And though Aristotle is never cited in Epstein’s text it’s clear that his views gain traction inasmuch as they draw upon the perennial philosophy of the great Greek ethicist.  Unlike Plato, with his utopian tendencies, Aristotle always sought to identify and pursue reasonable, attainable, goals.  The main thing of Aristotle prescribes in his Nichomachean Ethics is eudaemonia, usually translated “happiness.”  Rather than pursuing riches, sensual pleasures or fame, we attain eudaemonia by rationally ordering our lives to attain good ends, by acting so as to fulfill our potential.  Living virtuously (being temperate, courageous, wise, and just), seeking the “golden mean” (knowing how to balance things rather than lurch about seeking an impossible perfection), and enjoying the good life are all part of the Aristotelian tradition.  As Aristotle said:  “The happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.”  Extending his ethics to politics, he observed that by nature we are social beings, thriving best in healthy families and communities.  States—political structures—are essential because they can nurture man’s moral and intellectual welfare.  Like Aristotle, Epstein wants us to focus on the human rather than the physical world.  A decade ago he published The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (New York:. Penguin Publishing Group, c. 2014; Kindle Edition), a “book is about morality, about right and wrong.  To me, the question of what to do about fossil fuels and any other moral issue comes down to:  What will promote human life?  What will promote human flourishing—realizing the full potential of life?” 

In Fossil Future Epstein repeats his previous book’s theme, citing much the same the evidence.    He wants us to acknowledge this:  “Nature is not a Garden of Eden in which all the food we need is available to be effortlessly plucked.  While certain environments, left to their own devices, might grow some useful fruit trees, no environment, let alone the average environment around the world, left to its own devices, produces abundant, healthy food for millions of people or more” (p. 136).  Rather than imagining a world as we might like it to be, we should handle it as it really is—a frequently dangerous place we must master with the machines that enable us to thrive.  The elitist environmentalists celebrating the “Green New Deal” generally want to minimize human impact on nature rather than promote human flourishing by using and transforming it.  They are, consequently, Epstein thinks, deeply anti-human.  They think humans easily  harm a fragile physical world because they assume the “Earth, absent human impact, exists in an optimal, nurturing ‘delicate balance’ that is as stable, sufficient, and safe as we can hope to expect” (p. 91).  They assume we must take a dubious “delicate nurturer” stance, refraining from exploiting Nature.  Yet if “our goal is eliminating human impact—usually in the form of  ‘going green,’ ‘minimizing environmental impact,’ ‘protecting the environment,’ or ‘saving the planet’—the value of energy to human flourishing, and even human flourishing as such, is barely considered” (p. 88).  Promoting such ideals involves taking an “incredibly negative view of human beings”—what Epstein deems the “parasite-polluter assumption”— that man’s main impact on our world “is to parasitically plunder our environment of resources and to pollute it to make it unsafe and unhealthy” (p. 92).

Arguing there’s a better alternative, Epstein wants us to pursue policies designed to maximize “global human flourishing,” knowing that fossil fuels have made our world a wonderful place and allowing our species to thrive in truly amazing ways.  Even better, these fuels can make our world ever better.  “I’m going to try to persuade you,” he says “that if you want to make the world a better place, one of the best things you can do is fight for more fossil fuel use—more burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.  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, 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” (p. 3).  From the “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” (p. 18).  If we would stop trying to save the planet and resolve to improve the world for humans “we can have it all—the best of what exists naturally and the best of what we can create—including the time and ability to enjoy what exists naturally” (p. 99).

To fuel our optimism, Epstein develops helpful categories to discern what’s true sorting out the purveyors of environmental information.  First, there are the real researchers, the trained scientists meticulously recording and analyzing the state of the world.  They are scrupulous in dealing with the evidence, cautious in making projections, concerned to put their observations in the proper context, and frequently critical of what parades as “science” in the popular media.   These are the thinkers Epstein trusts and cites, and they differ significantly from the doomsday utterances of President Biden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  For example, many environmentalists claim with certainty that the globe will warm up 2°C this century.  But when you read the actual researchers, they are less sure and many think that even if such warming occurs it will not prove harmful.  Indeed, “the world’s leading climate economist,” Nobel Prize winner William Nordhaus, says an added 2°C would not be  catastrophic and that Green New Deal proposals “‘would do far more harm than good’” (p. 11).  Above all, it’s clear “that climate scientists lack the causal understanding of climate needed to make meaningful predictions” (p. 333), and the best of them refuse to do so.  Were researchers actually shaping public opinion we would all profit.

In addition to the researchers, there are the synthesizers who summarize their research.  “In climate science, the world’s leading synthesizer is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which synthesizes research that is performed mostly in universities and in government science institutions” (p. 11).  Synthesizers, however, often lack the skills of the researchers and easily allow personal biases to shape their summaries.  They constantly do this by omission—failing to consider crucial aspects of the original studies.  Thus the IPCC, in its critique of fossil fuels, failed to note one momentous detail:  “The death rate from climate-related disasters, especially over the last one-hundred-plus years as CO2 levels have risen, tells us an enormous amount about humans’ ability to adapt to or master climate danger.”  In all the IPCC synthesis reports this is never mentioned!  Yet in fact:  “Climate-related disaster deaths have plummeted by 98 percent over the last century while “temperatures have risen by 1°C” (p. 13).  A person in the 1920s was fifty times more likely to die of climate-related disasters than we are!  The poor work of the synthesizers often exasperates the researchers, as was evident when a prominent scientist, Richard Tol, resigned from his position in the IPCC, complaining that it had changed researchers’ position of “Not without risk, but manageable,” to a more headline-grabbing message that “‘We’re all gonna die’”—“from what I think is a relatively accurate assessment of recent developments in literature to . . . the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (p. 14).

More numerous and influential than the researchers and synthesizers are the disseminators—the institutions and journalists who inform the general public, The New York Times and The Washington Post, the TV networks and radio pundits, the college and high school teachers.  Unfortunately, Epstein says:  “The dissemination of synthesized research is frequently distorted to a degree that is almost impossible to overestimate.”  Novelist Michael Crichton once said that if you read a newspaper article dealing with something you know well you immediately recognize that “‘the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues.  Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. . . . You read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story,” and then read an adjoining article about something in a distant place and naively assume it gives us the total truth! (p. 14).  Given the power of the disseminators in shaping the public understanding—what Epstein calls “our knowledge system”—the West is embarking on a self-destructive experiment that may easily impoverish us all.  

To enable us to think more clearly Epstein urges us to evaluate environmentalists, climatologists, and other “designated experts” by looking at their sorry track records rather than trusting their current predictions.  Prominent alarmists such as Al Gore and James Hansen—lauded as “climate prophets” in some circles—have consistently made demonstrably false predictions.  In fact, Epstein argues, “a study of our knowledge system’s track record on climate reveals that not only has it not been right about climate, it has been 180 degrees wrong” (p. 44).  As “Exhibit A” consider the career of the hugely influential Dr. James E. Hanson of the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Institute for Space Studies.  In 1986 he predicted the the “greenhouse effect” would cause global temperatures to soar “by one-half a degree to one degree Fahrenheit [0.28–0.56°C] from 1990 to 2000” and “by another 2 to 4 degrees [1.11–2.22°C] in the following decade.”  In reality, there was only a 0.12°C rise in the 1990s and only a 0.19°C increase in the 2000s.  Hansen missed his prediction by a factor of five to ten!” (p. 45).  Joining Hansen in making dire predictions, John Holdren warned that global warming could kill a billion people before 2020!  Despite such wildly erroneous declamations, President Barack Obama choose Holdren to be his top science adviser!  Much of the problem with “experts” such as Hansen and Holdren is their record of “(1) wildly overpredicting the negative climate side-effects of fossil fuels and (2) ignoring the climate mastery benefits that come with them.  The particular error our designated experts made on climate is an instance of a broader error I call ‘catastrophizing’” (p. 50).  Decades ago leading experts declared we would soon run out of fossil fuels, “seemingly unaware that ten-plus times more oil and gas, let alone coal, exist in the Earth than humanity has used in its entire history—meaning that imminent depletion was impossible” (p. 55).  

Even worse, our experts constantly paint dire portraits of “the most promising long-term alternative to fossil fuels, nuclear energy, engaging in even more brazen distortions of science than it has used with fossil fuels—suggesting that its hostility toward cost-effective energy as such will drive it to catastrophize with even the scantest of evidence” (p. 60).  In fact, nuclear energy, like fossil fuels, “has already produced relatively low-cost, extremely reliable electricity around the world.  It has shown promising applications for industrial-process heat and heavy-duty transportation.  And it emits no air pollution or CO2 and has the best safety track record of any form of energy.  Nuclear’s remarkable cleanliness and safety flow from the basic, well-established nature of nuclear energy production” (p. 60).  Certainly there is a theoretical danger of plants “melting down,” but there are no “documented deaths from nuclear radiation from commercial reactors.  Zero!  And yet most of us think of nuclear energy as very dangerous—because our knowledge system has catastrophized it despite not a shred of plausibility from the fields of nuclear science or engineering.  It has done this above all by distorting the issue of nuclear radioactivity” (p. 61).  By doing so, we probably won’t even know that “one of the most promising emerging technologies is nuclear microreactors that are simple to operate and small enough to fit on the back of a semitruck. They could be used for everything from powering industrial projects in remote locations to quickly restoring power to areas hit by a natural disaster” (p. 360).

In addition to halting the development of nuclear power plants, anti-human extremists intent on eliminating human impact on nature have opposed logging, plastics, new roads, new factories, etc.—the very things most needed to make the world a better place.  “One particularly horrifying example of our knowledge system’s pursuit of this goal has been the widespread elimination of the lifesaving, malaria-destroying compound DDT.  According to the politically liberal National Academy of Sciences, this compound has saved 500 million lives from malaria death.  But it has been largely eliminated from the poor world by way of pressure from rich nations that were up in arms about reports that DDT has a side-effect of . . . thinner bird eggshells.  Countless millions of people have died to eliminate our alleged impact on eggshells.  (Like most such claims, this impact-on-eggshells claim also proved to be wildly distorted)” (p. 82).  

On the other hand, countless millions of people who might have died have lived because of technological developments providing abundant food, clean water, safe shelter, sanitation, efficient transportation, cold storage and medical care.  In fact, we’ve “taken an unnaturally dangerous planet and made it unnaturally safe” (p. 153).  For example, our fossil fuel-empowered agricultural system has effectively eliminated the devastating famines that ravished countries such as China a century ago, dramatically increasing life expectancy.  We now have a “whole innovative subindustry of agricultural research, where individuals devote their whole careers to studying how to grow more and healthier food.  Chief among such individuals is Norman Borlaug, the leader of the Green Revolution (not related to the modern Green movement), whose work in genetics and plant breeding has been credited with preventing upwards of a billion deaths from hunger and malnutrition” (p. 140).  Importantly, Borlaug’s break-through work utilized natural gas- based fertilizers enabling farmers to produce the amazing amounts of food needed to feed mankind.  Fossil-fuels also power effective irrigation systems that further enable farmers to produce enormous crops.   

Epstein effectively shows why “alternative” sources of energy cannot possibly sustain human flourishing.  To even imagine quickly replacing fossil fuels with green energy is a totally “crackpot idea.”  We must understand that all these “alternatives”—solar panels, windmills, waste wood, biofuels from corn or sugarcane—have been tried for 50 years.  Despite lavish subsidies, solar and wind energy cannot but fail to replace fossil fuel use by 2050.  Solar and wind energy cannot but fail because of their diluteness and intermittency.  They also use rare-earth materials only obtained through mining large sections of land, using powerful machinery.  “Building solar and wind electricity generation requires ten times more mined materials than building fossil fuels electricity generation” (p. 212).  The vaunted “total electric” system envisioned by our elites requires an “extreme controllability; the electrical grid needs to be able to provide industrial and residential users with electricity on-demand—whenever they need it and in whatever quantities they need it in” (p. 213).  And as folks in Texas learned in February 2021, this is precisely what sun and wind energy cannot do!  Only when devotees of solar and wind energy conceal the true costs of making the panels and windmills can they craft compelling arguments—“partial cost accounting”—to justify their installation.  “In reality, every grid in the world uses solar and wind only as a parasite on reliable sources: coal, gas, nuclear, and large-scale hydro, none of which qualify as “renewable” by most definitions” (p. 219).  In fact:  “solar and wind replacing fossil fuels isn’t a fantastic breakthrough; it’s a thoroughly dishonest fantasy—one that is used to advance anti-impact, anti-energy policies” (p. 223).

However much we might imagine ending our use of fossil fuels, they remain “the world’s energy of choice 80 percent of the time—that’s four times more than all alternatives combined.  Solar and wind, by contrast, provide just 3 percent of the world’s energy—and that 3 percent is almost exclusively for electricity, which is less than 20 percent of the world’s energy use.  Solar and wind technologies make almost no contribution to crucial areas of energy use such as heavy-duty transportation and many forms of ‘industrial process heat’—generating very high levels of heat for such processes as making plastics and making cement.  Fossil fuel use is not shrinking; it is growing.  CO2 emissions have grown by 60 percent since the first major United Nations climate conference in 1992.  In every five-year period since then, fossil fuel use has increased more than the use of any other form of energy” (p. 180).  Unlike electric cars, the cargo ships, diesel trucks, heavy construction equipment and airplanes so necessary for commerce industry require gas, diesel, and oil.  

Burning fossil fuels will certainly increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  But Epstein argues it will be minimal and we can creatively deal with it.  Though we’re told by our knowledge disseminators that we’re destroying our world, there’s simply no evidence there’s an environmental catastrophe is in the making.  Global cooling—as evident in the “Little Ice Age” several centuries ago—would be far more deadly than global warming.  Since 1850, atmospheric CO2 has increased “from just under 0.03 percent—280 parts per million—to just over 0.04 percent—420 parts per million.”  Yet earlier in earth’s history there was nearly 15 times that amount and nothing catastrophic occurred.  All too many of the fears broadcast by our media—forests burning, floods descending, oceans risings, hurricanes burgeoning—are demonstrably unrelated to “climate change.”  Sadly, Epstein says, we have been seriously misled by our knowledge system regarding CO2’s climate impacts.  “In reality, there’s nothing whatsoever “unprecedented” going on in terms of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere or the average temperature on Earth” (p. 321).  Furthermore:  “There is no direct correlation between temperature and CO2.  And when one looks more closely at the times they do correlate in past eras, CO2 rises come after temperature rises, not before—due to the rising temperature warming the oceans and releasing CO2” (p. 335).

Importantly, we’re never told about the positive aspects of CO2, which “is both a warming gas and a fertilizing gas.  One minute of commonsense thinking about” this should make it clear how plants will profit from more fertilizer and longer growing seasons (p. 297).  In fact, “today’s CO2 levels are quite low from a plant-preference perspective” (p. 297), so more atmospheric CO2 would green up the planet.  Looking at the past two decades, because of the fertilizer effect “the world has added additional green areas equivalent to the size of all the Amazon’s rainforests” (p. 298).  This very positive development, however, has been largely ignored.  Sadly:  “Many eminent climate scientists have been publicly smeared as ‘climate change skeptics’ or even ‘climate change deniers’ even though they think the evidence shows that CO2 has a warming impact on climate—they just think the negativity of that impact is severely overstated and/or the accompanying benefits of fossil fuels are severely understated” (p. 303).  To Epstein, if we consider “the universally acknowledged history of climate and life on this planet, we inevitably come to the conclusion that rising CO2 levels leading to an unlivable planet is literally impossible—because the planet was incredibly livable for far less-adaptable organisms, with much in common with us, when CO2 was at levels that we could not come close to even if we wanted to” (p. 321).  So relax and give thanks for fossil fuels!