Burn Baby Burn

Review: Alex Epstein’s ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’

Oil pumps in California / AP
• February 1, 2015 5:00 am


It is January 2032, and Chelsea Clinton has just been sworn in for her third term as President. She has been a leader even more progressive than her mother—whom she succeeded at the White House—and her signature achievement at the end of her second term was finally, after years of struggle, outlawing the use of 95 percent of fossil fuels in the United States. The rest of the world, including China, has also agreed to cut its use of fossil fuels by 90 percent. Rolling zones of "cooling," formerly known as "blackouts," have been instituted across much of the developing world, and even across large parts of the rural United States.

What would happen to the world if such a drastic policy were implemented? We should expect millions of people to die who would have lived with the use of fossil fuels, if we accept Alex Epstein’s argument in his new book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

It is an unconventional argument. The usual rationale for cutting the use of fossil fuels is that doing so will save lives. Environmentalists such as Bill McKibben and Tom Steyer argue that we will have a catastrophe on our hands if we do not reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we are putting into the air. The sea will rise, flooding our cities; droughts and hurricanes will ravage our plains and coasts; the world’s food supply will be cut substantially, causing millions in developing countries to be decimated by famine. More greenhouse gases, the byproduct of burning fossil fuels, will mean a much more dangerous world—at least so we are told.

Epstein’s thesis seems counterintuitive, but behind it lies a very obvious point: Coal, natural gas, and oil have made the world we live in possible. The energy they produce—energy that is cheap, plentiful, and reliable, far more so than their alternatives, as he shows—have undergirded everything we do, all the innovations we make, every item we buy, all our comforts and necessities and luxuries.

The energy industry, overwhelmingly based on fossil fuels, is, as he puts it, "the industry that powers every other industry." Thus eliminating fossil fuels or cutting them drastically would cut off the energy that we have used to innovate and grow and become more secure in the developed world.

Epstein correlates increasing carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel use across the globe with greater life expectancy, GDP, and other markers of improving life. Much of the evidence he provides is in visual form—Epstein’s book is chock-full of graphs, but his visual evidence often over-simplifies. Correlation obviously does not equal causation: carbon dioxide will never save a premature baby’s life, no matter how much we spew into the air. And sometimes the scale of graphs make a correlation look stronger than it actually is. Cumulatively, though, such correlations make a powerful point that the energy derived from fossil fuels has made a huge difference in our world.

Epstein’s argument takes another unexpected turn when he argues that,in the long run, the energy from fossil fuels has actually allowed us to clean up our environment, and that pollution has gone down and sanitation has gone up over the last few decades. The processes that have allowed us to clean up the environment have taken energy—energy derived largely from fossil fuels.

As one might expect, Epstein’s book also tackles alarmist claims made by environmentalists. He looks at trends in storm energy, global temperatures, and sea level changes and concludes that any changes are minor and do not justify the predictions of imminent doom.

One of the most compelling passages comes when Epstein analyzes the models forecasting climate change. He presents the graphs comparing real temperature measurements with the experts’ predictions, and the predictions are obviously wildly off base:

[E]very prediction of drastic future consequences is based on speculative models that have failed to predict the climate trend so far and that speculate a radically different trend than what has actually happened in the last thirty to eighty years of emitting substantial amounts of CO2.

Epstein is committed to facts and willing to make concessions. He acknowledges the existence of the greenhouse effect and says that he believes it is making the earth warmer. But the data also leads him to reject the conventional wisdom about fossil fuels.

Underlying this rejection is a deeply held optimism about the ability of humanity to innovate and improve its situation, just as we have over the last two centuries. This optimism undermines some of Epstein’s counterfactual dooms-day predictions—what would happen if the use of fossil fuels were to become all but outlawed. If we humans are as innovative a bunch as he believes us to be, then presumably we could figure out how to get on without fossil fuels, perhaps by accelerating our development of nuclear and solar energies.

But Epstein’s main point holds: it is reliable energy that has undergirded innovation over the last two centuries, improving our lives tremendously. Cutting off that energy without a suitable replacement would, at least for a time, put us in the position of adapting with one hand tied behind our backs.

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels suffers from other weaknesses. Epstein attacks a straw man when he asserts that environmentalists want to eliminate all human impact on the environment. While this position is certainly held by some fairly radical environmentalists, it is fair to assume that most people want to curb fossil fuel use are motivated by concern for their fellow human beings, not the ultimate welfare of Mother Gaia. While Epstein’s argument adequately addresses more moderate environmentalism, he is far too concerned with taking on extremists.

Epstein’s book also suffers from its obvious, and acknowledged, debt to Ayn Rand. All our actions should be guided by what most helps humans, Epstein says, because human happiness should be our ultimate goal. "Happiness is the reward of life," Epstein asserts, and energy helps us to pursue happiness for people. Epstein’s ethical foray, with which he tries to frame the book (and which supplies its title), is too thin to be as persuasive as he wants it to be, and it is ultimately unnecessary. He is trying to persuade the reader to support fossil fuels, not to go all-in for Objectivism.

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels makes a compelling case for the good that fossil fuels have brought to our world. Its central argument—we need energy to make our world better, our energy largely comes from fossil fuels, therefore we should keep using fossil fuels—is delightfully contrarian yet robustly supported. It deserves a wide hearing.

Published under: Book reviews