Alex Epstein’s Clear Thinking on Climate and Energy
“For many decades the human species has been at war with the planet,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared at the start of the Madrid climate conference last week. “And the planet is fighting back.”
Alex Epstein, the youthful pro-fossil-fuel campaigner and author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, disagrees. What Guterres sees as humanity’s war on nature, Epstein regards as our successful effort to protect ourselves from raw, brutal nature—from famine, disease, natural disasters, and shortened lifespans, an effort that has, in the modern age, provided human beings with a hitherto undreamt-of quality of life. And it is energy—overwhelmingly from coal, oil, and natural gas, powering our machines and technologies—that has given rise to this unprecedented human flourishing.
Epstein’s human-centered optimism sets him apart from both sides of the climate and energy debate. As he points out in a recent talk at the University of Texas at Austin, if there is a climate crisis, it’s not showing up in the numbers that matter most. Climate-related deaths are way down from earlier periods in history. Several years during the 1930s, for example, saw more than 3 million climate-related deaths—equivalent to 10 million if adjusted for today’s population. By contrast, 2014 saw only 30,000 climate-related deaths, and 2018 just 5,625.
A few years ago, when Senator Barbara Boxer angrily questioned what Epstein was doing at a hearing of the Senate environment and public works committee, Epstein responded: “To teach you how to think more clearly.” Clear thinking is vital, given current American public opinion on climate and energy. A November Pew Center survey finds 67% of respondents saying that the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of global warming. Similarly, an AP-NORC Center survey conducted last year found 71% of Americans saying climate change is a reality. Nearly half say that the science on climate change is more convincing than five years earlier.
And yet, most are unwilling to make sacrifices remotely commensurate with the costs of decarbonizing America’s hydrocarbon-fueled economy. Fifty-seven percent of respondents were willing to pay $1 a month, but 68% would balk at paying as much as $10 a month, or $120 a year, to forestall this supposedly looming catastrophe.
These results suggest that, for a large portion of Americans, belief in the dangers of man-made climate change could be tokenistic, a product of one-sided media coverage that cultivates and encourages a socially acceptable view of the issue. Another possible interpretation is that many Americans believe that the costs of climate change have nothing to do with their own personal choices—they will somehow be insulated from the higher taxes and energy prices that would follow from the aggressive environmental policies that they claim to support.
If Americans believe that draconian efforts to fight climate change will impose no serious costs, they should ask Germans how that effort is going. When Germany embarked on its Energy Transition, the environment minister, former Communist Jürgen Trittin, claimed that its monthly cost would amount to no more than a scoop of ice cream. Now German households face the highest electricity prices in the world, and Trittin’s Christian Democrat successor reckons that the country’s green energy revolution could cost one trillion euros ($1.11tn). This is the path that climate activists would take America down.
The case for energy realism could be lost even before it’s made, though. According to Pew, 77% of Americans believe that alternative energy should be prioritized over fossil fuels. And for many, wind and solar energy appear to be “free,” given their heavy public subsidies.
This is where Epstein’s work is so crucial. He has produced an excellent four-minute explainer on the false promise of wind and solar energy and why they can never replace fossil fuels. His views may prove shocking to younger Americans, particularly the college-educated, who are increasingly exposed to only one side of the debate—even on the Internet, where Google returns search results that skew in one direction. Search for “fracking,” for example—the technology of American energy independence—and out comes “What is fracking and why is it bad?” followed by a BBC News story, “What is fracking and why is it controversial?” And these are followed by hit jobs from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
Epstein engages with the idealism of students and climate activists, and he lays out a compelling challenge: if we want more people to enjoy long, healthy, opportunity-filled lives, the world needs more fossil fuels, not less. This is especially true for those living in the developing world. Even today, more than 1 billion people live without electricity—634 million of them in Africa. They lack adequate light and proper refrigeration, essential for food hygiene; they must cook using wood and animal dung, with the attendant dangers to life and health of fire and indoor air pollution. Africa is energy-starved: excluding South Africa, approximately 1.1 billion people on the continent consume on average a pitiful 26½ lbs of coal per year, less than one-twentieth the per capita amount used in India’s power stations. An empowered Africa would burn more coal and emit more carbon dioxide.
Energy and climate, Epstein reminds us, are complex problems; solutions can never be cost-free. In his realistic and practical approach, and his rejection of utopian schemes, he echoes the warnings of Friedrich Hayek about man’s fatal striving to control society, which the Austrian economist described in his 1974 Nobel Prize address, The Pretence of Knowledge. “If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order,” Hayek cautioned, “he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.” These words resonate today as a warning against those claiming certitude about the earth’s climate—and demanding control of America’s energy policy.
Rupert Darwall is a Senior Fellow of the RealClearFoundation.