Transition Culture

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4 Feb 2015

Book review: "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels". Really?


I first heard about Alex Epstein’s book ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’ via an unsurprisingly fawning review over at the SkeptEco blog.  Its premise is so ludicrous that normally I wouldn’t read it, never mind review it.  There is no “moral case for fossil fuels”, just as there was no “moral case for slavery” in 1860. But given the alarming rise, in the US and elsewhere, of the climate sceptic/pro fossil fuel lobby (witness, for instance, Sen. James Infoe’s ludicrous attack on climate science in the US Senate recently) it feels important to look a bit closer at the arguments presented here. 


Epstein recently started something called the ‘Center for Industrial Progress’, and lectures on the need to keep fossil fuels as a key driver for the economy. At other times he can be found, among other things, defending child labour or arguing that animals have no rights. He likes to paint himself and the fossil fuel industry as the misunderstood underdogs, holding the line against the far more influential “greens”.  He’s a curious character, as can be seen in this video of him standing in the middle of the hundreds of thousands of people who attended the Peoples’ Climate March in New York last year, heckling them with inane comments like “you know, your clothes are fracked!”

“As you read this”, he writes, “there is a real, live, committed movement against fossil fuels that truly wants to deprive us of the energy of life”.  This painting of the oil industry as the good guys, as the misunderstood heroes being undermined by uninformed idiots (i.e. you and I), is the first, but by no means the last, place where Epstein parts company with reality.

He bemoans the fact that fossil fuel companies “have had to fight daily for permission to empower billions of people”.  Try telling that to the communities in Ecuador affected by the oil spills for which Chevron was fined $19 billion, people in Richmond, California who live in the shadow of the Chevron refinery which exploded in 2012, communities living near mountaintop removal coal plants, people living near fracking sites, or First Nation people living near the Tar Sands in Alberta.  He continues:

“I believe that we owe the fossil fuel industry an apology.  While the industry has been producing the energy to make our climate more livable, we have treated it as a villain.  We owe it the kind of gratitude that we owe anyone who makes our lives much, much better”. 

coverCentral to Epstein’s argument, echoing those put forward by other cornucopians such as Matt Ridley in ‘The Rational Optimist’, is the idea that fossil fuels have been the best thing that ever happened to us (given that Ridley was recently estimated to be personally responsibly for 1% of the UK’s total carbon emissions, one might be forgiven for questioning his objectivity here).   

The rise of fossil fuel use, Epstein argues, has led to better air quality, increased life expectancy, rising incomes, better access to clean drinking water, etc etc.  This is stated as though it is somehow an insight that has escaped those arguing that we should now, with great urgency, leave fossil fuels behind, because, you see, “fossil-fuelled development is the greatest benefactor our environment has ever known”.  The argument that it has led to the improvements he states is one that few would argue with. 

However, at the same time, it can hardly be said to have been without its side effects.  To name but two, it has appallingly corrupted international politics and undermined democracy around the world. As Naomi Klein put it in ‘This Changes Everything’:

“Fossil fuels really do create a hyper-stratified economy.  It’s the nature of the resources that they are concentrated, and you need a huge amount of infrastructure to get them out and to transport them.  And that lends itself to huge profits and they’re big enough that you can buy off politicians.”

How many people in Nigeria, for example, dubbed the “world oil pollution capital” and where much of the wealth generated has been siphoned off through corruption, would argue that “fossil-fuelled development is the greatest benefactor our environment has ever known”?  It is true that for many people (but by no means all) the fossil fuel age has brought great benefits.    

However, Epstein’s argument is rather like staying with a psychotic and abusive partner because the first couple of months of the relationship were very lovely.  Just because the first half of the oil age enabled some remarkable things does not mean logically that therefore the second half will be the same.  Last year the IPCC stated that unchecked climate change will be “severe, widespread and irreversible”.  You would think that that, along with the overwhelming body of scientific opinion, suggests that the second half of the oil age might not quite be the bed of roses the first half was (for some at least). But not for Epstein.

He writes:

“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 – realising the full potential of human life?”

Given that this is the same question we ask in Transition, it’s fascinating to explore how we end up at such resolutely different places (and how he ends up advocating an approach almost guaranteed to put an end of any possibility of human flourishing).  Epstein does this by several sleights of hand. The first is by dismissing climate change.  His argument is only logical, or even possible, if climate change isn’t an issue.  Fortunately for him it isn’t.  

We know that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.  Yet to make his case that that somehow isn’t a problem, he wheels out lots of the rather tired and unfounded sceptic myths, such as:

Myth #1: CO2 is a “plant food with a fertilising impact”: a ridiculous argument; plants need much more than just CO2. They need water (availability of which reduces as temperatures rise) and other minerals and, er, soil.  The fact that plants in a greenhouse grow better when some CO2 is added, doesn’t scale up to the planet as a whole.  For example, plants exposed to more CO2 can be more vulnerable to pests, and reduces the quality of crops.

Myth #2: You can’t rely on climate models: Epstein argues that the case for climate change rests largely on climate models, of which he writes “those models have failed to make accurate predictions – not just a little, but completely”.  But a recent study has shown that actually climate models have been very accurate, and actually can be more conservative than what is actually unfolding, for example in relation to the speed of melting of Arctic ice.  Epstein writes “just about every prediction or prescription you hear about the issue of climate change is based on models”.  But it’s not … the whole picture is also supported by a huge body of evidence of the impacts unfolding in the world around us, often in ways predicted by models.  To say, as he does, that “every climate model based on CO2 as a major climate driver has been a failure” is simply untrue.

Myth #3: There is no 97% consensus among climate scientists: But there is. Read more here.

Myth #4: Scientists in the 70s predicted global cooling, so what do they know?: Again, a rather tired and silly myth beloved of climate sceptics. Reality is that even in the 70s, when climate science was in its infancy, there were 6 times more scientists predicting global warming than global cooling, it’s just that the cooling folks got the memorable Newsweek covers. Over time, as the evidence built, the case for global warming became clearer and stronger until the consensus we see today.


And so on.  The rest of his arguments about climate change are similarly out-of-date, foundationless and silly, the intellectual equivalent of his standing facing in one direction, as in New York in the video above, while science and reason pour past in the other direction.  But without them his so called ‘moral case for fossil fuels’ crumbles to dust. 

He then argues, remarkably, that actually even if climate change were true, burning more fossil fuels in response will make us safer (I know, just go with me here, we’re in an Alice Through the Looking Glass parallel universe now).  Fossil fuels, he argues, “don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous, [they] take a dangerous climate and make it safe”. 

Fossil fuels, you see, mean that we can, for example, power air conditioning so we can live in hot places in comfort.  We can build better flood defences, we can use fossil fuelled technology to adapt to any climate.  And of course, he adds, fossil fuels mean we can always up and move somewhere else!  He writes:

“If you think about the climate in a real way, not as some vague mystical, “global climate”, but as the climate around you, you are a master of climate just by virtue of the fact that you can change climates”. 

Here Epstein situates himself alongside the ‘neo-greens’ such as Stewart Brand, who argues “we are as gods, and we have to get good at it”.  The belief that anyone can be a “master of climate” is deeply arrogant and flawed, as was highlighted in our recent interview with Clive Hamilton about geoengineering. 

But while that “master of climate” argument may resonate in his air conditioned house in southern California, it doesn’t work so well in, for example, Pakistan.  The Asia Development Bank already suggests that environmental factors, including climate change, are “already an important driver in migration”. 10 million people have been displaced by flooding and 2,000 died when 20% of the country was under water.  A recent report by the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition told some of stories of those affected.  While you could feasibly imagine that fossil fuels might have a small role to play in creating flood defences in Pakistan, the impacts of the developed world, including the emissions associated with Epstein’s air conditioning, will overwhelm any benefits.  

Ideas of fairness, social justice, global inequalities of power and wealth barely register in Epstein’s analysis.  For him, fossil fuels are benign, with no noticeable impacts on geopolitics and relationships of power.  Their role in creating corruption, war, their role as a driver in the US’s dreadful foreign policy approach, rendition, torture, how the US government has become central to the US pushing fracking on the rest of the world, all go without mention.  He argues that it is wrong to deny the developing world the benefits of fossil fuels, an approach Michael Klare terms ‘carbon humanitarianism”, describing it as:  

“the claim that cheap carbon-based fuels are the best possible response to the energy-poor of the planet (despite everything we know about the devastation climate change will cause, above all in the lives of the poor)”. 

The $1.9 trillion the world spends a year subsidising the fossil fuel industry goes without mention too, as he prefers to bemoan the tiny fraction of that the world spends on subsidising renewable energy.  He writes that thanks to fossil fuels, “we don’t take a safe environment and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous environment and make it far safer”.  Actually of course the global picture is that while wealthy nations are able to make themselves safer to climate risks (although it didn’t help much with, for example, the great floods in south west England last year), the developing world, where the impacts are felt most acutely, simply are not, nor are the wealthy nations rushing to help. 

In terms of energy resources, he is, one might say, on the optimistic end of the spectrum.  The world apparently has 3,050 years of “total remaining recoverable reserves” of coal left.  But you will hear no mention of Energy Return on Energy Invested in these pages, no sense that not all coal is the same, nor all oil. Renewable energy is swept aside as “expensive, unreliable and unscaleable”, as he argues that “modern solar and wind technology do not produce reliable energy, period”. 

It’s a book that will often have you pausing to think “did he really say that?” You’ll hear stuff like:

“There is no inherent reason to think that the extinction of any given plant or animal is bad for humans”


“Not only can our way of life last; it can keep getting better and better, as long as we don’t adopt “sustainability” policies”. 

For me, in the face of the profound urgency of climate change, and a fossil fuel industry that sows corruption and destruction wherever it goes, there really is no “moral case for fossil fuels”.  Yes, they have, in many ways, been amazing.  But all the evidence shows that continuing with fossil fuels runs a very high risk of finishing us off altogether.  Given Epstein’s love for the infallible power of the market, and the creativity it can unleash, why is it so impossible to imagine that our inventiveness and brilliance cannot solve the challenges of intermittency in relation to renewables, and enable us to use energy far more efficiently? 

“Humanity needs as much energy as it can get”, he argues.  Quite where the morality of assuming that on a finite planet with finite resources it is acceptable to gorge oneself on energy, and to assume it is your right to always have as much as you need, eludes me. In ‘This Changes Everything’, Naomi Klein quotes Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre as saying:

“Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony”. 

It’s that unavoidable reality of the need for “revolutionary change” that triggers Epstein’s denial and compels him to write a book as feeble and poor as this.  We have a choice when faced with reality, of either retreating into clinging to what we’ve done up to that point, or stepping out with purpose, vision and creativity, and doing something else.  It was, after all, such a bold approach that created the Industrial Revolution in the first place.  Why does it dissipate the moment we now have to design something else, something more appropriate to moving forward from now? Sadly Epstein, and most of the US Senate, are unable to take that leap.  Their cautiousness does us all a huge disservice. 

As Naomi Klein (whose ‘This Changes Everything’ Epstein’s book cover has clearly been designed to echo) puts it “there are no non-radical solutions left”.  Epstein speaks for those for whom doing anything other than how we do things at the moment is unimaginable.  Rather than being a moral position, it’s the opposite.  File alongside those silly Michael Crichton climate change-bashing novels and move on.  There’s too much to do, and too little time.