Are Fossil Fuels Really That Bad?

Suppose everything we believe about carbon and climate is wrong?

Here’s the conventional wisdom: The use of hydrocarbons as fuels is responsible for climate change that is manifestly harmful, making drastic reductions in the use of fossil fuels a practical and moral imperative. To begin to remedy the problem, we need to electrify almost everything, reduce energy consumption overall, and keep fossil fuels in the ground.

But suppose that conventional wisdom is wrong? Suppose we’re making a mistake by decarbonizing? If we are, what are the costs of that mistake? What benefits of fossil fuel use are we giving up?

Alex Epstein, in a wildly unorthodox new book, Fossil Future, observes that cheap abundant energy, provided by fossil fuels, is the key to human flourishing. It enables us to eat well, sleep in comfort, travel without hardship, and get the medical care we need. The economic superboom of the last 250 years – the one that started with 80% of the world in extreme poverty and ended with half the world in the middle class – was set off, during the Industrial Revolution, by the discovery that coal, oil, and other fossil fuels could be used to do easily the work that had been done arduously by human and animal muscle power.1

But almost everyone agrees that energy abundance and human prosperity are closely linked. What’s remarkable about Fossil Future is Epstein’s claim that the benefits of fossil fuels are so large that a change in the climate is a small price to pay for them – in the face of a large and persuasive body of data supporting the opposite position.

Fossil fuels, Epstein says, are what enable us to transform what he calls a “naturally unlivable” planet, one full of almost insurmountable hazards, into a “unnaturally livable” one. It’s livable – for us humans – because we’ve modified nature and created “unnatural” conditions like antibiotics, hydroelectric dams, and air conditioning. (I argue later in this review that it’s completely natural for us to have done those things.)

Abandoning fossil fuel use would be a tragic mistake that would send us back to the poverty and misery of the Middle Ages, says Epstein. Actually, it would be worse because we now have eight billion people to feed. According to his analysis, only the concentrated and readily available energy provided by fossil fuels can enable the Earth to sustain our population (which is still growing). Because fertilizer production and other aspects of the food supply chain rely so intimately on fossil fuels and there are no good substitutes, abandoning them would cause many of the Earth’s eight billion to starve.