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Commentary: My Stanford Law School Experience Talking About Fossil Future – Alex Epstein


These translations are done via Google Translate

Stanford Law School (SLS) has been in the news this year due to an embarrassing incident on March 9 in which SLS students shouted down a guest speaker, Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan—and then an SLS official, the associate dean of DEI, endorsed the students and further attacked the judge. (For a full and fascinating discussion of this incident, watch this.)

Fortunately, the Stanford Law administration mostly apologized for the incident, saying that SLS does not approve of shouting down opposing views. And, consistent with this, near the time of the incident, I had a very positive experience speaking to a group of Stanford Law students.

I was invited by a leading Stanford Law Professor to address his students about my book Fossil Future.

I think many readers of this newsletter will enjoy the discussion, for a few reasons.

  1. Almost all of the student comments and questions were attempts to challenge my views, so you can see how I answer tough challenges.
  2. There are lot of lessons here about the methodological problems of mainstream sources (and students) that apply broadly.
  3. It’s heartening that there are still places at elite universities where compelling-but-controversial ideas can be heard.

What follows is the complete transcript of the event, edited only for clarity (including avoided repetition). I am keeping the students’ identities anonymous at their request (which is also why I can’t share the original video).


Professor:

Why don’t you say a little bit about your background. I know you described yourself as a philosopher. Is that a fair description?

Alex Epstein:

The best description I have come up with for what I wanted to be and became was a practical philosopher. I wish “practical” didn’t need emphasis but I think it is given how detached philosophy often is from real life in practice. One way to think of philosophy is it involves our thinking methods, our basic assumptions, and our values. I think all those things have huge practical implications.

And when I was 20, I had previously wanted to be a tech entrepreneur and I just realized, almost against my will, that I really loved philosophy and thinking about it, in particular, writing about it. The speaking took me a while because I was very nervous doing it. I just decided I would in some way use philosophy to clarify issues, and particularly issues that are confusing, complex, controversial. In terms of my own ideas, I’m in the Aristotelian tradition. I’m a huge fan of Ayn Rand, the controversial Russian-American philosopher, so she had a big influence on me and led me to a lot of exposure to free-market economics.

And so when I was 27, I had been writing about everything imaginable, but I really had no passion in terms of a particular subject matter. And then energy became that. And for the kind of reasons I go into in the book, it’s the fundamental industry. It’s the industry that powers every other industry, and the choices we make about it have profound implications on everything. And philosophy’s kind of the same way. Philosophy has profound implications.

So I like this idea of this fundamental area of inquiry. And then regarding the fundamental industry, I thought there was a lot of potential to do good if I could bring better philosophical thinking to this industry but then that required actually getting a lot of expertise. So that’s been the last 15-plus years, it’s been getting the expertise and then applying philosophy to it.

Professor:

And so does the Ayn Rand affection bespeak a sort of philosophical libertarianism?

Alex Epstein:

So, she is a complete philosopher. Politically, you could call it “libertarian” or just “pro-freedom,” “pro-capitalism.” Ethically, it’s believing in individualism. That might be the best summary of it. And then epistemologically, there’s a big focus on reason, thinking about things in context and then, metaphysically, the idea of an objective reality. And so, reality is what it is and it’s our job to perceive it versus make it up.

Professor:

Right. Although I always felt that Ayn Rand was a conservative because she grew up in the Soviet Union and if she had grown up in a right wing autocratic government she would’ve been a Communist. What do you think?

Alex Epstein:

I don’t think so. I mean, she is interesting because, look, I know her biography pretty well, and just from a very young age, she was kind of very individualistic. She was born in 1905 and she came to the US I think in ’26. I think she was 21 when she came over. And even in Russia, that was just a time of huge change. And I think she just identified with none of it. So she hated Czarist Russia and she was just very immediately drawn to, I would say, the more sophisticated cultures, the more individualistic cultures. So, she seems to be one of those people who, just very quickly on their own, just picked up a certain way of thinking and looking at the world versus it being a rebellion thing.

Professor:

Okay, let’s sort of dig into your own work. And I mean, if you had a capsule description, it would be that you are very skeptical that efforts to address climate change through measures that would curtail the use of fossil fuels would be a socially beneficial move. Is that a fair capsule summary?

Alex Epstein:

I think it’s a fair summary given the way the issue is framed. A lot of my thinking in Fossil Future is that you should step back and not think of climate as the primary issue. Because the real thing with climate is: we’re concerned about the climate side-effects mainly of using fossil fuel. So I do really think that the main issue is energy and then the effects of using energy. And then, if you’re thinking of, say, a prescription drug, you think about and carefully weigh the benefits and side-effects. So, I think your statement is accurate starting from the climate thing, but I don’t really start from the climate thing. I just look at it as one aspect of a broader issue.

Professor:

Right. And let me just sort of, this is not my area, so I just read up a little bit on certain things. I’d be curious to get your take on some of these summaries. So, this is the paper [“Estimated Global Mortality from Present to 2100 from Climate Change”] that I was just reading over the weekend and it says, “Climate change mortality emanates from increased heat, air pollution, extreme weather/damage to coastal cities, coral death and loss of fisheries, and food insecurity/population growth and migration.” So, are you on board that those things are likely to happen as the century progresses?

Alex Epstein:

I think it’s a perfect example of not thinking about it well, because it’s always the issue of magnitude. And when you’re dealing with a side-effect, there’s the issue of what the magnitude is and then what the context is, particularly what’s the accompanying benefit? If you look at the nature of warming, well, all things being equal, you’re going to have some more of a sort of raw danger from increased heat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have more mortality.

In general, our heat mortality declines as we use more fossil fuels because you have the ability to deal with it. Air pollution is interesting, it’s kind of a packaging of something else. I mean, they call it a “co-benefit” of dealing with climate change, but it’s really a separate issue. If you just, say, burn natural gas and it burns very cleanly, there is very little air pollution, but it still has climate impacts. But with extreme weather damage, the basic expectation is that there will be a little bit less frequency of some of these weather events and more intensity, so that could lead to more damage. It hasn’t happened so far, though.

But what I would just note is they’re not talking about the benefits that come with this. So, the analogy I would draw is if it were saying, “Hey, antibiotic mortality leads to X, Y, and Z.” Okay, first, you’d want to see, “Is that really precise?” But then you’d want to see, “Okay, what are the benefits that come along with that?” And one of my arguments is that the whole system, what I call our knowledge system, isn’t thinking about the benefits.

As I talk about at the end of Chapter 1, it’s particularly dangerous in the context of climate or environmental side-effects to not think about the benefits of fossil fuels. Because the benefit of fossil fuels is energy, which is really the ability to use machines to do anything, to increase our capabilities. And what that means is that the benefits can actually neutralize or overwhelm the side-effects.

For example, I gave the example of heat. It could lead to more heat, but it could also lead to a far greater ability to neutralize heat. Or it could lead to more drought, but it could allow you to drastically reduce drought danger via irrigation and via crop transport. Even with air pollution, which is not the same issue, you could have some increase in air pollution that, all things being equal, wouldn’t be good but then your ability to have a modern medical care system and healthy food would be way higher.

This isn’t just speculation, this is the whole trajectory of the history of fossil fuels where we’ve had more emissions, particularly more CO2 emissions. A lot of the pollution has gone down, and life has gotten better and better, and particularly the mortality from climate disasters has gone down. So I think of this as: it’s just a total failure to consider the full context. It’s just looking at negative side-effects out of context without considering the benefits. And in this case, it’s benefits that can literally cure the side-effects. So it’s particularly bad thinking.

Professor:

Right. And you make the point in your book that, and you just alluded to it again, that dangers from climate disasters have fallen over time. Can you say more about that? ‘Cause it seemed counter-intuitive to me, but you know more about this than I do.

Alex Epstein:

Well, it seemed counter-intuitive to me, or at least surprising to me, but then it really wasn’t once I thought about it. What we should be concerned about is not climate change, but climate livability and specifically climate danger. So the main issue is not “Are we changing things?” but “Is the change overall negative, positive in terms of climate danger and other things like that?” And the best measure, the number one measure we have of climate danger, I think, is climate-related disaster deaths.

There are other things like damages that we can talk about and those have been distorted quite a bit; I talk about those a lot in Chapter 7. But in terms of just more people dying from climate related causes, particularly storms, floods, wildfires, temperature extremes, what’s really fascinating is we have data about this going back 100-plus years. And this is from nonpartisan sources like the International Disaster Database, in particular. And what we have is these deaths have plummeted. So they’ve gone down by a rate of 98% over the last 100 years.

One thing this points to is that maybe the “climate crisis” is exaggerated if we’re actually safer from these disasters, much less likely to die. But the other thing is: as I mentioned before, fossil fuels have huge climate-related benefits. And I think it’s obvious, once we start to think about it, that the decline in climate mortality, in these disaster deaths, is very much related to things like heating, air conditioning, but also building sturdy buildings. Being able to irrigate.

Drought was historically the biggest climate-related killer that could wipe out millions of people a year. Now, because of irrigation and drought relief missions, you don’t have that to anywhere near the extent. We have an over 99% decline in drought-related deaths. So my pithy way of summarizing it is: fossil fuels didn’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous. They took a dangerous climate and made it safe, or at least safer.

Professor:

Okay, so let me just continue on with the summary to get your response. This paper summarizes the past three years of broken records for global warming. CO2 is the primary driver. It’s a long-lived greenhouse gas, so one third will remain in the atmosphere for the next century. And the estimated mortality portion of this paper, if we just continue on without remedial measures, is that 106.5 million people will die over this span that they’re talking about in this paper versus 13.5 million with remedial measures.

Alex Epstein:

The first few sentences are relatively or mostly accurate. And then, the last sentence, I think, is just insane. It really just does not bear any resemblance to reality. I mean, we have a lot of experience of making the planet warmer using a lot of fossil fuels and what we find is that life expectancy goes way up. I’ll just, by the way point, people to a resource, which you can look up anything on. It’s called EnergyTalkingPoints.com.

Look for the article called The “fossil fuels cause 1 in 5 deaths” myth” This is something you’ll hear a lot and I don’t know what these numbers focus on, but one thing is: they’ll focus on air pollution and they’ll say, “Look, fossil fuels have killed all these people in China.” And yet, China, including some of the most polluted cities, has this dramatic increase in life expectancy. So, what they’re basically saying is, ”You could have had all the energy but without the side-effect.” That is how you can claim fossil fuels killed people.

But I think that’s a really inaccurate thing, because they used that energy because it was by far the cheapest energy. And China could not have industrialized without fossil fuels. So, they have this industrial prosperity dramatically increasing life expectancy. You can’t just take out of context the side-effects. I call this, pretty aggressively, “fossil fuel benefit denial”, and there’s a section in Chapter 4 on benefit-denying studies and also externality calculations, which is another issue we’ve talked about. So I just think it’s really this benefit denial.

And in general, with these kinds of things, they just dramatically underestimate our ability to, what I call, “master” climate. They really treat human beings as very static and unable to deal with these things. And it’s just like, “Oh, 106 million people are just going to sort of drop dead and not going to do anything about some slow change in climate.” Slow warming and the associated climate changes. Of course, they’re going to do a lot about it insofar as it happens. And they’re going to have better and better technology and capability to deal with it.

Professor:

Right. Although you could imagine some major disruptions if Seattle becomes the new San Francisco or Stanford in terms of weather, Phoenix is really going to be uninhabitable. So, all of those people are going to have to move north.

Alex Epstein:

Well, that would be a much more extreme change than anyone is predicting, if you’re talking about those kinds of things. I mean, the change that somebody goes through to move from San Francisco to Phoenix is far more dramatic than anything that’s speculated on any timetable. So, if you look at (I talk about this, I think, in Chapter 9) the official views of what’s called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over the years, they have their low estimate for how much warming if you double CO2?

So far we’ve multiplied CO2 by one-and-a-half times, we haven’t doubled it. The lower range is 1.5 degrees Celsius, so about 3 degrees Fahrenheit. And then the upper, very high upper range is 5 degrees Celsius, that’s 9 degrees Fahrenheit. These are just the most extreme model projections and that’s 9 degrees Fahrenheit. And again, it’s a pretty slow-moving thing. So, for reasons I give, I think that is incredibly far-fetched and not consistent with what’s happened so far, and not consistent with history.

But it’s not this thing of: Seattle’s going to become San Francisco in any near future. It’s going to be much more slow-moving. And then I don’t even think it’s going to, I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near that pace. And also with the sea level rise, maybe the more important thing is sea level rise. So, do sea levels rise in a way where places get swamped? We’re at about one foot a century of sea level rise and the very extreme estimates are three feet a century.

Even the extreme mainstream projections that I think have a lot of biases, they’re not nearly what people are led to believe when they think, “Oh, maybe San Francisco will be like Phoenix.” And another thing that’s important in the mainstream stuff is: if you just check it on EnergyTalkingPoints.com, you can see a good graph on this near the bottom. I think fact three about climate is that warming tends to be concentrated in colder areas. So, it’s not that Phoenix gets super-hot, it’s more that the colder places become less cold. And also, you have more heating during the night and more heating in winter.

Professor:

Well, some of the students wanted to jump in, so I’ll allow.

Student 1:

I just actually wanted to go over again why exactly this figure here, the bottom figure, the last sentence, the 106.5 million in the scenario where we don’t change anything, why that’s absurd? What is your evidence that that’s an absurd question?

Alex Epstein:

So by the way, this is kind of a technical thing, but in RCP 8.5, one of the techniques that’s used to distort things is to take unrealistic scenarios. So this involves vast, vast increases in coal, in particular, which for various reasons is unlikely. So, this is not actually the business-as-usual situation. This is a very dramatic increase and particularly a coal-centered increase where alternatives don’t develop. So the question would be, “Where are you getting those numbers from?”

If you look at, say, climate-related disaster deaths, this is not adjusted for population. If you do an adjustment for population, you’ll have years in the ’30s where there are 10 million and now you get sort of 10 or 20 thousand a year. So, the planet has been getting warmer, and we have experience with that. Climate mortality is way down. So how do you get to 100 million people when you can’t even really crack 100,000 people now, I mean, thankfully?

Student 1:

So, to be clear, the assumption is that because we’ve experienced an increase in heat over the last century and deaths in your figures have declined, future increases will not lead to more deaths?

Alex Epstein:

Well, it’s a little bit loaded to say “in my figures” because this is a mainstream disaster database.

Student 1:

Well, you took the data and applied a 30 year running average over the data and in a way that was-

Alex Epstein:

No.

Student 1:

… convenient to your argument, but things had-

Alex Epstein:

I’m not sure what you’re talking about with that, actually. So that’d be helpful to specify. What do you mean I took a 30 year average of it? Can you point to what graphic you’re talking about?

Student 1:

This is the data you pointed us to from the EM-DAT in the book, correct?

Alex Epstein:

In Fossil Future?

Student 1:

Yes.

Alex Epstein:

Oh man, hold on. I mean, the main thing I point to is the sort of decade-by-decade thing. But you could look it up on Our World in Data. You’ll see the same basic thing in all of these different places. So, the summary is a little bit, I think, loaded in a way that’s unfavorable.

I would put it as: what is the mechanism? You would need a mechanism to show 106 million people dying who wouldn’t otherwise die, or who die prematurely. And I think that if you understand the causal relationships that have led to people becoming safer from climate and that heat-related mortality, just direct heat-related mortality, is less significant in the world on every continent than cold-related mortality, this is something that has to be manufactured using dubious methods.

So, in the book, I bring up, for example, 170 million refugees, and you’ll hear that kind of thing. And then you look at the paper and it’s, “Well, if there’s no adaptation.” So, the way I’d put it is: somebody has an unbelievable burden of proof to show this kind of mortality. And in every single case I’ve ever seen, they’re making the same basic errors. I’m talking in terms of fossil fuel benefit denial, climate mastery denial, or distorting the relevant science.

Professor:

So just to be clear, this paper, and again, I’m not vouching for this paper, but that first summary line is what they were trying to use as the basis for their estimates for the second half of this century, I guess.

Alex Epstein:

I just think anytime you see a sentence like the first sentence [“Climate change mortality emanates from increased heat, air pollution, extreme weather/damage to coastal cities, coral death and loss of fisheries, and food insecurity/population growth and migration.”], and that’s the summary of a paper, it’s garbage. To put it non-technically. And this is, I know, a hard thing, it sort of can be a hard thing to come to terms with, because one doesn’t want to be hostile to expertise. So, one has to be very careful about saying, “Hey, what I call ‘the knowledge system’ is really failing.” And it’s part of the reason I spent a lot of time in the book sort of demonstrating this in various ways, but really it is a failure.

They really are thinking about climate in isolation, ignoring all the benefits that make us safer from climate. And that, I argue, signals a bias that also very much distorts how the science is conducted but in particular, it distorts the presentation of the science. And so, in Chapter 8, I discuss the different methods by which mainstream science gets distorted. And then, what happens is you are only looking at the negative side-effects. You distort them to make them seem more severe. You ignore our ability to master them. You ignore the benefits that come with them. And then, you get this methodology that’s basically predicting, “Hey, everything is going to be the exact opposite.”

And one thing I’m always looking for is: How do you evaluate claims and people? I only take these claims seriously from those who admit that fossil fuels have made the world way better climate-wise so far. If they say, “But here’s something that’s going to change.” But if they just act like, “No, it’s been this unmitigated thing, disaster climate-wise,” then they’re either ignorant or they’re not thinking about things from a human perspective, which is, I think, a very common thing. I argue so in the book.

Professor:

Feel free to jump in if you have questions. I don’t want to monopolize the discussion. So, just jump right in.

Student 2:

Alright. Thanks for coming here, Alex.

Alex Epstein:

Sure.

Student 2:

We appreciate it. I have a question. What about destruction to ecosystems and if the glaciers melt and that hurts a lot of the wildlife? How do you grapple with ecological damage?

Alex Epstein:

So, I mentioned thinking about it in a pro-human way. So I think of all ecological things from a human perspective. That means there are a lot of different values you can get from different ecosystems. I think the most important things are anything that just directly bears on human health and well-being. There’s some bacterium or some bug that’s really crucial to us then if we got rid of it. And I think the more kind of scary things can be at the more basic level, not so much this one animal.

But then, with animals, I mean there’s a lot of value in contemplating wildlife and enjoying it. I mean it’s less in Arctic regions and it’s more in places that are warmer and have more life. I think in general, one has to recognize that the wealthier and more capable you are, the more you can deliberately improve these ecosystems as you judge improvement. Whether it’s the sort of health of it, particularly from a human perspective as it affects human life, but also the aesthetic elements of it. And the more that your energy requires living off nature in a significant way, and also the poorer you are, the less ability you have to control these things.

So for example, people who are using wood and animal dung, there’s just this tendency where, if you’re poor and you don’t have good energy, you just use what’s around you. And so, you end up just cutting down the forest like Europe did. You’ll see it all over the place, particularly in poor regions. So in general, when you can use fossil fuels or use nuclear, you have more wealth and more ability to improve and preserve nature as you judge best.

In terms of: “How does warming affect things?” I think people tend to overrate the species extinction-type stuff from slow warming versus species extinction from invasive species, which tends to be by far the biggest thing. I think there’s been this equation of: there are challenges with ecosystems and preservations of species, and then there’s warming. And then, the warming has become this cure-all explanation for everything that’s problematic. And I think that if you look at the warming in context, slow warming, plus a lot more energy and wealth to improve things, allows you to actually improve most of these things.

Now, it depends on how much warmer the world gets. The world was ice-free for a lot of its history, so you’d have a very different world. I mean, I’d just say that a warmer world is generally a wetter world and a more biologically rich world, but it’s a different world. So, over long periods of time, you’ll have sort of just different compositions of species just like we had in the past. But there’s nothing letting us think, “Oh, if we’re becoming wealthier and using more fossil fuels and have more warmth and more CO2, that’s going to destroy all of these things.” You’d think, “No, no, we have the capability to improve a lot of these things that we wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Student 3:

So you were saying that with more energy, we can do more to preserve the environment. How would we preserve the glaciers with more energy?

Alex Epstein:

Well, it’s very important to just know the pace of these things. I talk about this a lot in Chapter 8, these things get very exaggerated in terms of magnitude. So you’ll hear, “Oh, this ice sheet scientists are talking about,” and it’s actually talking about maybe over thousands of years, and you’re led to believe by Al Gore that it’s 20 years, and then maybe you conclude that it’s a hundred years. But these are not a hundred-year things. So, do you mean if all the ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctica? It’s just important to be specific and not just have this image of, “Oh, there was ice, and now there’s no ice.”

Student 3:

Yeah. I mean, ice is melting, right? That’s happening now.

Alex Epstein:

Right. But it’s been happening for 10,000 years, too.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. Yeah. And it’s been happening faster than ever since 1880, right? Or maybe not ever, but in our modern era.

Alex Epstein:

No, it’s extremely slow now compared to what it was 10,000 years ago. Very, very slow.

Student 3:

The species evolved over millions of years. Even if you’re looking at human species, we’ve been around for 240,000 years. So, in our history, 10,000 years is a blink of an eye. For species that have been living in the same place for millions of years, 10,000 years is a very short amount of time. That is not enough time for a species to adapt. Those species are going to become extinct if their ecosystems are destroyed.

Alex Epstein:

Okay. But the 10,000 years of ice melting, that’s not caused by us. So, are you just cursing nature for having a rapid rise in sea levels?

Student 3:

I’m talking about… every year we have the highest year on record, right. And if you look at where the trend starts, it starts in 1880.

Alex Epstein:

Are you talking about temperature? So wait, wait. Hold on. There’s temperature and there’s melting ice, which are related, but not the same thing.

Student 3:

I’m talking about the rising global average surface temperature.

Alex Epstein:

Of the sea level?

Student 3:

Yeah.

Alex Epstein:

Okay. Well, so that’s a related thing. So I was talking about the sea level. You can see this in Chapter 9, but you can just see this on Wikipedia. The sea level rise was very fast for our ancestors 10,000 years ago. And what’s happened is it got extremely slow, and now it’s a little bit less slow. But if you’re talking about melting glaciers, you just have to realize we’re at a very slow period of sea level rise right now compared to our ancestors’ fairly recent history.

Professor:

Although I guess what I sense from the literature in this area, again, not my area, the fear is that we’re elevating temperature growth to such a degree that there might be some catastrophic consequence. It might not be the most likely consequence, but if you’re talking about disaster to the Earth, you want to err on the side of caution rather than just say, “The modal outcome is probably not that bad.”

Alex Epstein:

I go through a range of those. So that’s kind of why I went through the exercise of: okay, at the high range of these projections, what’s it like and in the low range what’s it like? I’m happy to answer any question about anything, but I just want to make sure I bring in my context, which is that all of these things need to be thought about within the context of the benefits of fossil fuels. And just to stress a couple of things I haven’t mentioned yet, I just want to make this very real: this is 80% of the energy that allows the world to be as livable a place as it is, which is totally unprecedented. And this is a world where 3 billion people still use less electricity than a typical American refrigerator. Or 6 billion people use an amount of energy we would consider totally unacceptable. Something like 5 billion people live on less than $10 a day.

So, the way I view it is that energy is essential to human beings being productive and prosperous and having the opportunity to flourish. The world is desperately short of it. Fossil fuels are essential to growing the supply of energy so that more and more people can have it. We want as many cost-effective alternatives as we can get, but it’s not at all responsible to just look at what we think are, or what we speculate are, the negative side-effects without recognizing this huge benefit and potential benefit, and what the loss of this means. And maybe a good example right now is the global energy crisis where we’ve had this obsession with climate that has led to suppressing the supply of fossil fuels through opposing investment, production, refining, transportation. And this is leading to things like tripling of food prices in poor areas or fertilizer factories shutting down. People in Bangladesh not having power because Europe and richer parts of Asia are buying up the natural gas.

This is really life-or-death stuff happening with just a small amount of this anti-fossil-fuel agenda being achieved. And so, I just want that to be kept as viscerally in mind as possible as we sort of talk about: “Oh, well, I saw that the sea levels were rising and shouldn’t we be concerned about that.” The concern about that has to be accompanied by the concern for the desperate need for more energy in the world and the absolute apocalypse of losing the level of energy that we have today.

So, I’m always trying to think of it in that context. And my argument is that our whole what I call knowledge system is conditioning us to just keep looking at it as a climate issue. So, that came up at the beginning with John’s question, and I think it’s come up with these questions. The default is: “Let’s just look at this climate issue.” And then, “Well, do you believe in it, in this negative thing or not?” And what I’m trying to say is, “Well, here’s the extent to which I believe there’s a negative and/or positive, but let’s put it in the context of the benefits that we’ll lose if we just focus on this side-effect out of context.”

So I’m not I’m not saying that nothing, nothing negative will happen that I wouldn’t out-of-context wish to not happen. It’s that I’m trying to look at both.

Student 4:

I’m curious why you chose fossil fuels as the hill that you want to die on. In Chapter 1, you speak of nuclear power or hydroelectric power as reasonable alternatives to fossil fuels, but they have such strong anti movements against them that they haven’t gotten the footing that they require. And if you were to put the same mentality into either of those energies of recognizing their benefits and that they have significantly less consequences as fossil fuels, why would you not choose those as your platform to then make that argument for how much more effective you could be to provide energy globally, particularly to underserved areas? Even if you were to need fossil fuels in those areas while applying nuclear power in more affluent areas, you would still be able to diminish the majority of the consequences that you are choosing to ignore and get as much if not twice as much energy output. And why isn’t it the position that you took?

Alex Epstein:

Gotcha. Yeah. So just to be a little bit more precise about the position I’m taking in Chapter 1, the point of bringing up hydro and nuclear in Chapter 1 is really to show there’s something about our knowledge system that devalues and even has hostility toward cost-effective energy as such. And so, these are promising sources of energy that have a track record. But what’s important is that they are not on the same level of cost-effectiveness or near-term cost-effectiveness as fossil fuel. So with both of these, you’re talking about things that are about 5% of the world’s energy. With hydro, as I talk about in Chapter 6, you’re very location-limited with it.

So, it has very big scalability challenges. If we could have a world where you could just have 25 times more hydro, that would be very exciting. And I think it would be a very different world, actually. There’s a lot of stuff you can’t do with electricity today, but if you had enough cheap hydro, you could electrify more things more quickly. And so, that would be exciting. So, with hydro, just the inherent scale limits, at least with anything resembling today’s technology, make it such that this can be a really good supplement, but it’s not a replacement. And then, I would say I devote quite a bit of time, actually, to advocating for nuclear, but the reason that it’s still not the same level of focus is because nuclear is a much more aspirational thing. If we get a whole bunch of things right, maybe in 10 or 20 years, it will be 10% of the world’s energy.

And I would say I’m working more than anyone I know to make the policy changes to make that happen. Right now, the policy and the thinking are so bad that nuclear is declining in much of the world. Whereas with fossil fuels, they can already do the things that benefit people the most today, and they can scale quickly to help more people. Whereas nuclear is much more of: if we get this right, it’ll really help in a few decades, I hope.

So for me, fossil fuels are much more life-or-death today, and the movement against them is life-or-death today. That’s why the number one focus is: “Hey, I can have more control over this thing.” This is a bigger deal. If nuclear doesn’t get developed—I mean, I want nuclear as quickly as possible—it’s not like 8 billion people’s lives depend on nuclear, on what happens to nuclear, in the way they depend on what’s happening with fossil fuels. So, that’s why it’s my “hill to die on,” although I don’t think of it that way. I just think of it as: what’s been my number one focus and then, going forward, I’m actively working on some nuclear stuff now, and I want to do more in the future. But if I could do one thing, it’s the thing that I think is crucial to the livelihood of 8 billion people now and in the immediate future.

Professor:

So one quick question I had is: looking backwards, as you say, things have been getting warmer, but there has been this obvious increase in wealth and with it, improvements in longevity. So, those are all good things. I think there is at least a fear among some people that going forward, it’s not likely to be sort of the smooth linear path. So, maybe in the last 50 years on-net, everything is a benefit, but at some point there’s some sort of tipping point possibility. And maybe that’s when something like the glaciers melt, and again, you know more about this than I do, but doesn’t that release a lot of carbons into the air if that ice melts and the sea rises?

Alex Epstein:

Yeah, permafrost and that kind of thing.

Professor:

Yes. And just to finish it out, most of our major cities are coastal cities, I would assume. And you could imagine a three feet rise would sort of wipe out New York City or something like that.

Alex Epstein:

So you had the permafrost and the tipping point, and let me know if I don’t address any of it. There’s a bunch of stuff about mainstream climate science that is not publicized, which is not to say it’s controversial. It’s just not publicized, I think, because it’s inconvenient for the narrative. So, one thing I mentioned is: warming tends to occur in colder places during colder seasons at colder times. Another thing is: what’s called the “greenhouse effect” is a diminishing effect or technically, a logarithmic effect. So what happens is: the more CO2 you have, the more warming or other greenhouse gasses as well, the more warming you get. But you get diminishing returns per molecule of CO2. So, in all the different models, over time, what happens is: things taper off.

Now there are different estimates. Does it taper off at four degrees per doubling or is it two degrees? This is all Celsius. But in all the cases it’s still tapering off. So, you have to double the thing to get the same amount of warming. So that’s a thing that lends against tipping points. Another thing that is consistent with this is just the history of the planet where we’ve had way more CO2 and it doesn’t correlate at all consistently with higher temperatures. And certainly, when we had more than 10 times more of estimated CO2, yeah, the planet didn’t burn up, it was a much more tropical place. So what’s legitimate to look at (and I talk about this in Chapter 9) is what the rate of transition is in terms of the global climate system becoming more tropical, which it is as it gets warmer and accumulates more CO2. What rate of transition is going to be costly, disruptive, or dangerously disruptive? And it’s a legitimate thing to look at.

With something like permafrost, if you look at that, I don’t have the numbers here, but I’ve looked into it, and it’s something like 10 years out of 300 of emissions. If it’s over the next 300 years, it’ll release the equivalent of 10 more years of emissions. It’s on that order. So, that’s different from: “Oh, it’s releasing 10 times the amount of emissions that will happen in the next 300 years.” And the economic studies about that show that it’s pretty non-alarming stuff. The view people have of the tipping point is usually, “Oh, it’s just going to become a fireball or just some total catastrophe.” I don’t think there’s any evidence of that.

And in general, you don’t just have these runaway things going out of control, and with the greenhouse effect for physical reasons, you don’t. Though, what we don’t know is exactly what’ll happen, I kind of look at the extreme projections. Some of the biases there, and the more modest projections. And my view is: wherever we are in those, we still need to be using more fossil fuels for the next few decades. Because you’ll learn a lot more in the next 30 years, you can be more focused on developing alternatives. Although I think it’s mainly just about liberating them, like liberating nuclear, which will ultimately become cost-competitive or cost-superior.

So, you focus on that, and then you really do look at things like geoengineering. Depending on where you get. If you really start to discover something that we didn’t anticipate, even the extreme things, the most obvious thing is: figure out how to cool the planet because this has happened naturally before with volcano eruptions. And there are plausible ways of doing that. And if you really did have something that can’t be anticipated now, just as a hypothetical, the way to deal with it is to cool the planet because all these things, all these adverse consequences, leaving aside what’s called “ocean acidification,” come from warming leading to some other climate thing like ice melting or a change in storm patterns. So, yeah, what will happen is: if these things do become unexpectedly problematic, then you’re going to want to control the whole Earth’s climate. I mean, you’re going to want to cool it.

Professor:

And I remember back in law school reading about dealing with acid rain. Is that anything you’re familiar with?

Alex Epstein:

Well, part of what’s involved there is: there are different kinds of particulates and particularly sulfur dioxide. And also, people bring up CFCs in this context, which I can talk about. But what you have is you have the ability to increase the use of fossil fuels and decrease certain kinds of emissions. And so, what that means is: you have low-cost or in some cases, even profitable pollution control technology. So, it could be something like with coal: there’s this byproduct called fly ash, and that’s now utilizable for industrial purposes. That helps make it cheaper to deal with the waste, or maybe it costs you a little bit of money, but it’s worth it to the communities and it’s not super-expensive.

And so, sometimes you can cost effectively or even profitably reduce the side-effect of something and sometimes you can’t. And on certain time horizons, I should say, if you have unlimited technology, you can probably figure out how to turn anything into wealth. But for example, the attempt to reduce radiation from nuclear energy to just smaller and smaller levels has been prohibitively costly. That’s been one thing we’re trying to reduce the side-effects for, I believe, no good scientific reason. Because it’s just very hard for that stuff to be dangerous given the way nuclear plants are designed. But that obsession with lowering the radiation has been incredibly costly. So it wasn’t cost-effective. Whereas there’s an argument with CFCs, for example that through what’s called the Montreal Protocol they were able to lower that in a fairly cost-effective way.

I don’t know the exact cost of it, but it obviously didn’t destroy the global economy to do it. So it’s sort of a case-by-case basis. With CO2 right now, you’re nowhere near being able to do it, capture it at a low cost. That is another thing though: if you can get something like nuclear really, really cheap, then you can start capturing CO2 from the air. You can also, I think more promisingly, capture from power plants.

The most interesting thing I’ve seen in this regard is: North Dakota is claiming that they’re getting so good at using CO2 that they have an enormous untapped demand for CO2 to actually drill for more oil or frack for more oil. It’s technically called “enhanced oil recovery.” Their numbers say that if you have a coal plant, you get the CO2 from that waste stream, you pump it underground, you get oil from it, and it’s net-negative CO2, at least for the oil part of it because the CO2 is so valuable to oil.

So, insofar as somebody figures out a way to 100X the industrial demand for CO2 at a high value, then that’s another plausible way of dealing with it. But what I argue is: on the timetable we’re talking about, on a 30-year timetable, there’s no evidence of that. No evidence it is doable. So, these proposals to rapidly eliminate fossil fuels are deadly. We’re not going to be saved by carbon capture. We certainly can’t count on it. There’s no evidence that we can.

Student 4:

I’m kind of curious, how you would depict renewable energies. You seem kind of dismissive of it, and we only read one chapter of the book. Right now it isn’t as cost-effective as fossil fuels, I kind of took away from that that it never will be. Is that what you’re saying? Or how should we [inaudible 00:48:46] about how you characterize renewables?

Alex Epstein:

So first of all, I don’t call them “renewables.” I think it’s a misleading term.

Student 4:

Or alternative energies.

Alex Epstein:

I mean solar and wind in particular. I usually just say “solar and wind.”

Student 4:

Okay. Maybe for the sake of the question, then, we can talk about solar, wind, nuclear, all alternatives to fossil fuels that are less carbon intensive.

Alex Epstein:

Oh, okay. Well, yeah, I’d put them in different categories, in particular. I think in the first chapter, I’m probably most negative on solar and wind, in particular, versus, geothermal, and more favorable toward nuclear. I’m against the policy toward nuclear. Fossil Future is a book that’s really trying to guide the next few decades of policy. Fossil Future is not about 300 years from now, the question is the continuing use of fossil fuels in the next several decades. And then, later, it talks about: “Here are principles for thinking about what should happen after that.” And the context is that people are saying, “We need to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel on a 2050 timetable.”

And I’m arguing that it’s apocalyptically bad. When I’m looking at something like the viability of solar and wind, I’m not saying, “Will this ever be cost-effective or even dominant globally ever in a hundred years?” I’m really focused on: is this something that can replace fossil fuels in a very substantial way, both for the people who use energy and for the people who need energy? I’m always looking at it in that context, which is different from saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t do this, or certainly, you shouldn’t pursue it.” My view of solar and wind so far is that they are largely a failure currently in that they exist overwhelmingly where they are highly subsidized, mandated or otherwise preferred. We could talk about all the preferences they get, but it’s much more than people think. They generally have a track record of adding costs to the grid because they’re not reliable, which really means they’re not controllable.

So, to have full reliability, you need essentially a hundred-percent backup. So, you have a lot of infrastructure duplication costs. And then, if you’re in California, which you guys are, or you’re in Texas, we try to get away from that. We try to get away by shutting down more reliable power plants, or in Texas’ case, not paying for resiliency and weatherization and stuff. Then, we have all these reliability issues. I think it just needs to be recognized: so far, these have been a mess. But at the same time, what you see is there are some promising developments for aspects of it. The aspect that has seen the most decline is the cost of solar panels themselves. That has gone down. And there are distortions about what’s involved there. There’s been a lot of increase in efficiency, but there’s also been a lot of relying on China, outsourcing to China, using coal, human rights abuses and stuff like that.

So, it’s not a totally clean reduction. But there are definitely a lot of inefficiency reductions and there are reasons that you could have more, particularly if you had more of a pro-industrial policy around the world. So my policy view is that we should continue to explore solar and wind, but that the policies need to really, really reward cost-effectiveness. And on EnergyTalkingPoints.com, I have an article called “End preferences for unreliable electricity.” And my basic idea is: all generators should be required to meet universal technology neutral standards of reliability, and they can do whatever they want.

And so, I think, in practice, there’ll be some places that will use solar and gas and maybe batteries to deliver reliable electricity. And I think that’s great. I do think there is a potential to incorporate solar and maybe wind cost-effectively, and I would like to see that grow as quickly as possible. But right now, the whole policy of subsidizing, mandating, preferring and allowing solar and wind to just generate unreliable electricity that’s then foisted on everyone else is a mess. And I think the view that we’re replacing everything with just solar and wind or are close to that is a very dangerous fantasy.

Student 4:

So could you please reply to solar, wind and other sources like nuclear and their capacity to-

Alex Epstein:

Yeah, yeah. Sure.

Alex Epstein:

Again, I’m happy to send the book. Chapter 6 is exactly looking at: what does it mean to replace it? So there’s geothermal, which is kind of interesting, but right now it’s super location-specific, particularly in Iceland. There’s what’s called “deep geothermal,” which is promising. But this is still in the prototype phase. So, it’s really hard to know.

Student 4:

It’s not possible to replace fossil fuels, to the extent that we’ve experienced human flourishing under that energy regime, with alternatives? Like a combination of wind, energy, wind energy, solar, nuclear within the next few decades. That’s not possible?

Alex Epstein:

Sorry. I didn’t mean to be indirect. That’s absolutely my conclusion.

Student 4:

What’s your evidence for that? I don’t understand where that’s coming from.

Alex Epstein:

Sure. So, for me, the replacement, though, is not just for what we use today. Although I don’t think even that’s replaceable, but far more energy is needed and desirable for human flourishing, given energy poverty. So, what’s my evidence? Well, the real question I think is kind of the reverse:what is anyone else’s evidence? Chapter 5 is all about why we use fossil fuels and why they’ve dominated. So, after a 100-plus years of aggressive competition, and in the last couple of decades, huge cultural hostility, they’re still 80% of the world’s energy. They’re still growing. They’re particularly growing in places that care the most about cost-effective energy. Mainly China, which is where most of the solar and wind is coming from. And yet, they’re predominantly still using coal to make their solar panels and wind turbines.

It should really be taken seriously that the trajectory is: fossil fuels have been unusually dominant. And they’re in the four main types of energy we use today. There’s electricity, which is about a fifth of it. There’s industrial heat. Very high temperatures are often achieved by just directly burning fossil fuels. It is often much more efficient than using electricity to do it, for various engineering and physical reasons. And then there’s residential heat, same deal.

And then there’s liquid fuel for transportation, which is just totally dominated by fossil fuels and has no battery approximation. So, it’s 80%, but in particular, it’s got these transportation and industrial heat applications that it’s even more dominant in. And so, you have to fully appreciate why they’re so dominant. And then, in a world that needs far more energy, you’re expecting that all of it is going to be replaced by these things that are not even close so far, despite most of them having been around for a while?

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Most of them just deal with electricity today. So I think the burden of proof is on somebody who is claiming that all of these can do this and provide way more energy. And one thing you’ll notice is: when you look at the people who claim it, they often talk about a world using less energy. The way I put it pretty aggressively in the book, anyone who’s claiming that you can replace fossil fuels for what we use today and what’s needed, with these things, or particularly with just solar and wind, has an incredible burden of proof on them, given the economic evidence and given the understanding of the economic evidence that I have. Because it’s all about being cost-effective.

So, when you talk about replacement, it’s about being low-cost, reliable, versatile (meaning powering every type of machine, not just electricity-based machines), and then scalable to billions of people in thousands of places. And so, you just need incredible evidence that you can do this in a totally different way in the next 27 years, which I think there’s no evidence of.

Professor:

So, this NYU professor is saying, “Business as usual would continue the release of 40 billion tons of CO2, which may increase global temperature by almost five degrees Celsius plus or minus four degrees Celsius, increasing mortality to 2 million deaths per year for the second half of this century.”

Alex Epstein:

I don’t really understand what he means by plus or minus four. So he is saying that it could be 0.8 or it could be 8.8.

Professor:

Yeah, yeah, that’s what he’s saying.

Alex Epstein:

I’m surprised he would acknowledge it could be 0.8 because that would be way lower than all the estimates. So what’s the question about this?

Professor:

No, I just wanted to put out what his bottom-line conclusion was.

Alex Epstein:

I think the most important point is the benefit denial. And then, I don’t know what scenario exactly he’s talking about, but yeah. I think that the death estimates are just total BS, and on the temperature things, I just don’t know exactly what model he’s dealing with. But mainly, here’s the thing. The death estimates for pursuing a net-zero policy, I think, are incomparably greater than this. You’re really actually pursuing net-zero in a world where 8 billion people depend on fertilizer derived from natural gas and agricultural equipment, hugely powered by diesel. Think about it this way. We frequently used to have more than 2 million climate related disaster deaths a year, when we had a fourth of the world’s population. That used to be a common event.

So, adjusted for population, that’s about 8 million a year. Even living in a more primitive world without modern energy, the climate is an absolute catastrophe, and this is not just about climate, that’s about food and clothing and shelter. So, I just want to point out here that this person is just fixated on negative side-effects. And when somebody is looking at it that way and not looking at the benefits that come with it, including the benefits that can alleviate or even overwhelm the negative climate impacts, the person is just a terrible thinker about the issue. And they have a bias. And if you have a bias against the benefits of something and you’re only looking at the negatives of it, there is a very high chance that you are also exaggerating the negatives.

Just like if somebody gave them like a million dollars and supported them and they only said negative things about them, never anything positive. You’re like, “Okay, this person has a bias. I can’t really trust what they say about this issue.” And now, in this case, I would just go into the study and debunk it. Anytime somebody’s a huge benefit-denier like this, I know what to expect. And I’ve never seen somebody who’s a benefit-denier be objective about the side-effect. And in a sense, you can’t because the thing that matters is not the side-effect on its own, it’s the side-effect as mediated through human capability. And that’s where you need to look at the benefits.

Professor:

Okay. So again, this is not my area, but just taking their estimate of the global mean temperature, if they’re saying the upper end is 8.8 Centigrade, that seems like that could be disastrous. If it really went up that much.

Alex Epstein:

I’d really need to see this thing because it’s just the lower bound that’s throwing me off. This is nowhere near a mainstream number. Let’s just put it that way. But I could look into it afterwards. But again, the fact that he’s guessing that it’s going to be 0.8 suggests that there’s something off here. Because it’s way lower than all the models say.

Professor:

Right? But let’s say he said “4.8 plus or minus three,” that would be within your estimate. Because it would be a 1.8 degree Celsius increase.

Alex Epstein:

Well, you just need to know what the exact emissions levels are that he is talking about because it’s always a certain rough amount per doubling. But no matter what, we should not be reducing fossil fuel use right now. I’d say that the more you can show some adverse thing from warming or that involves warming or that’s caused by warming, the more you really want to double down on developing truly cost-effective alternatives. And I think this is kind of crazy speculation, but if you’re talking about 8.8 degrees, you need to look into how to cool the climate. And just one practical thing that is important is: insofar as alternatives to fossil fuels are not cost-effective, you are not going to get global adoption.

We’re seeing this right now with China, India, and Russia, where they’re very willing to use more and more fossil fuels because it’s the most cost-effective option. So, you really have to recognize that a lot of these places are embracing some sort of a fossil future. And so, insofar as you’re concerned about the side-effects and kind of worst case scenarios, again, it’s really about developing alternatives more quickly. We’re figuring out ways to cool things. It’s not, “Oh yeah, we’re all going to just give up our standard of living and prematurely die and suffer and we shouldn’t do that.” And in much of the world, it’s not going to happen. And even with us, you see limitations. You see Europe rebelling against some of these things, and in the US, you rebel even when gas prices go up. So imagine what would happen if you pursue net-zero in 27 years?

Student 5:

Yeah, I think that’s for those who argue against renewables or alternative sources of energy, in the US in particular, one of the strongest arguments is that we can stop, but the rest of the world’s not going to do anything about it. Particularly, major producers, like India, China, etc. In your policy recommendations, are you purely focused on the United States? Is the moral case for fossil fuels just to do with our government or with governments worldwide that are also reliant on dung and wood like you brought up?

Alex Epstein:

Yeah, so, two aspects here. Chapter 10 is about energy freedom policies, and that’s about the whole world. It has some recommendations that are more specific and a lot of recommendations that are universal. I know the US situation’s better than I know any of the others, and I’m actively involved in it. I’ve become, since writing a book, very actively involved and I’m trying to help policy. And I mentioned nuclear policy and I have some other things on EnergyTalkingPoints.com, you can look it up: “Energy Freedom Platform.” And I have this kind of new platform that includes a lot of different things.

So, I have general recommendations for everyone, I would say. But my specific focus for my own work is trying to get the US good because we can be a model for others. I’m not, for example, attempting to improve France’s policy deliberately. I’ve given broad recommendations. But I think, to be really effective, you need to have more specific recommendations. And that’s one of the main things I’m actively working on right now.

Student 5:

I understand that in some of the poor areas, they don’t have access to fossil fuels to begin with. And it’ll be very difficult, if not impossible for them, as you point out, to stop relying on fossil fuels or to get cost-effective energy. But in the United States, where most people have access to energy, sure, it’s not perfect. But with our resources and the strength of our scientific development, isn’t there some sort of a moral obligation to at least explore more fully the alternative paths that don’t cause warming to the degree that we’ve seen?

Alex Epstein:

Well, yeah, I just think “explore” has to be defined. My own version of it is: the exploration ultimately overwhelmingly needs to be focused on how you liberate things that could be cost-effective and cost-competitive if they were free. So, you take something like improving mining and drilling laws so that you can do them responsibly. So that there’s not as much red tape and delay. Something like that is crucial, not just for oil and gas, but it’s crucial for all the materials involved in solar and wind. And it’s crucial for something like ultra-deep geothermal because the more freedom, what I call “freedom to develop,” you have, the better, I think. Similarly, with grid policies, reform those in a way that you have true competition and then you can actually discover, “Hey, what are the most cost-effective things you can do with solar and wind and other things?”

With nuclear, I’m big on what I call “nuclear decriminalization.” I think the main thing is liberation, because you need things like it.

The number-one thing if you want more energy is: it has to be as cost-effective as possible. And then, insofar as you’re concerned about side-effects, you have to find something that people will voluntarily choose because it’s the most cost-competitive option. That’s why, I think the focus should be on finding where things are underperforming because they’re not sufficiently free. And there are a lot of areas here because the modern environmental movement is very restrictive on development and other aspects of energy production. I think that’s the number-one thing. You could also talk about investing in different things, but I think the main thing is: you have to have a political environment where you can rapidly develop and deploy technologies.

And that’s more a matter of getting things out of the way. So, I’m very big on developing alternatives as quickly as possible, but that’s very different from the current thing, which is basically to punish ourselves by adopting things. And people say, “Oh, well, the poor people can’t afford it, but we can afford it,” but what does it mean that we can afford it? Because when you make energy more expensive, you make everything more expensive. You make your energy, your industry less competitive, you offshore jobs in industry. Energy isn’t like this isolated expense where we can just say, “Hey, we’ll just pay a little bit more for it.” It’s an expense that underlies every other expense. So it’s a big punishment.

Even the policies so far have been a huge punishment to Americans. Suppressing the supply of fossil fuels has added so much cost recently here, and even more so in Europe, and then foisting a lot of unreliable electricity that’s not truly cost competitive has created all of these grid problems including, I would argue, Texas’s problems. And California’s problems. It’s already creating huge problems. So, it’s dangerous to say, “Oh, let’s “explore” it,” if by “explore” you mean “give it subsidies, mandates and other preferences that make our energy, and therefore, everything more expensive.”

Professor:

Well, just following up on that, isn’t it true that if we spend more on wind and solar, letting Saudis and the Russians sell energy to China and India, we’re making it cheaper for them because we’re not using their oil and gas, just supply and demand? If we’re using more solar and wind, that’s making energy cheaper for China and for India.

Alex Epstein:

So, what’s the question there?

Professor:

So, you made it seem like we’re raising the costs of energy for these other people. We’re lowering it if we don’t use oil and gas.

Alex Epstein:

Oh, I see. I got it. I think I said it maybe too quickly. I think this is an important point that gets overlooked a lot in the discussion. When you’re talking about the anti-fossil-fuel movement, there are two main components of it. One is giving artificial preferences to non-fossil alternatives, particularly solar and wind, because, as I mentioned, nuclear gets a lot of punishment and hydro gets quite a bit of punishment. But you give preferences to some of the alternatives and you also give punishments to fossil fuels. And this is the most damaging thing. So, when people talk about, for example, the fossil fuel prices that are higher today, they’ll say, “Oh, well that’s not the fault of renewables,” No, but it’s the fault of the renewable movement insofar as it’s also the anti-fossil-fuel movement.

They have policies against investing in fossil fuel production, in actually producing fossil fuels, in refining them and transporting them. There are numerous examples of all of these things around the world. So what that does is it artificially suppresses the supply. You’re artificially suppressing the supply and you’re doing it in the freest places in the world that tend to be the most dynamic and adaptable. And then, often the promise has been, “Oh, we’re going to replace it with solar and wind. And that hasn’t come true nearly enough, nearly as much as expected.

And this is why you have record fossil fuel use in 2022 because you have more energy growth, you have energy growth, and you have less replacement by solar and wind than people expected. And so, this anti-fossil-fuel movement has manipulated supply and demand to make energy prices higher. Now, you could say, “Well, they’d be even higher if you hadn’t had any alternatives.” That’s true. But then you’re also paying extra for the alternatives. Yeah. And then, on top of that, by the way, when we make our energy more expensive, that leads to offshoring of industry. So, we can’t just think of it as China’s using it. A lot of what happens in China is: we’re using it to make our stuff, we’ve just delegated it to a different physical location.

Professor:

Can you look at this summary of their recommendations? This is again, this NYU professor, and give us your sentence—

Alex Epstein:

What’s the professor’s name by the way?

Professor:

Let me just show you here. So, this is William Rom, from the Department of Medicine and Environmental Medicine.

Alex Epstein:

So, I think I kind of have talking points on everything. I think I have something on EnergyTalkingPoints.com about these. There’s this huge letter from doctors that I specifically debunked. I’m trying to see if this was a while back. Everything we’ve had so far is his attempt to summarize climate and not really an attempt, I’d say, to summarize energy. We can go through all of these, but the whole focus here is on climate change as an out-of-context issue. So far, what I’ve mentioned is ignoring all the benefits that come with it, including the mastery benefits. But it’s important that energy here is very much an afterthought. It’s just kind of like, “Okay, the demand that we’re focused on is climbing.”

Now, how do we deal with this? What does transition actually mean in practice? To what extent is this possible? To what extent is this cost-effectively possible? And so, what you have is: either this doctor or some academic or someone he’s delegating it to just happens to have made up a scheme that they are claiming is equal or superior to the existing system. But I would think of this as a Soviet-style central plan where somebody makes up something that they think is going to work, and they dictate it to everyone else. This is basically how this movement wants it to function: somebody comes up with a plan and they think they’ve convinced themselves on spreadsheets. They think they can predict everything, and so this is somehow optimal versus saying, “No, no, no, we’re going to create the policies that maximize the chances of cost-effective alternatives emerging.”

So, I would just say he just made up something. So, you notice that hydro is limited. You’d expect hydro to go up a lot. And what do carbon capture and storage cost? What are your assumptions about solar and wind? There’s no continent that’s 55% wind and solar. So, it’s just this kind of sloppy set of assumptions where somebody just made up something. And what I would point out is: this is not a real concern for energy. It’s just that somebody made up an arbitrary model, can’t convince anybody voluntarily to do it and wants to force it on us because the whole focus is not on energy. It’s about getting rid of energy’s impact.

So, what they should do is they should just try to convince a small community to do it and see how it works. And what we’ve seen is these things work incredibly poorly, but they want to force their own arbitrary things on people. But it’s all made possible by people not being focused on energy and the benefits of fossil fuels. Just like, “Hey, how do we reduce this? Well, let’s transition to a low-carbon energy system using these things nobody has used and nobody has any evidence they know how to use.” So, in practice, it will just be an enormous destruction of energy, much like what we’ve incrementally experienced already. The rest of the stuff, I mean, the sequestering. I don’t know the economics of that but there’s nothing I’ve seen that scales globally there.

And there are a lot of accounting issues with that. And then, the reduced non-CO2 emissions. With some of these, there would just be a question of costs. I mentioned that different emissions have different cost-effectiveness of reduction. So, with something like methane, maybe you could capture more of that. I don’t know about methane from the cows, but there’s better methane. Like methane as natural gas. So, you could probably capture more of the leaking there. But the first one is just a total fantasy in which there’s no reason to believe.

Professor:

Is it a good idea to drive an electric car?

Alex Epstein:

I think it depends if it’s the best car for you in general. So, the way I think of EVs is: it’s a very promising technology. There are some obvious benefits to it. I mean, there being no tailpipe emissions is a benefit, particularly in certain cities. The Los Angeles area is a good case where you want to think about electric vehicles. There are reasons to want to do that, good reasons to want to do that instead of diesel, all things equal. So, I think it’s a promising thing. I just think it’s very important that it competes in the market. If it does not, then you’re foisting things on people that are not cost-effective. Usually more expensive, but also they just don’t have the same functionality as a regular car.

So, just right now they don’t, obviously, and they haven’t previously. And then, the other thing, which is the more urgent thing, is that you’re talking about dramatically increasing the demand for electricity from a grid that is aggressively restricting the supply of reliable electricity. So, I keep mentioning EnergyTalkingPoints.com: if you search “Electricity Emergency” there, if you look at the current plans, we could lose up to 20% of what I would call “controllable capacity.” Not solar and wind, which are intermittent, but nuclear, hydro, coal and gas (we don’t have much oil electricity because oil has other more valued uses). So, we’re talking about cutting 20% of that. And we’re also talking about dramatically increasing the demand for electricity. This is very scary and it’s kind of what you get with these anti-freedom, centrally dictated policies, particularly when the central people are not focused on energy, they’re focused just on the side-effects of energy.

And I don’t know how many of you saw this, but when Newsom announced there being no more internal combustion energy vehicles, no more oil vehicles by 2035, five days later we had these announcements saying, “Don’t charge your EV.” And we have about 3% EV penetration. So again, we’re not valuing energy or the general benefits of fossil fuels, and we’re making terrible, terrible decisions on the basis of that. But that’s not to say EVs aren’t exciting. The other thing with EVs that’s important insofar as you’re dictating is: If you let them compete on a market, there are no challenges in terms of how quickly they can scale because you don’t want to force them to scale. But you have huge scaling challenges, not just with this, but other uses of batteries.

And with solar and wind, insofar as you’re trying to scale them on an artificial timetable, you’re running up against huge new mining requirements that the world is not remotely prepared for. So, for multiple mining industries, you have these projections or needs that involve doubling or tripling or quadrupling. And it’s essentially non-existent for a mining or extractive industry to double in 10 years. And yet, all these dictated plans involve many, many extractive industries doubling in 10 years. And at the same time, these movements are making it difficult to develop those industries. Biden just shut down 225,000 acres of prime mining areas, some of the best mining areas in the country, for 20 years.

So, I want to stress (and I stress this a bit in Chapter 1, but it comes out throughout the book) that we have a culture and a knowledge system that are devaluing energy.

And I think of all these schemes as just rationalizations for the focus on climate, for the focus more broadly on “Let’s not impact the earth.” This is not serious thinking about how to empower eight billion people.

Professor:

Jump in.

Student 6:

Yeah. You talk a lot about how our knowledge system is fundamentally flawed and you talk about how our experts are wrong, and as evidence of that, you talk about-

Alex Epstein:

The designated experts are wrong. I elaborate on this a lot in Chapter 2. It’s really important, though. It’s not all experts, it’s the experts that, as were told, speak for all experts.

Student 6:

And you said, although you’re not a scientist, you said, “As a philosopher who studied the history of ideas, I have long been haunted by the fact that some of the worst ideas in history such as slavery, racism, and eugenics were successfully spread as the consensus of the experts.”

What percentage of widespread scientific theories are subsequently debunked?

Alex Epstein:

Wait, I think it’s kind of a non-sequitur. I’m not sure what you see as the relationship between those two.

So, racism is both policy and just irrational evaluation. And then, slavery is obviously a policy. I don’t consider these scientific views. I think they’re cases where science is being abused to promote them. So then, the question would be: how often is science abused?

Student 6:

What percent of widespread social theories are subsequently debunked? Of the ones that are endorsed by experts?

Alex Epstein:

Oh, of social theories?

Speaker 1:

Or theories like climate change?

Alex Epstein:

So, there are at least two things that can go wrong and this is why I divide up the knowledge system into research, synthesis, dissemination, and, lastly, evaluation.

I guess it has to be three things. It’s the state of the field itself, of the research. There’s where the popular dissemination goes off, which is informed by synthesis as well.

And then, where the evaluation is off. So, in terms of the state of research itself, I think in every field one would say it’s imperfect, but generally improving. And it’s not common that it’s totally wrong about something.

So, of those three, the state of the research is both the most likely to be accurate at a given time, and the most self-correcting. What’s communicated and disseminated to the public is often very off.

And then, the evaluation, I think, is hugely wrong, but that involves values. So, it could just be that in some cases I have different values, but let’s take something like the COVID example. And that was a very new field, but I think it’s like, “Okay, there are a lot of people doing good research, but there was a lot of uncertainty and most people knew there was a lot of uncertainty.” But then, the dissemination, I think, was a total mess in every direction.

And then, the evaluation was a total mess in terms of: “We’re now focused on this virus, but we’re only focused on this virus and we’re trying to eliminate this virus at all costs. I think that was a big misevaluation. So, I have controversial views on a lot of things.

I think that evaluations today very rarely incorporate science well. And I think in particular, they’re most likely to do it well when the science has a good, very established engineering application.

So, for example, if you look at space travel, that has a very, very good application of science. Or if you look at computing, insofar as it’s informed by things like quantum mechanics, that has a very, very good application of science.

But when you’re talking about policies that involve a lot of value judgment and different kinds of threats to people, like the policy on pollution, I think, in general, the methods of evaluation are pretty bad.

But I think, in general, research is often very, very valuable and should be the starting point of anyone, including me.

Student 6:

Fundamentally, what you’re saying is that we should not believe the experts, or as you call them, the “designated experts.” And we should believe you, right? I mean you have a section called “How to know when the experts are wrong,” and then you say that they’re egregiously wrong. So yeah, it’s not false.

You do say that we should not believe the experts or the designated experts and we should instead believe you. And as evidence of that, you say, “Experts can be wrong. Look, we had slavery, we had eugenics, we had racism.” How are those relevant at all? How is that related? The evidence that experts have been wrong in the past.

Alex Epstein:

Okay, I got you, I got you. So, just one question. Have you read past Chapter 1 of the book?

Student 6:

No.

Alex Epstein:

Okay. You’re being a little bit extreme if you’re claiming there are three chapters talking about this issue of expertise and how do you trust someone and stuff like that.

And at no point do I say, “You should trust me.” In fact, I give people standards. I mean I try to give evidence and I try to honestly explain my journey, and then, I encourage people to question different kinds of things. But the summary you gave was wildly inaccurate, in my view, being the person who has the views and wrote the book.

And I try to talk about this very, very carefully even in Chapter 1. There is this scary capacity for what we’re told is the expert view to be very, very wrong. And that most often it’s not that the researchers themselves are wrong, but that the rest of the knowledge system has distorted their views through wrongly communicating the truth about or the state of the research in that field, and/or through mis-evaluation it.

But what we’re told the expert view can often be wrong, particularly when it comes to guiding our action. And then I try to indicate, “Here are some ways you can look out for it.”

So, in the first chapter, I have guidelines for each, but with evaluation, it’s looking at the method of evaluation, and then: are they considering all the relevant factors, and then, what standard are they evaluating things by? And so, I give reasons to be suspicious.

And then, the first chapter is very focused on this wrong method of evaluation where you’re advocating for the elimination of something, or the rapid elimination, while ignoring the benefits.

And what I’m trying to do is establish this, “No one thinks it’s a good idea to ignore the benefits of something, but yet this is clearly happening, and I’m giving examples, and I’m appealing to people’s experience, and there’s something wrong there.”

And then, in Chapter 2, I give some evidence about the side-effects. Then, in Chapter 3 I say, “Well what do you conclude about that and what’s my role?”

But it’s very inaccurate to say it’s dismissing all experts. It’s saying, “We need expert knowledge, but how do you distinguish better ones from worse ones?” And part of what I talk about is how I do this myself.

It’s definitely not at all like, “The experts are wrong, so believe a random me.”

So, I regard that as a total straw man of what I’m saying in the chapter you read and in the subsequent chapters.

Professor:

The standard economic analysis of externalities is: just have a Pigouvian tax. What’s wrong with this sort of standard economic analysis? You don’t need to encourage one thing or another, you just need to get the prices right, because the market system essentially doesn’t give us what we want, unless the prices are right, and everyone concedes there is a social cost of carbon. So why don’t we just push for a carbon tax?

Alex Epstein:

So, the problem is: the social cost of carbon-type estimates range hugely both in positive and negative directions. So, with the externalities thing, just how do you know how big the negatives are, and how do you know how big the positives are?

And so, I talk at the end of Chapter 4 about how the positives get hugely underestimated. That’s one thing, and I’ll come to another thing in a second, but the positives get hugely underestimated when it comes to energy.

And Chapter 4 is really all about how cost-effective energy is vastly underrated in terms of its value. I’ve mentioned its climate value, but there are a lot of other ways in which it’s underrated. The way you think of energy and the positive externalities of energy is that one core thing it really does is it frees up human time, and that means it fosters innovation, which can have an almost unlimited upside.

So, if you look at something like the positive externalities of using coal for electricity in the 1970s, that brought about the Internet more quickly than if you were using something else. You didn’t even really have many alternatives. So, the positive externalities of that, of having cheaper energy, made possible a lot of the modern Internet and made possible some medical things and that allowed far fewer people to die from COVID than otherwise would’ve died.

So, you have these incredibly massive positive externalities of having cheaper energy. And then, on the negative side, what’s the basis of these things? Because you’re dealing with these climate impacts, but then, are you factoring in your ability to master them? Are these analyses accurately looking at the benefits and the side-effects?

Another, more technical, thing I talk about in the end of Chapter 4, and again I’m happy to send anyone the book, is like: “There’s this issue of the consumer surplus with something. The value you pay for it is not the same as the value you get.”

And so, what about the fact that sometimes when you’re using oil, it’s something that saves your life? Are these calculations fully reflecting that?

So, there’s often an assumption that the price reflects the value, which is not true. But the main, the easiest thing to retain, is just that the positive externalities are being very underutilized.

And in practice, if you look at what it means to pass carbon taxes, or more carbon taxes, we already have huge carbon taxes in the form of regulation. It just makes everything more expensive, and it makes energy more expensive, which makes everything more expensive.

And so, in practice, if you had done this globally, in the past, we would have a much, much lower standard of living in the world, and billions of people would not have come out of poverty as quickly.

Professor:

Right. Although essentially, if you had a carbon tax, the money could be filtered back to the people, and we’d be lowering income taxes or something like that. So, you’d just be changing patterns of consumption to some degree.

Alex Epstein:

But in general, you’re disempowering the world. That’s the effect, if you’re making energy more expensive. And my point is that energy is a fundamental input in human flourishing.

And so you say, “Okay, I’m going to give some of the money to the poorer people, then they’re going to use some of it to buy the more expensive energy,” but then, the wealthier people don’t have as much time and they don’t innovate, and so you don’t get all these good effects from it.

Elon Musk is always making this point. The reason the externality thing seems like a slam-dunk is the same issue: we’re so focused on the negative side-effect and not the benefit, that is just embedded in the externality discussion as well.

Student 7:

I wanted to ask what you identify as the actual negative externalities of fossil fuels. I think your argument is an important one, in terms of talking about both positives and negatives.

But after the two examples that have been brought up of negative externalities of fossil fuels, you refuse to accept either of those. So I’m wondering: which ones do you believe in?

Alex Epstein:

I’m just trying to be accurate. I mean this paper by a doctor, I think, is an embarrassment.

Student 7:

What do you believe in, in terms of externalities?

Alex Epstein:

Okay, sure. Happy to deal with that. So I indicated this, I think thinking of things in terms of externalities is a very problematic way of thinking.

So, as I talk about it in Chapter 10, I think of it much more in terms of rights violations.

Student 7:

I’m sorry, we just talked about the importance of focusing on positive externalities?

Alex Epstein:

If you’re in the framework of thinking about externalities, you need to think about positive and negative ones.

Student 7:

Which is what I’m asking you to do now, talk about the negative ones, because that’s the framework I’m asking in.

Alex Epstein:

I know you’re kind of jumpy to get into this, but let me just try and then you can see if it’s unsatisfactory, and then I’m happy to follow up.

Student 7:

Fair enough.

Alex Epstein:

Okay. So there are categories of things like air pollution or water pollution.

These are kind of obvious negative things that do occur with fossil fuels given the state of technology or given the place. A certain amount of air pollution exists in China, or can occur in the case of accidents. And so, I think my philosophical way of thinking of it is: what threshold of this is a good threshold to have?

So, you’ve probably heard of cap-and-trade-type things and I think that that is often a better way of thinking about it and dealing with it, saying, “Hey, basically we think with this threshold, we can achieve it cost-effectively with the Montreal Protocol, we can cost effectively limit CFCs to this and people can trade credits and stuff,” and basically above that, you’re, in effect, saying, “This is a rights violation,” and it’s like this with the air pollution in a given city.

So, I just think that in practice, it’s often better to think of it as rights violations.

But if you want to stipulate externalities, I’d say number one is air pollution, then there’s water pollution, and then there’s also the risk of accidents. Now, these are not all unique to fossil fuels because what an [inaudible 01:37:48] have, but just in terms of the absolute what I’d call “negative side-effects” I would say, “Yeah, air, water pollution, and then dangers from accidents.” If you contrast them with something like hydro, there’s no air pollution from a hydro plant. Running the water part is a little tricky.

And then in terms of danger, the dam can explode and that can actually be really bad. Fossil fuel plants can explode and catch fire, that can be really bad, whereas, say, nuclear is the best of all of them because it doesn’t have air pollution, its mining requirements are way lower. And it is, contrary to what people think, incredibly safe in terms of endangering neighbors.

Student 7:

On air pollution, what experts would you designate as reliable in determining the impact of fossil fuels use on air pollution? Because we did bring in the one in five deaths figure from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and you dismissed that one. Which would be reliable resources?

Alex Epstein:

So I’ll give you at least one.

One of my tests is if they’re looking at negative side-effects out of context, then I don’t trust them as a thinker.

Air pollution is not something I have even the same expertise on as I do on climate because I’ve focused on climate because that’s really the side-effect that is leading people to think fossil fuels should be abolished, whereas insofar as your concern is air pollution, I think it’s clear that whatever negatives there are of that, the positives are far greater. Plus, we can more and more cleanly burn coal, plus, we can use natural gas. Air pollution is a declining problem and a manageable thing.

Whereas with CO2, it’s more of a concern to people and we can’t reduce it at low cost. So, that’s part of why air pollution is not as much my focus. But just to answer your question directly, there’s a very esteemed guy in the field named Robert Phalen and he’s out of UC Irvine and his lectures on this indicate he’s applying the kind of methodological rigor that makes sense.

That’s not to say that I’d vouch for him, but he has the signs of somebody who is thinking about this seriously, and he is a recognized expert in the field.

The best thing is if you can get somebody who’s successful with the establishment but has all the marks of somebody who’s thinking about it rationally by your standards, which the establishment, at least in my standards’ case, is often not following.

Professor:

Okay, just let’s get the last comments in because I did want to take some time with the students on some additional matters. So why don’t we go around and see if anyone has a last question.

Speaker 8:

Can I ask a last question?

Professor:

Please.

Student 8:

It seems to be a big premise of your argument that there are a lot of people living, I guess, quote-unquote, “unpowered” lives where they have a lack of electricity. You’re limiting your policy view here to the United States, but a lot of the people that are living without electricity are in impoverished nations outside of the United States.

So, I’m guessing you would maybe accept the premise that maybe, the United States should invest in more expensive types of energy because it’s a wealthier nation.

But how would you suggest that these people that are living without electricity get electricity? Because there are obviously a lot of issues with that. You’d have to put up power lines and stuff, you can’t just go and throw gasoline over to people and say, “Boom, you have electricity.”

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Alex Epstein:

So just to be clear again, in my work, in my most prominent work Fossil Future, I have quite a bit of policy ideas on how what I call “the unempowered world” can improve.

Currently, I do this thing called “Energy Talking Points”, and I advise a lot of political offices. So I do work more with US people. I also do work with people in Africa. in particular, and I do it when there’s interest and when I think I can be helpful. So, I just want to clarify the extent of it.

And so, I talk about some of those recommendations, but with all these policy things, there are obvious things, and then a lot of details. So the obvious things are: let’s have the US stop pressuring these places not to use fossil fuels.

I just got a request from Uganda and they’re like, “Help us fight against these outside people who are telling us not to have a pipeline to a refinery.” So, that’s kind of an obvious way to help.

But then, there’s the stuff you brought up such as: how do you establish an electricity grid? And I have high-level guidelines on that, but I’m not yet an expert in what the best practices there are. And at some point, I would like to be one or work with people who are, but fortunately, we do have history, including recent history, of places that are very, very poor, developing infrastructure, and becoming much wealthier, including China and India.

So one thing would just be to draw on the best practices. But at a high level, what I talk about in the book is: they need what I call the freedom to trade, much better enforcement of contracts, property rights.

The key thing I’ve been told by executives is, “We need to be able to go in a place and be confident that we can actually have a profitable investment.”

So, that at a high level is it, but if the devil’s in the details, then I don’t want to trivialize the details, or claim that I’m an expert in all the details.

Professor:

Other questions before we end? Okay, Alex, thank you so much. I appreciate your taking so much time with us and it was really a lively and interesting conversation.

Alex Epstein:

Okay guys, well thank you for all the interesting questions, and again, if you want a copy of my book, I’m happy to send it.


“Energy Talking Points by Alex Epstein” is my free Substack newsletter designed to give as many people as possible access to concise, powerful, well-referenced talking points on the latest energy, environmental, and climate issues from a pro-human, pro-energy perspective.

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