The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein: A Review


by Avi Davis

At a parent-teacher conference for one of my children several years ago, I asked my son’s science teacher what he taught our child about global warming.  The teacher, who was a deeply respected school veteran, responded that his instruction was that global warming was real and that it was caused by man’s over reliance on fossil fuels.

I wasn’t startled by the answer.  I had come to expect it.   But I did raise an objection and asked why he didn’t offer an alternative view point.  He look at me a little baffled, murmuring that he didn’t realize there was an alternative viewpoint. The other parents in the room shifted nervously in their seats and one even whispered to me to drop it.

After the conference, I approached the teacher to let him know that there is a whole range of countervailing science which suggests that the question of anthropogenic global warming is not at all settled and that the use of ‘ dirty’ fossil fuels might actually be good for our environment and for our world in general.  He looked at me incredulously and then shook his head, thought for a moment and then muttered:

” Well, you know, I just feel bad for the polar bears.”

That answer almost defines the deep divide between contemporary conservationists and modern environmentalists over the standard of value we should employ when deciding the best use of the Earth’s resources.  For the conservationist, the standard of value is how human happiness can be enhanced though the employment of the earth’s resources.  For the environmentalist the primary concern is the environment’s own needs and its future; For the conservationist, our environment serves human needs. For the environmentalist, human beings serve the Earth.

Alex Epstein is used to entertaining debates of this nature.  As the founder of a for profit think-tank The Center for Industrial Progress in Southern California, Mr. Epstein has invested a great deal of his intellectual energy into challenging those who seem so fixated on the greatest of perceived modern evils- fossil fuels.  He has sought to address the claim of environmentalists who argue that human beings are destroying the earth and ruining any prospects for our future with their addiction to oil, coal  and natural gas.

The only problem with this scenario is that fossil fuels are not ruining anything at all.  Quite the opposite.  Over the course of the past 300 years they have actually enabled the greatest expansion of  prosperity the world has  known and the broadest growth of free enterprise and individual liberty ever experienced by mankind.

The case is made forcefully in Epstein’s The Moral Case of Fossil Fuels – possibly the most lucid and cogently argued work on the subject you will ever need to read.  For the author makes the argument, through the employment of graphs, comparative studies and statistical analyses that a cheap, abundant, reliable and scalable energy source has always been the key to the growth of human prosperity as well as the spread of human liberty over the past half century.  That energy source has been oil and natural gas whose benefits have redounded, not necessarily to the rich and powerful in human civilization but to ordinary people who could not dream of  owning or using such things as a motor vehicle, ready to wear clothes, fast, efficient forms of public transportation, central heating or air conditioning even 100 years ago.  All of these advances were made possible by the extraction of a fossil fuel that have appeared so abundant that it is as if  it has been secretly left it in the ground for us by a benevolent donor, only awaiting our, discovery, extraction and use.  “Oil,” argues Mr. Epstein, “is the fuel of freedom, – the fuel that liberated Americans to go where they want. Economically oil is the fuel  of trade. Our entire standard of living depends of specialization – on people doing what they do best – wherever they are – and then being able to cheaply move  those products to those who most need them.”

Fossil fuels such as oil have also helped solve world hunger.   When Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, he predicted that the world would exhaust its food resources by the year 1980, the world population was 3. 6 billion.  But over the past 45 years, not only has world’s population grown to more than 7 billion but the ability of nations to feed these burgeoning populations has taken an exponential leap with world hunger reduced from 22% of the world’s population in 1968 to only 9% today. This has been made possible by oil powered mechanization which has increased the amount of farmland that can  be cultivated per worker and the much wider availability of efficient transportation making it possible to reach and export to markets from formerly remote area   The great achievement of plant geneticists such as Norman Bourlang, what is widely known as the Green Revolution,  were made possible only because high powered machines have replaced physical labor – machines that run on fossil fuels.

The central complaint of the environmentalist movement is that all of this development has come at a tragic cost – and that is the pollution of our planet.  That is to say that fossil fuels are ‘dirty’ and their CO2 emissions now threaten our future.  No one doubts that the burning of fossil fuels emit a residue of CO2 which can then escape into the atmosphere. But have CO2 concentrations accumulated to the point where they have been the singular contributor to catastrophic climate change that now threatens the Earth’s future, to the point where, according to those involved in the production of the recent film Interstellar, some day in the not too distant future, human beings might actually need to abandon the planet?

The question of course revolves around the impact of the well known Greenhouse Effect – which states that the introduction of more CO2 into the atmosphere can make the molecules inthe atmosphere more heat absorbent,  which they will then reflect back at the Earth, much as occurs in a greenhouse.  The scientific question which needs answerING is whether CO2 is is the overwhelming driver of the global climate system and thus that its warming impact is predictable over time?

One way to determine  this is to construct climate computer models and feed data  that would indicate whether our continuing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere at the present rate will result in greater global temperatures.   That has been done, over and over again- but most famously by former NASA scientist James Hansen in 1988, but the models have proved spectacularly wrong and we have now reached a general scientific consensus that  no global warming has been reported for at least 17 years.  If, claims the author,  a climate production model can’t predict climate, it is then not a valid model – and the predictions made on the basis of such a model are not scientific.

So too regarding extreme weather – another so called barometer of anthropogenic global warming and climate change. If the climate computer models have failed ( and they have done so almost certainly because predicting climate is an enormously complex undertaking fraught with pitfalls)  there is really nothing much to hang a scientific understanding of extreme weather on except very unscientific guess work.

In this regard,  the author actually offers a full page of headlines of climate catastrophe, but the headlines (eg;  “Antarctic Heat Wave: Explorers Puzzled But Pleased” or “Death’s Toll Mounts to 60 in U.S. Storms”)  derive , not from our present day but from the  year 1934 – before significant CO2 emissions began.   The point is that our climate is a combination of so many factors – the moon’s gravitational pull, the sun’s level of radiation and even the position and rotation of other planets in our solar system, that is almost impossible to predict climate – just as it is impossible to attach severe weather in any given period to a general pattern of  rapid climate change.

Epstein refers briefly to the overt politicization of climate science (although this subject surely deserves another book from him) by pointing out how the figure 97% is bandied around to describe the consensus among scientists about man made global warming.    The figure  goes back to a survey by John Cook who runs a website called and who completed a  survey in which he found that 97% of the papers he studied endorsed the view that man made greenhouse gases were the main cause of global warming.  But the category he chose did not state whether each or any of the scientists selected 1% or 100% as the percentage contribution of man to global warming.  A number of the scientists who were quoted by Cook as confirming his preferred view, vehemently protested.

Finally Epstein dwells on the opposite  of the Greenhouse Effect –  the Fertilizer Effect – the theory that worldwide increases in plant growth over the past 50 years are attributable, at least in part,  to the increases in CO2 in the atmosphere. Although the theory has gained considerable ground among horticulturalists and certain climatologists, Epstein uses it to ask the question what if  there  is, contrary to the doomsayers, a positive impact to our carbon footprint?  Most climate change activists scoff at such a notion  – but their rejection of the argument is not scientific, it is political.

And what of  the alternative technologies – wind and solar and ethanol – ballyhooed as replacements for the fossil fuels to which we have become so presumably addicted? They, argues the author, are nowhere near ready for prime time and being dependent on the weather, are still notoriously unreliable.   And not only are they expensive, they are environmentally hazardous, consuming vast quantities of chemicals and raw materials for the manufacture of their panels and turbines.

Mr. Epstein provides a chilling  account from reporter Simon Parry of a visit to a huge waste dump lake in China where he describes

“a hissing cauldron of chemicals where several million tons of rare earth have been mined. Standing  on the brink of the lake for just a few seconds and my eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills my lungs.  People in the nearby village were having their teeth fall out and their hair prematurely turn white and suffered from severe skin and respiratory illnesses.” 

This site is revealed to be, not the toxic dump of a nuclear station or the slag heaps of a nearby coal mine as you might think, but a mining pit for rare earth, a material vital for building wind turbines.  And that’s just some of the collateral damage of shifting from oil to expensive, unreliable and non scalable alternative energies.

Because of their unreliability ( ‘only when the sun shines and the wind blows’) alternative sources of energy require a reliable back up – and guess what that is?   You can’t run huge metropolises, now or in the forseeable future on the kind of wind and solar energy technologies presently available, without a dependable reserve energy.  Without such a back up our cities would come to a standstill.  To pretend otherwise, is  consign ourselves to a future where our central heating may stop functioning in the middle of winter or our cars will cease to operate in the middle of our highways.

The image of a solitary polar bear, floating away on a tiny ice floe has become an iconic symbol of both the global warming movement and of mankind’s degradation of the earth – made even more poignant by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  Leave alone the fact the polar bear population of Antarctica is larger than it has ever been and has never faced extinction, we should be taking a much harder look at the facts, figures and arguments supplied by the environmental movement and understand it for what it truly is – a determined, dogmatic ideology for which actual facts and science are only niggling secondary concerns on the road to an alternative (and less free) global life style.

But before we leave this issue, lets not forget the polar bears entirely.

For I once felt bad for them too. But I was a child then. It is a pity, if not an intellectual disgrace, that so much of what we are told by the climate change activists and the alternative energy gurus seems to be the stuff of children’s dreams and not grounded in real world science.  Epstein’s lucid and carefully researched book should make anyone who reads it understand that to plan for a grown up future we cannot allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by juvenile illusions and false promises.  That is not the road to progress and human happiness. It is the road back to the 16th Century, a place very few of us would want to visit and even fewer would wish to live.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone


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