Neither an energy transition nor climate crisis exists – Alex Epstein builds the moral case for fossil fuels

The world is in the grip of a global energy crisis. In a superbly eye-opening interview with energy expert Alex Epstein, author of the New York Times bestseller The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and Fossil Future, Epstein astutely summarises the benefits of fossil fuels, the timeline of their demonisation and the moral monopoly that exists on the case for eliminating fossil fuels. Epstein’s unique understanding of energy and arguments advocating in favour of energy freedom and human flourishing, both balanced and compelling, are sure to give pause to critical thinkers about their own misconceptions in what has become one of the most contentious topics of our time. – Nadya Swart

Timestamps for the interview:

00:00 Interview teaser

00:12 Introduction

00:30 A moral monopoly on the case for eliminating fossil fuels

01:49 Epstein’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry

03:11 How his passion for and studies in practical philosophy led to him examing the energy industry and our choices regarding energy

06:09 Five undeniable facts about the benefits of fossil fuels

10:50 How human beings’ perception of nature and our relationship with nature is fundamentally flawed

13:58 The timeline and driving forces behind the demonisation of fossil fuels

17:10 The consequences of indefinite continued use of fossil fuels

20:14 The logarithmic heating effect of carbon dioxide

22:21 No catastrophe or apocalypse justifies slowing down fossil fuel consumption right now

23:51 Climatologist Dr Judith Curry’s claim that the only climate-related emergency we face is transitioning to green energy too quickly

24:52 The reality of today’s energy source ratio

27:40 Misconceptions about renewable energy sources

29:57 The reason behind today’s global energy crisis

31:14 The environmental impact of wind and solar farms

34:09 Nuclear energy – its potential and virtual criminalisation

37:25 Regulatory suppression of advancement in nuclear energy

38:39 Nuclear decriminalisation

40:18 Energy freedom and human flourishing

43:05 Climate mastery

Excerpts from the interview with Alex Epstein

Epstein on reframing our thinking about energy and fossil fuels

Most people think of philosophy as impractical. But basically, philosophy studies your thinking methods, your basic assumptions and your values. And with all those issues, critically thinking about those things is very useful in any area. And so, for years, I would apply thinking about philosophy to many issues, but I never really became passionate about one. 

And then in 2007, so over 15 years ago now, I had this realisation that energy is the industry that powers every other industry, which means that our choices about energy are fundamental to everything else. If you make good energy choices and your energy is low-cost and reliable, everything is cheaper, more reliable, and higher quality. Whereas if you make bad decisions in energy, it becomes more expensive and less reliable, certainly the latter, I’m sure you can relate to right now in South Africa, which makes everything worse. That makes it impossible for industry to function. It makes things more expensive. You can’t rely on all kinds of things. 

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And so what struck me is if I could help improve the thinking about energy, it would be a really good thing to do. And I really quickly concluded that thinking about energy was very bad, which is surprising because it often poses as scientific and scientific thinking. But one observation nobody has ever been able to contradict is that the thinking about fossil fuels, for example, commits a very basic error of only focusing on the negative side effects of something but ignoring the benefits. 

If you’re looking at a prescription drug, you would carefully weigh the benefits and side effects. Everyone would agree with that. But with fossil fuels, there are huge and unique benefits to fossil fuels, including feeding the world with natural gas, fertiliser and diesel-powered agricultural machinery. And without fossil fuels or anything like it, the world would starve at eight billion people. There’s nothing close to fossil fuels for at least a while. And yet we don’t even talk about these benefits. 

The benefits of fossil fuels

Cost-effective energy is essential to human flourishing, and this is the most important. So it’s worth elaborating on. With cost-effectiveness, I include four elements. So one is affordability, one is reliability – those are more well-known. One is versatility. People don’t think of this as much, but it’s the ability to power every type of machine. Most machines in the world actually don’t operate on electricity. They usually run on the direct burning of fossil fuels, including most heavy-duty transportation machines. 

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And then there’s scalability. Can it provide energy for billions of people and thousands of places? And my contention is that the more cost-effective energy is, the more affordable, reliable, versatile, and scalable the more humans can flourish. To flourish means to live to their highest potential, which for human beings includes long lives, healthy lives, and opportunity-filled lives where human beings can achieve fulfilment. And the basic reason is the more cost-effective energy is, the more human beings can use machines to be productive and prosperous. 

When humans can’t use machines and rely on our own manual labour, life is really bad because the earth is not very hospitable, and we’re not very productive. But if we can be productive, we can overcome the huge limitations of nature, and we can live in an abundant, safe world. So basically, the more you want humans to flourish, the more you need cost-effective energy.

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