Alex Epstein’s *Fossil Future*

Bryan Caplan asked me to read this book, and Alex Epstein was kind enough to provide me with a copy of it.  The subtitle is Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less.

My overall view is this: it is a good rebuttal to “the unrealistic ones,” who don’t see the benefits of fossil fuels.  But it does not rebut a properly steelmanned case for a transition away from fossil fuels.

I view the steelmanned case as this: we cannot simply keep on producing increasing amounts of carbon emissions for centuries on end.  We thus need some trajectory where — at a pace we can debate — carbon emissions end up declining.  I’ve stressed on MR many times that climate change is not in fact an existential risk, but it could be a civilization-destroying risk if we just keep on boosting carbon emissions without end.  I don’t know a serious scientist who takes issue with that claim.

In a number of places, such as pp.251-252, and most significantly chapter nine, Epstein denies the likelihood of climate apocalypse, but I just don’t see that he has much of a counter to the standard, more quantitative accounts.  He should try to publish his more optimistic take using actual models, and see if it can survive peer review.  Why should I be convinced in the meantime?  I found chapter nine the weakest part of the book.  Maybe he feels he wouldn’t get a fair knock by trying to publish his alternative take through “the standard process,” but as it stands his casual take doesn’t come close to overturning what I consider to be the most rational, consensus-based Bayesian estimate of the consequences of making no transition to green energy.

I am also impressed by how many different kinds of scientists accept these conclusions, and see these conclusions mirrored in their own research.  If you ask say the oceanographers, they will give you a broadly consistent account as the climate scientists proper.

Nor is there, for my taste, enough discussion of how much climate risk we should be willing to take on.  It is not just about “beliefs most likely to be true.”  Note that the less you believe in climate models, the more you should be worried about tail risk.  In these matters, do not assume that uncertainty is the friend of inaction.

So I really do think we need to deviate from the world’s recent course with respect to fossil fuels.  Now, we can believe that claim and simultaneously believe it would be better if Burkina Faso were much richer, even though that likely would be accompanied by more fossil fuel use, at least for a considerable period of time.

Epstein focuses on the Burkina Faso sort of issue, and buries the long-term risk of no real adjustment.  But we do have to adjust.  Why could he not have had the subtitle: “Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas for a while, and Then Less”?  Then I would be happier.  In economic language, you could say he is not considering enough of the margins.

I think he is also too pessimistic about the long-run and even medium-run futures of alternative energy sources.  More generally, I don’t think a few book chapters — by anyone with any point of view — can really settle that.  I find the market data on green investments more convincing than his more abstract arguments (yes, I know a lot of those investments are driven by subsidies and regulation, but there is genuine change afoot).

I worry about his list of experts presented on pp.29-30.  Mostly they are very weak, and this returns to my point about steelmanning.

In his inscription to the book Epstein calls me a contrarian — but he is the contrarian here!  And I believe his position is likely to retain that designation.  There is a lot in the book which is good, and true, nonetheless I fear the final message of the work will lower rather than raise social welfare.

For another point of view, here are various Bryan Caplan posts defending Epstein’s arguments.  In any case, I thank Alex for the book.


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