Alex Epstein’s Fossil Future Flames Out on Climate Change
In his book Fossil Future, Alex Epstein wants us to believe that using more—not less—fossil fuel will make the world a better place. He fails. Badly.
Epstein is good at explaining why everyone else is wrong but not very good at explaining why he is right.
He dedicates much of Fossil Future to the great benefits of fossil fuels that he already presented in his earlier book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. That was a very unoriginal thesis in 2014 and it has not become more original with time. No one with even a superficial knowledge of energy needs Alex Epstein to tell them that much of human progress is because of fossil fuels. Not today, not 150 years ago.
He wastes a lot of time in Fossil Future trying to convince us that there is a deep state conspiracy called the “knowledge system” that has distorted everything we hear about fossil fuel and climate change. Experts, governments, international agencies and the press cannot be trusted. They ignore the benefits of fossil fuels and want to impoverish humanity by forcing renewable energy on the public despite its inferiority to coal, oil and natural gas. They are anti-human.
In an earlier post, I documented Epstein’s absurd proposition that everyone is wrong about energy except him, and how his entire approach and evaluation framework is based on a series of straw man fallacies.
Now, I will examine his case that climate change is not a big deal—that it is “mild and manageable”—and that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 are necessary for human flourishing.
Climate Change is Manageable
Epstein thinks that threats from climate change are greatly exaggerated. There has been amazing progress overcoming climate threats by what he calls “climate mastery.” By this he means that hydrocarbon-powered technology will find solutions to climate change.
The proof, he says, is in the already drastic reduction of climate-related deaths which is completely ignored by everyone except him.
The evidence for this unique observation is found in a single graph shown in Figure 1 (his Figure 7.1). It turns out, he says, that climate-related deaths have plummeted over the last 100 years in spite of rising levels of atmospheric CO2. Humans are winning the war over any negative side-effects of climate change.
The problem is that the graph does not show climate-related deaths. It shows deaths from natural disasters.
Figure 2 shows the details from my research behind the deaths in Epstein’s figure. The overall pattern of decreasing deaths is similar in both graphs but climate-change has nothing to do with it. Rather, the leading causes are drought, floods, earthquakes, storms and volcanic activity. Earthquakes and volcanic activity are unrelated to climate change. Drought, floods and storms are weather-related, and not climate-related causes of death.
Epstein’s own definitions show that. Weather, he says, is a short term phenomenon that ordinarily lasts a few hours or a few days. In the case of drought, it may last several years.
For something to be a symptom of climate change, it must persist for approximately 30 years, according to Epstein.
Weather: The atmospheric conditions, especially temperatures and precipitation, in a given area at a given time.
Climate: The longer-term (usually thirty-year) weather trends in a given region, including what range of temperatures there is and what frequency and range of precipitation there is.Alex Epstein, Fossil Future
His evidence for climate mastery is inadmissible because all it shows is that weather-related deaths have decreased over time.
So much for climate mastery and the idea that climate change is manageable.
More CO2 is Needed for Human Flourishing
Epstein believes that a warmer world with higher CO2 levels will be a better, greener world with more human flourishing.
“Human flourishing requires that CO2 emissions increase.”
–Alex Epstein, Fossil Future
In order to believe this bizarre claim, we must accept his conspiracy theories about how the knowledge system distorts the truth. We must reject the 88,000 peer-reviewed climate papers published since 2012 that do not support his position.
The knowledge system, he says, ignores the benefits of carbon dioxide. Those benefits may have been a recent discovery for Alex Epstein but every scientist has known about them since Joseph Priestly described photosynthesis 200 years ago.
Epstein bases his case for better living through higher levels of CO2 on three pieces of evidence.
For Exhibit A, he cites the work of The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, and shows photos of a tree whose size increased with higher levels of CO2 (Figure 3, his Figure 8.1). That’s some powerful science.
No one disagrees that CO2 has a fertilizer effect but that’s not what the CO2 debate is about. It’s about rising temperature and the negative effects that increased temperature would have on life, crop yields, water supply and sea level.
Incredibly, Epstein only talks about temperature in 10 of the 427 pages of text in Fossil Future.
For Exhibit B, he introduces a geological time scale showing temperature and CO2 levels (Figure 4, his Figure 9.2). He points out that CO2 is near historical low levels over geological time, and that the correlation between temperature and CO2 are not conclusive.
The first problem with the graph is its scale. The x-axis covers nearly 600 million years but human civilization is less than 5,000 years old so there is no detail for our history. In fact, the last increment on the x-axis covers more than 10,000 years.
Figure 5 from my research shows the last 10,000-year increment in Figure 4. It reveals a giant spike in CO2 concentrations beginning around 1800 when humans started using fossil fuels. Now that we know the truth, we can go back and see increases in both CO2 and temperature on the far lower right of Figure 4 that Epstein failed to mention. That’s a big problem for his case that more CO2 is not only good but necessary.
The second problem with his graph is the strong correlation of changes in global temperature and average atmospheric carbon from 1800 to the present (Figure 6). Nothing inconclusive there. Correlations of real-world data don’t get much better.
This relationship is well-known and dozens of versions of it are available with the simplest web search. The fact that Epstein does not show or explain this powerful counterpoint to his claim of “inconclusive correlation” is dishonest.
Climate Change is Mild
At this point, Alex Epstein invites us to join him on journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.
He tells us that
“Life on Earth thrived at far higher CO2 levels and temperatures in the past…Okay, dinosaurs could live back then–but could anything else?
“Yes, our evolutionary ancestors lived back then.Alex Epstein, Fossil Future
I would like him to explain exactly which of our human ancestors lived during the period of elevated CO2 and temperatures from 250 to 50 million years ago along with the dinosaurs.
It’s a popular trope among climate deniers that life was just fine for dinosaurs so there should be no problem for humans as climate change proceeds. There are rich and abundant species of plants and animals living under the sea so, by the same logic, rising sea level shouldn’t be a problem either.
The truth is that dinosaur biology gave them a had a vastly different tolerance to temperature and CO2 that humans do not have. There may have been as many as 20 million dinosaurs on earth at their peak during the Jurassic period about 60 million years ago. These animals were either solitary hunter-gatherers or lived in small herds.
There are now 8 billion humans living in a complexly connected civilization that relies on global supply chains to move goods and services all around the planet. Biological differences aside, the comparison is absurd.
But Epstein blasts right through this contradiction and tries to show that it is impossible for current CO2 concentrations to increase to levels at the time of the dinosaurs.
“There is no near-term mechanism of getting anywhere close to even historical CO2 levels–let alone far higher levels where life on Earth flourished for millions of years.”Alex Epstein, Fossil Future
He doesn’t understand that comparing the present and near-future for humans to conditions for now-extinct creatures in the deep geological past is simply irrelevant and does nothing to make his case.
For his climate-change finale, Epstein introduces Exhibit C. This is a predictive model that shows a series of sensitivity cases for the relationship between CO2 levels and degrees of warming (Figure 7, his Figure 9.3).
He does not explain the source of these curves. That is journalistically dishonest especially because this graph is the centerpiece of his argument that climate change is not a big deal.1
In addition, he ruthlessly disparaged predictive models in earlier parts of the book and does it again just a few pages after he uses an undocumented predictive model to argue his case.
For Epstein, the point of Figure 7 is that a doubling of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere only results in about a 1°C increase in global temperature.
According to him, that’s no big deal.
“From a human flourishing perspective, this is a mild effect.
“This is not an amount of warming that would be cause for concern–especially given that we haven’t doubled CO2 even once since 1850 and, even under extremely high emission scenarios, aren’t expected to until the second half of the century.”Alex Epstein, Fossil Future
The problem with Figure 7 is that it is inconsistent with the observed relationship between temperature and CO2 concentrations. Global temperature has increased +1.6° Celsius with only a +35% increase in CO2 concentration since 1900 (My research, Figure 8).
Temperature has increased 60% more than 1°C with only one-third of a doubling in CO2. This is history, not a model. Whoops.
The centerpiece of his entire thesis—“that the well-established greenhouse effect of CO2 should be no object of concern whatsoever”— just bombed in a big way.
Fossil Future Flames Out on Climate Change
I mostly agree with Epstein about the benefits of fossil fuels and the shortcomings of renewable energy. I disagree with him on almost everything he says about climate change.
But it’s not a matter of agreement or disagreement because there is simply no substance to his arguments about climate change.
Reading Fossil Future was a painful experience for me not because of Epstein’s positions but because the book is flawed and dishonest journalism. He never presents the views of people with alternative perspectives or viewpoints except to attack them as enemies of humanity.
Fossil Future is a ponderous manifesto of Alex Epstein’s grievances against the scientists who have delivered a message about climate change that no one likes to hear. It is an angry criticism of the institutions and policy makers who are now beginning to act on climate research. It is a futile attempt to change the overwhelming momentum of public policy away from energy sources that threaten human flourishing. It is desperate and impossible appeal to return to a better and seemingly less complicated time when fossil fuels were king. That, I suppose, is its appeal.
1I followed a nearby text footnote to a 1998 geophysics paper on radiative forcing that did not include this graph.
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