Bryan Caplan  

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: The Thesis

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When Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels arrived in my mailbox, I expected it to be bad.  For two reasons:

1. In my experience, readable books about climate change usually just demagogically preach to the choir.

2. I correctly surmised that Epstein was an Objectivist, and Objectivists' policy work has long struck me as dogmatic, simplistic, and warped by anger.

Once I actually started the book, though, my negative expectations swiftly faded away.  The more I read, the more Epstein's creation impressed me.  My final judgment: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels is the best book I've read all year, combining an important topic, thought-provoking evidence, and charming style.  The book has too much substance to cover in a single post, so I'm going to start by explaining the thesis, then explore his major contributions in followup posts.

Epstein's book has two key claims.  His first claim is descriptive: Laymen and experts alike greatly underestimate the benefits of fossil fuels and greatly overestimate their costs:
[T]he "experts" almost always focus on the risks of a technology but never the benefits-- and on top of that, those who predict the most risk get the most attention from the media and from politicians who want to "do something."

But there is little to no focus on the benefits of cheap, reliable energy from fossil fuels.

This is a failure to think big picture, to consider all the benefits and all the risks. And the benefits of cheap, reliable energy to power the machines that civilization runs on are enormous. They are just as fundamental to life as food, clothing, shelter, and medical care - indeed, all of these require cheap, reliable energy. By failing to consider the benefits of fossil fuel energy, the experts didn't anticipate the spectacular benefits that energy brought about in the last thirty years.
What spectacular benefits?  Rapid economic growth and reduction of absolute poverty in China and India, for starters.  But that only scratches the surface.
[W]hen we look at the data, a fascinating fact emerges: As we have used more fossil fuels, our resource situation, our environment situation, and our climate situation have been improving, too.
Won't global warming put an end to this bonanza?  Epstein deals with the issue in detail, but the quick version is:
Here's what we know. There is a greenhouse effect. It's logarithmic. The temperature has increased very mildly and leveled off completely in recent years. The climate-prediction models are failures, especially models based on CO2 as the major climate driver, reflecting a failed attempt to sufficiently comprehend and predict an enormously complex system. But many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists have deliberately tried to manipulate us into equating the greenhouse effect with the predictions of invalid computer models based on their demonstrably faulty understanding of how CO2 actually affects climate.
Epstein's second key claim is normative: Human well-being is the one fundamentally morally valuable thing.  Unspoiled nature is only great insofar as mankind enjoys it:
It is only thanks to cheap, plentiful, reliable energy that we live in an environment where the water we drink and the food we eat will not make us sick and where we can cope with the often hostile climate of Mother Nature. Energy is what we need to build sturdy homes, to purify water, to produce huge amounts of fresh food, to generate heat and air-conditioning, to irrigate deserts, to dry malaria-infested swamps, to build hospitals, and to manufacture pharmaceuticals, among many other things. And those of us who enjoy exploring the rest of nature should never forget that energy is what enables us to explore to our heart's content, which preindustrial people didn't have the time, wealth, energy, or technology to do.
Although Epstein doesn't really defend this moral claim, he probably doesn't need to.  Green slogans notwithstanding, almost all popular and/or academically prominent moral theories place heavy weight on human well-being.  And as Epstein keeps reminding us, energy is no frippery.  The people of the less-developed world - over a billion of whom still lack electricity - have an especially desperate need for cheap energy.  As long as Epstein's descriptive claims are correct, there should be an "overlapping consensus" for fossil fuels.  You could even call fossil fuels the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to power the world.

P.S. To repeat, for now I'm only stating Epstein's thesis.  If you want his key arguments and evidence, wait for followup posts.  Or jump the queue and buy the book.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Tom West writes:

While cheap, portable energy is not given its verbal due with respect to human happiness, it's completely clear from our actual actions that we fully understand and have internalized Epstein's message.

*No* society is in danger of turning its back on fossil fuels. Should one start, they will inevitably be forced back by an unhappy population. Thus I think a book like this is largely unnecessary.

What various environmental alarms do, however, is provide incentives to look at alternatives long before simple economics force us to do so.

Humans by nature are boom/bust creatures, and just as most companies perish when the technology changes because they cannot embrace change until it is too late, so most countries will not seriously approach energy source change (when it finally becomes eventually necessary) until it is already too late for them.

Environmentalism provides an incentive to do at least some preparation for a change that we would not otherwise contemplate because it's easier to assume that everything goes on forever.

However, let's not pretend that Environmentalism is in danger of making any of the deep social changes that would be necessary to truly change our dependence on fossil fuels or affect global warming.

michael pettengill writes:
It is only thanks to cheap, plentiful, reliable energy that we live in an environment where the water we drink ...

So, "cheap" coal power is needed to run water purifiers to remove the pollution in the drinking water that was naturally pure until the coal industry polluted it?

The hundreds of thousands of households forced to use bottled water in West Virginia, we victims of the "cheap coal power" effort where a coal industry supplier bought a chemical supplier that was going to go bankrupt if it replaced its rusty tanks, and then operated using the rusty tanks to save the cost of buying capital assets that would not leak. Then when the tanks leaked enough to create noticeable pollution, he declared bankruptcy, formed a new company, got court approval to sell the customer contracts to his new company, while forcing a redistribution of wealth from the government and hundreds of thousands of water users using Federal technocrats called bankruptcy judges to eliminate all the money he owed them.

Duke energy has long known its ash ponds are hazards that are or will pollute the water, but it is effectively abandoning them as it abandons coal because natural gas is cheaper. Having failed to charge enough over the past fifty years to dispose of the coal ash properly, Duke is unable to deal with it today and keep its electric rates competitive.

Is the moral case for coal that future generations must purify their water so their grandparents and before had cheap electricity from coal?

If coal is so much cheaper than all the alternatives, then coal electric would have easily operated with the least possible pollution. Instead, it operates with increasing levels of pollution as the coal plants that are either completely end of life, or that are more expensive than alternatives are shutdown, leaving only the coal power plants that need to be polluting to compete.

New technology is cheaper in places like Africa that coal electric power. Coal power there like in the US would need huge capital investment starting with rail roads, then the power grid. Micropower is far less capital intensive and requires no central planning. Can't build a viable railroad without planning that coordinates many customers, so the private railroad planner would need to coordinate lots of separate types of investment. A coal mine and railroad and coal power plant without a grid will go bankrupt.

But with 5000+ years of recorded history, I think it makes sense to think in terms of thousands of years. But at least think of the US at 500 years, in 2397. Is coal the means of getting to 2397? (FDR spoke in his 1937 inaugural of the 150th anniversary of the United States as he called for future action,but he could speak only because of others who looked centuries into the future.)

Iron ore reduced to steel, and other metals reduced, leave behind 90-95% of the original metal worth far more than iron ore needed to replace it, so mining and recycling does not require exponential mining to keep the economy growing. But coal and the other fossil fuels is once through and then wait a hundred million years. Fossil fuels as the foundation of a growing economy requires mining more of it every year to be destroyed.

Iron ore is a capital asset that is increased in value producing steel which has even greater value, and even after it has been used in good for a year of a century, it still have more value than the original ore.

The fossil fuel industry takes a capital asset and destroys it virtually forever in 90% of the cases. It could be used in plastics or oils over spans of decades and centuries, not as long as metals, but very much longer than burning them.

Fossil fuels are useful when you have labor shortages and can't afford the time to build energy harvesting capital assets. The supply of energy from harvesting the sun and earth is far greater that all uses if you have the labor to build the capital assets.

In the modern economy, burning fossil fuels is done to increase unemployment. Burning fossil with pollution is done to increase unemployment. The complaint about the clean air and water acts is that it requires too many jobs be created to build the capital assets to burn coal cleanly, too many jobs to restore mountains back to scenic forests after mountain top removal, etc.


Burning coal is not capitalism, but instead like pillage and plunder.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Actually, my understanding is that water near civilization has been bad for millenia because of poor separation of fresh water from sewage. Long before coal became common.

I am no expert on the historical use of coal, but I suspect that the use of coal in past centuries improved people lives much more than it harmed them. In the modern age, we have lots of cleaner substitutes for coal, so maybe that is no longer the case. But using dirty coal is a whole lot better then freezing and needing animal and human muscle for all industrial processes.

Ray Lopez writes:

I used to troll as a AGW-skeptic, and know all the anti-AGW arguments. It's true that the effects of AGW are unknown and probably small, but the one argument that's hard to deny is the Precautionary Principle. Until they invent cheap, fusion or solar powered "CO2 getters" (and they do exist in the lab) to suck CO2 out of the air, or until CO2 sequesterization is technically foolproof (probably deep-sea storage is best), or until geoengineering using plankton to get CO2 out of the atmosphere is doable, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere is irreversible and can trigger a possible "Venus effect" of runaway GW. It's plausible, not likely. And it's the same reason I support and fund the NGO "B612" (

Nuff said. As I say, "logically" AGW simply means we don't know how hot earth will get, probably it will be logarithmic and small, and only some polar fauna and flora will die. But the Precautionary Principle still looms. A tax on energy would go a long way towards preventing needless energy waste, especially in the USA. And a high energy cost would encourage fusion research, as well as the "CO2 getter" technology I mention above. Don't fall into the Saudi trap of cheap oil. That's backwards looking.

Seo Sanghyeon writes:
Here's what we know. (snip) The temperature has increased very mildly and leveled off completely in recent years.

This is a surprising claim, which I don't think is supported by data. Temperature paused increasing from 1940 to 1970 (usually attributed to aerosols) but there is no slowdown in increase since 1970 yet. It is of course possible that slowdown already started, but even if that is the case you can't detect it yet, separate from short term variability.

Christopher Chang writes:

Er. What happens when the fossil fuels have mostly run out? Isn't that the biggest moral issue by far?

Ben writes:

"There is a greenhouse effect. It's logarithmic." "The climate-prediction models are failures." So in other words, Epstein trots out the same old denialist tropes that practically nobody actually involved in climate research believes, that reams of scientific evidence disproves, and bases his whole argument on that.

Oh, not his whole argument. "Human well-being is the one fundamentally morally valuable thing." I find it terribly sad that some people are so selfish, so anthropocentric, and so morally blinkered that they can't see any intrinsic value to anything besides humans. (But even if one accepts Epstein's premise here, the implications are really quite weak, since humanity depends so strongly on the ecosystem services provided by nature.)

And then there is this claim: "But there is little to no focus on the benefits of cheap, reliable energy from fossil fuels." That is quite frankly idiotic. Environmentalists are well aware of all the benefits of fossil fuels. Modern civilization was built on them, and quite possibly the industrial revolution could never have happened without them. That's why there is so much focus on trying to get some less-damaging energy source, such as solar or (my favorite) nuclear, to be price-competitive with fossil fuels. That is why so much research is being done to try to find a way of powering personal transportation that is competitive with the energy density of gasoline. And that is why the environmental movement focuses so much on fighting the money and the propaganda of the oil and gas industry. It is precisely because fossil fuels confer such great benefits that they will be so difficult to shift off of. That is the problem that the rest of the world is worrying about, while the denialists have their heads buried in the sand.

Really, Bryan? This is the best book you've read all year? Well, may 2015 provide you with better books, then.

Pajser writes:

What Ray Lopez said. It is not wise or moral to ignore possible planetary catastrophe to get few more decades of faster wealth grow. Also, all possible uses of fossil fuels cannot be lumped together. Electrifying poor country could be justified, but driving Mercedes is immoral.

Greg White writes:

Christopher, we will never (mostly) run out of fossil fuels, they will just price themselves out of the market as they get more and more expensive.

It's clear that coal is king and will be for a very long time (because we have lots of it and it's cheap). This fact makes any argument about global warming moot. But the actual (Non CO2) pollution from coal is real and a real reason to shift to cleaner technologies. It's already happening with natural gas and again only because it's become cheaper than coal.

Cheaper and cleaner than coal is the key. Wind and solar have a few isolated locations without baseload infrastructure like Africa, but for all other locations molten salt reactors are the answer. (Maybe fusion but that's a longshot)

So I would think a tax on real polluting energy sources to help shift to natural gas with the tax dollars spent on MSR technology. The NRC would have to be missioned to facilitate these reactors instead of roadblocking new technology as they do now.

Ilene Skeen writes:

It is disappointing to see negative comments on fossil fuels on this thread. Writers have obviously not bothered to read Epstein's book, as it contains factual refutations of all their standard shibboleths and much new.

If you find yourself discouraged by those comments into thinking you will get nothing fresh and vital from Epstein, you are mistaken. Epstein's book is a blast of fresh air and clear thinking.

If for you, however, fossil fuels equate to the Devil, and Green is your religion, you will probably have to read The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels with your eyes closed.

Christopher Chang writes:

Greg, that's why I wrote "mostly run out", rather than plain "run out".

I accept that (barring unexpected advances in life extension) fossil fuels will continue delivering the goods for the rest of our lives. But it's not a long-term solution for humanity. Solar power, and safe forms of nuclear power, have far better scaling.

Tom writes:

As a society, we had to evolve. We couldn't just start out using the latest technologies. We are progressively getting smarter about our use of energy and fossil fuels were a huge and necessary step because we could finally scale widespread energy use. That allowed us to advance to a place where we can do better. We couldn't have gotten there straight from burning wood. But we will take the next step soon, it will be driven by economics, not politics, and it will be better than what we have now.

ThomasH writes:

The argument about the value of fossil fuels seems to be a non-marginal one. Agreed that from the beginning of time until now (or until not many years ago) the accumulated benefits from consumption of fossil fuels (inexpensive energy) has been greater than costs of the accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere, but the issue is what about from now on? Does this book have anything new and interesting to say about the idea of levying a Pigou tax on the externality of emitting CO2 into the atmosphere?

Peter writes:

Pre-industrial clean water is a myth. Not only were water treatment facilities non-existent, but the parasites and microbes were not even known. The science was made possible by fossil fuel technology freeing up people not to have to subsistence farm. The subsequent engineering to clean the water *from "natural" bugs* was also made possible by fossil fuel technology.

Property rights (which are often poorly enforced via government special favors to businesses) solves cases of trespass and provable harms from pollution.

The climate has gotten safer. The water and air have gotten cleaner. More fossil fuels have been produced (yes, produced) and production rates are a mere fraction of usage rates. Humans are net producers not consumers *if left free.*

Peter writes:

EDIT: I meant to say consumption rates are a mere fraction of production rates as seen in the graphs in the link (all of which are in Epstein's book).

stargirl writes:

The argument for fossil fuels seems pretty simple to me. There is more than enough fossil fuels to last humanity a long time. Probably at least 100 years assuming normal economic growth. Alternative energy technologies are already becoming promising. I would be socked if solar wasn't competitive with oil/coal in 70 years. And there are many other promising avenues besides solar (Though I think solar is the best bet right now).

If we assume alternative energies will be about as cheap (or cheaper) than fossil in 70ish years then cutting our fossil fuel consumption now would be a tragedy. We will damage or destroy the lives of billions of people for no gain.

Michael writes:

The precautionary principle is an incoherent principle akin to pascal's wager and with similar epistemological flights of fancy. Pascal's wager in scientific drag.

philemon writes:

@Seo Sanghyeon

The official data says so.

See Select Annual for timescale, Global for latitude band, and land and ocean (or play around with different possibilities). Most of the temp increase occurred from around 1980 to just short of 2000. After which no clear trend (i.e., mostly flat) is registered. Depending on how you count it, there is thus at least one and a half decade where there hasn't been the same level of temp increase (if any at all). (You can also see it from the data at; look under "AnnMean").

In the meantime, CO2 increase has not slowed down at all. See it for yourself at (select interactive plot).

Brian writes:

I am surprised to see on this blog the large number of anti-fossil fuel posters. I consider the case for the net benefit of fossil fuels to be so obvious that it doesn't even need arguing. It's hard to imagine a more easily transportable, safe, and high-density energy source. And consider that it's much cleaner and efficient than the original RENEWABLE energy source, wood burning. Would people prefer to breathe soot from wood fires and walk in horse manure? That's really the previous option. Anyone who doesn't see the obviousness of the case is blinded by ideology.

With regard to climate change and CAGW specifically, while it's true that we are having an effect, there's no reason to assume that the effect is negative. There is no chance of having a runaway greenhouse effect like Venus. Sorry Ray Lopez, it's not even physically possible, much less plausible. Even the IPCC agrees that global warming of less than 2 C provides a likely net economic gain, so we have reason to prefer even more CO2 in the atmosphere. It's unclear how much CO2 is needed to exceed 2 C of warming (that's the main uncertainty in climate science right now, as admitted by the IPCC), but it may not even be reached in equilibrium with a doubling of CO2 to 560 ppm. AGW may end up being the problem that never was, and CAGW is likely a finely crafted delusion.

Daublin writes:

Tom West: interesting comment, and I wish it were true. Look at the other comments below yours, though. Much of the general public really hasn't thought about the deep importance of cheap energy to modern society.

Ray and Pajser: the Precationary Principle also applies to CO2 controls, doesn't it? If we ever enact real CO2 controls, then it would put modern industry at great risk of collapsing.

Bryan: great point to emphasize. It's one of those things that is clearly true once you think about it, and yet a lot of people seem to have never thought about. Modern life needs modern industry, and modern industry needs cheap energy.

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