Discussing Fossil Future with students from the John Locke Institute
My answers to pre-college students’ most burning questions about energy, climate, and environment
On April 11, 2023 I had a Zoom Q&A with 7 pre-college students from the John Locke Institute’s gap year program in Washington D.C., directed by Martin Cox. Prior to the discussion, I assigned the students to read a summary and the first 1-3 chapters of my book, Fossil Future.
It was very interesting to get questions about energy, climate, and environment that were most on the minds of these intelligent pre-college students. I hope you find it interesting to see how these students think about energy issues, and how I respond to their questions and objections.
Highlights include: what’s wrong with the mainstream “knowledge system,” what it means to evaluate energy issues according to a pro-human as opposed to an anti-human standard, how to think about calls for a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, and how to think about energy and climate challenges in the developing world.
Here’s a video of the event, followed by a complete transcript, edited only for clarity (including avoided repetition):
One of the things I’m hoping for with the book is that it gives people a framework for understanding various kinds of so-called “expert” things. And one of the points I make in Fossil Future is we absolutely need expert knowledge, particularly knowledge coming from or derived from the best research—but it’s very common for that fact to get abused. And then people end up promoting agendas that don’t really make a lot of sense, but they’re claiming the support of expertise.
And so, one thing I thought is useful, I mean I think this can apply to a lot of things, but I just thought I’d bring up two examples that might be useful. Did any of you see the recent AI letter that was put out by Elon Musk and some others? Well, this is an interesting thing. So you’ve probably heard of ChatGPT, right, and this phenomenon of these chat apps that can do really, really impressive things, that can do better than students on tests and stuff like this.
And Elon Musk and a bunch of other people put out an open letter that basically said, “Let’s stop any further progress in this area.” That’s a little bit of a simplification, but it was basically that. And I think one of the striking things about it, from the perspective of if you read Fossil Future, is it really made no mention of the benefits that would be lost. So basically we have this big thing that’s dramatically, let’s say augmenting—I think is a better word than artificial—augmenting human intelligence. If you read any of the speculation about it, this can dramatically improve things like medical diagnosis. You can imagine AI chatbots being really good therapists and helping people with mental health virtually for free. There are at least enormous, enormous potential benefits of it. And this entire document did not grapple with those benefits at all. There was only a focus on the downsides or the negatives.
So I think it’s useful to see because whenever you see that somebody is ignoring the benefits or dismissing the benefits of something, there should be something suspicious about their methodology. And then also I think that there’s a good chance that they’re not being objective about the side effects as well. And an analogy I have is you can imagine somebody who, let’s say, his mother-in-law has given him $1 million and really supported them, and all he ever says is negative things about his mother-in-law like, “She’s nagging and she’s annoying,” and stuff, but he never mentions the $1 million. He’s probably exaggerating about the negatives because it seems like he has a bias. And I think you see this a lot.
And just one other example which I can just indicate, which is more in my field, a few weeks ago, one of the main news stories was something called the Synthesis Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is basically the final synthesis of what’s called Assessment Report Six, so this is all the best knowledge synthesized together, supposedly. And it’s worth looking at, particularly if you want to see a contrast to my views. They have a 36-page summary I think it is. And it was just very striking when I read through it, there were literally no mentions of the benefits of fossil fuels, including no mentions of what I call climate mastery— our ability to neutralize climate danger—and no mention of the dramatic decline in climate related disaster deaths.
So it’s not that they engaged these claims and refuted them, they just didn’t engage them. And so instead they just created a narrative where fossil fuels are all negative, we need to get off them really quickly, that’s what the science says. And I think something like Fossil Future would be helpful. Well, I’ve sort of summarized it, I might go into some more, but I’m really interested in—since we only have a limited amount of time—any questions that people have or any comments you want me to respond to, or arguments you want me to respond to. Because you’ve read a third of the book and that’s the third of the book that’s really focused on how I think we should think about the issue, and then how I think most people thinking about the issue are wrong. So I think there’s a lot to talk about there, but then feel free to ask about any of the factual claims and later analysis of the book as well.
So I was just wondering why you think that benefits are so often ignored? I mean reading your book, you talk about the way that information is disseminated and how that can sometimes skew things somewhat, but I was wondering where you thought that the sort of root of—I mean to an extent maybe in the way that your book puts it, you didn’t actually use this word at all, but almost like the sort of fear-mongering, the refusal to acknowledge anything else—where you thought that began and why?
In chapter three, I try to analyze this. So I’m curious what you think of that explanation because I can add additional things.
I must admit I haven’t actually got right to the end. I’m going to be totally honest. I haven’t quite got to the end, so I apologize.
Oh, that’s fine, no problem. I’m happy to talk about it.
Yeah, so I’m sorry, if you could just—
No problem at all. So yeah, I think that in general—and in particular I would isolate the phenomenon, which I do in the book as well—I think that it’s really when people who should know better are ignoring or denying the benefits of things because if you’re just taking the general population, they just don’t think about it. And it’s really striking the extent to which this can be the case. I mean I’m struck myself by how unaware I was before I started this, of just the magnitude of benefits of fossil fuels, how little I thought of them myself. And I mean I grew up in kind of a left political environment in Chevy Chase, Maryland, but by the time I was certainly 18 and stuff, I was kind of a very free market libertarian-ish type. So it’s not like I politically was attached to being against fossil fuels, but nevertheless I just didn’t think about it.
And then I’ve talked to so many really, really smart people, including people in digital technology, like impressive executives. And insofar as they’ve found my work persuasive, one thing they say is, “I just never thought about the benefits.” And I think it’s just because when you’re not in the field, it’s so easy to absorb just bad thinking unless you’re really conscious about it. But that doesn’t explain at all the leading thinkers, what I call the designated experts, because they have been exposed to it. Some of them have actually debated me on a stage, and we’ve talked about this.
So in that case, I think when somebody is ignoring huge benefits, I think there can be three things that are going on. One is that there really is an equivalent or superior replacement. So there really is a way to just immediately get rid of fossil fuels, and so then it’s not really a benefit. And I try to argue—I think I even talk about this in chapter one—it’s not really plausible because if that were the case, you would really be effusive about the benefits and say, “Yeah, it seems really implausible they could be replaced given that all the attempts have been failing and causing additional problems, but I have this magic solution.” But it’s almost never that they acknowledge this huge burden of proof and try to meet it. It’s just not paying attention.
So I think the normal things when you see this are assumptions-based and values-based. So assumptions-based is: often you have an assumption about the world that causes you to think that whatever benefits something has, the negatives are going to be the end of the world. So you don’t really care about the benefits. And so AI would be an example of this where I could say, “Okay, well look, this could vastly reduce disease and premature death and improve diagnosis.” And they’re like, “Who the hell cares about that? An AI consciousness is going to take over the world and enslave the human race, so who cares about any benefits in the context of that?” So it’s like if you believe in an apocalyptic side effect or an apocalyptic consequence, the benefits won’t be that big a deal. And I think with people who believe in climate catastrophe, climate apocalypse, it can have that quality like, “Oh yeah, it seems okay now, but the world is going to end. So how can we care about anything else?”
But then this raises—as I pointed out in chapter two—we don’t seem to be heading toward apocalypse because we’re changing the climate in certain ways but the danger of the climate has gone way down because we’re so much better at mastering climate, and that ability is far more significant, it turns out, than any changes to climate. Just like in the U.S., we deal with every climate imaginable, like polar Alaska and swampy Florida, and we’re fine. And you notice that the people claiming this, what’s really revealing is that they’re not just claiming it in the future. They’re claiming the climate is terrible today, it’s really bad today, we’ve ruined the Earth today.
And so at this point it’s a values issue. So the first one was an assumptions issue—you have a certain set of assumptions about the world that cause you to predict catastrophe. And I should have mentioned, it’s this idea of the “delicate Earth,” so the idea that the Earth is this fragile thing, that our impact is inevitably going to ruin it. I talk about this a lot in chapter three. With the values though—and I argue this at length in chapter three—I think it’s that the people who think that the climate is terrible today or the Earth is terrible today are judging the Earth by a different metric or standard than I am.
So I’m measuring the Earth by the standard of human flourishing, which means: how good is the Earth for human beings? Which doesn’t mean I’m antagonistic to the rest of nature—far from it—but it’s like, I want to kill malarial mosquitoes when they’re around, so I’m antagonistic to the ones that are bad for human beings. I want to give my dog an artificial chance of survival, so I’m overly protagonistic toward him. Polar bears, I love, they’re beautiful, but I want them sectioned off. So it’s a perspective of: I’m looking at the Earth and I want it to be the most livable place for humans, and I’m evaluating everything else in that context. Whereas, that’s clearly not the case if somebody thinks today’s Earth is terrible because by so many metrics, including climate danger, it’s safer, it’s better. So I think there, their real standard is the unimpacted Earth, the idea that we shouldn’t impact Earth, and the more we impact it, the more immoral it is. And even if it’s better for us, it’s bad and we shouldn’t have impacted.
And I think that’s going on with a lot of the leaders. I put it: their goal is eliminating human impact on Earth, and my goal is advancing human flourishing on Earth. It’s a disconnect in value. So whenever you see somebody denying benefits, it’s often they have different assumptions than you do, and they often have a different standard and goal than you do. So that’s what I think is going on here for the experts—not for the average person so much.
Other questions? Oh, okay, we got Grace Y.
Hi. To add on from your initial point about how research in the IPCC synthesis is very one-sided, I think one of the reasons might be political because every kind of political actors in the world rely on this IPCC report in order to assert policies. I think this is why the dissemination, the evaluation of actions, have now become not the truth, as you would say.
And also, I have two questions. The first one is: I’ve read the book and I don’t understand the word “anti-human” standard of evaluation. And second question is that as you mentioned in the first chapter about how fossil fuels increase life expectancy and income from cost-efficient energy usages, and you value human flourishing, how about the minorities who are living at a lower standard and are actually suffering from the costs of all the fossil fuels that are only benefiting those who are the majorities? Thank you.
Okay, great. Okay, I’m going to try to answer all of it, but tell me if I forget one part because there are a couple of components there. Okay. So I think the first question was—and did you say you had read the whole book or you just read the portion that I sent?
Just the portion.
Okay, got you, just wanted to make sure because the second question I talk about a lot later. But yeah, so anti-human standard evaluation. So the idea of a standard of evaluation in general is just: how are you measuring good and bad? So I gave the example with climate. If you’re looking at the state of climate on Earth, how do you measure it as good or bad? And I think that the dominant way, unfortunately, in my view of measuring it is that it’s measured as bad in proportion to how much we’ve impacted it. So a more impacted climate is viewed as bad and a less impacted climate is viewed as good. And you can see this in almost all the political goals today where everyone has a “net-zero” goal or a “carbon-neutral” goal. And notice the goal is all about eliminating our impact. It’s not saying we want the most livable climate for people, which would be a much better goal because then that would incorporate any negatives of impacting climate, but also any positives of impacting climate, and then also any positives of the energy that comes with the CO2.
But the whole focus is on eliminating our impact. And as I said, people tend to view today’s climate as worse than ever, and I think that’s only because they’re on this standard of no impact. Whereas my standard is human flourishing, so I think of climate as better than ever because whatever negatives we’ve had on it—I think there’ve also been some positives, I talk about this in chapters eight and nine—but the main thing is whatever impact we’ve had on it directly, our ability to master it that comes with all this energy is incredibly positive. So you just ask anyone, “Would you rather live in the climate 150 years ago when it was much more ’natural’, or today?”, any normal person would say, “I’d absolutely live today. I’d absolutely prefer today,” because it used to be just devastating. And now we have the ability to master it. It doesn’t matter too much the kinds of changes we’re talking about compared to: do you have the ability to master it?
And so then this is an aspect actually of your second question, which is sort of, certain people benefit from fossil fuels and certain don’t. The way I would think of it is: wealthy people benefit more from fossil fuels, but poor people have benefited tremendously and to benefit more, they need more freedom and more fossil fuels. So you take something like life expectancy. The global life expectancy has gone up very dramatically, but it’s gone up very dramatically in poor parts of the world as well, even where they haven’t significantly improved their government or productivity and stuff. And a lot of it is because of the developments of the fossil-fueled wealthy worlds. You just look at things like medical care and how much better that is, or different projects that we’re able to do to give access to clean water. Or one huge one is drought relief. Just when there’s a country that isn’t very sophisticated agriculturally and they have a drought which used to wipe out lots and lots of people, now they can get relief because there’s aid.
So there’s huge... I mean it’s reflected in I’d say life expectancy, so there are huge benefits that are coming from the wealthy world, but nevertheless, I don’t consider it an okay situation. But the main thing is the lack of freedom in general and the lack of energy in particular in these places. And so yeah, I mean when you’re poor, everything is worse. So one thing people say is, “Oh, well, they’re poor, so they’re more vulnerable to climate change.” This is a big focus in this UN report that I mentioned. But it’s like, “Well, if you’re poor, you’re more vulnerable to everything.” That’s the nature of it, you have less capability, fewer resources. And so the solution is to get rich. But instead this solution being proposed is, “Well, let’s do things that make everyone poor, including making it harder for the rich world to help the poor world, by depriving everyone of the most cost-effective form of energy.” That’s not going to work.
So there’s a very big danger—it’s another form of ignoring the benefits and just focusing on negative side effects—that specifically occurs to poor people where they’re being used, in effect, because it’s saying, “Hey, look, here are these poor people who are suffering some consequence disproportionately. Let’s stop using fossil fuels.” But it’s ignored, “Wait, they’re also experiencing a disproportionate benefit from our use and their use of fossil fuels, and they need to use far more, and then they would be rich.” So I think the solution is make everyone rich, but I think that kind of argument is a way of manipulating people to do things that will make everyone poor and won’t help poor people, because it’s another form of the benefit ignoring.
But don’t you think there’s already kind of the concept about climate adaptation that is going with mitigation? Would you suggest that there should be less divestment from fossil fuels, but just continue doing the adaptation, but increase that sector more than mitigation?
Well, it’s not exactly the... Well, yeah, I mean the poor world should not be focusing at all on mitigation. But even adaptation, even the thinking of it... It can be hard to get out of the way that it’s thought of because the way this issue is thought of is totally side-effect-focused in the first place in I think a very problematic way. So the whole thing, the whole issue is talked about as climate, the issue is climate. What do we do about climate? Do we adapt to climate change or do we mitigate climate change?
But from my perspective, climate change or more accurately climate impact, is the side effect of our energy use, mostly our fossil fuel use. And so we need to think about it in that context. And if you think about the problems in the poor world, the problem is overwhelmingly lack of energy, not climate change. And from the perspective of climate, it’s a lack of climate mastery. So it’s not the difficulty adapting to one degree of warming over 100-plus years, one degree Celsius that is, and what the problems are there. The problem is the inability to truly live on Earth because they don’t have modern societies including modern energy.
So I am trying to break out of this frame of looking at everything from the perspective of the problem is that we’re impacting climate and the goal is to not do it. And then okay, do we mitigate, do we adapt, or what’s... It’s like, no, the goal is for humans to flourish on Earth, energy is the most important thing to that—physically at least, I mean I think freedom is more fundamental—and then climate is a pretty trivial issue compared to energy. So that’s my perspective on it.
Okay. We have... Tejas?
Yeah, no, thank you. I really enjoyed reading your work and it was interesting to hear a different perspective and see the positives of fossil fuels. But I guess my main question was: I agree with you that developing countries need to use more fossil fuels because at the moment they’re just using cow dung and their consumption is so low in comparison to an American refrigerator. But should developed countries not have some sort of, not duty, but a role to move towards cleaner energy? Like should developed countries be using more fossil fuels as well, or is it just the developing world?
Yeah, really interesting question. By the way, I want to just make sure I tell everyone. So I had you read the first three chapters. The first three chapters are really explaining what I think is going wrong with the current system and why a new analysis is needed, and then the rest of the book is my analysis. So if you’re interested in that, fortunately you can actually—I mean I’m guessing the Locke people would give it to you—but you can actually get a free copy. Just go to FossilFuture.com, any student or educator can get a free copy. It’s provided by Young America’s Foundation, but there’s a link at that website, FossilFuture.com. So I’m of course going to answer your question, but if it’s intriguing, then see the whole thing.
So in terms of what the developed world should do, I’ll get you my conclusion, which comes in chapter 10, is I think that we should have a policy of energy freedom without government—and I emphasize government—without government restrictions on CO2 emissions. So energy freedom means that every form of energy is free to compete and you have reasonable laws against pollution. I do not consider CO2 pollution at this stage, which I could go into, but things like air pollution, water pollution, etc. So that’s my belief, and so I think that in some cases that will lead to wealthier countries using more fossil fuel. In other cases, it will lead to other alternatives developing. And I’m a big advocate, for example—I talk about this in chapter 10—of what I call decriminalizing nuclear energy. So I think that if we can have a radically better nuclear policy, then nuclear can compete with, and ultimately in various applications, out-compete fossil fuels. Or even hydro is an example where it’s a great technology that gets suppressed a lot by anti-development people. In the right circumstances, I think that can proliferate significantly. Not enough to replace fossil fuels, but it can still be a significant thing.
I talk about geothermal, but particularly what’s called deep geothermal, so geothermal today works really well in Iceland, but Iceland is very unique in terms of its resources there. But if you could go much deeper for geothermal, there’s the potential to use it in a lot more places. So I mean my goal is to have as much energy as possible as quickly as possible, and a crucial part of that is the development of cost-effective alternatives.
So I think under the ideal policy, overall the world would for sure use more fossil fuel over the next few decades. And some parts of the wealthy world would, and some parts probably wouldn’t or would focus on alternatives. I even think that there are likely cost-effective ways to use solar and wind. I think the key to that policy-wise is: we have what are called electricity markets, and insofar as we have those, I believe people using solar and wind need to be held to the same reliability standards as everyone else. Right now, you get to sell unreliable electricity and have no penalty, and you actually get a premium, which I think is totally wrong. But I’m totally open to if generators can combine solar and wind and batteries and gas, and they can make their own black box of reliability, that’s good if they can compete. And I think in a place like California, it’s plausible, it would work, or Dubai, and certainly these kinds of places.
So I’m in favor of energy freedom, and I think that an aspect of that is that is actually the only way to actually reduce emissions long term as well. So I’m not in favor of restrictions on emissions, but the only practical way to reduce emissions is to have truly cost competitive alternatives. Otherwise, what you’re going to have happen is what we see now, which is we are making a bunch of sacrifices in the U.S. and making our energy more expensive, and I would argue less reliable. But China has more coal capacity in the process, which is all designed to last 40 years or more, than we have in the entire United States. And they should. I mean they should, given that it’s the most cost-effective thing.
So I believe the only moral policy—and actually the only practical policy in terms of reducing CO2 long term that people will actually do because people don’t want to die—is liberating the cost-effective alternatives as soon as possible. And the key to that is really sort of making the green movement much less influential because they’re anti-development in their policies. And in general, when you have these anti-development policies, it always favors the establishment, including fossil fuels, and it disfavors the newcomers. I think nuclear, if it had emerged 20 or 30 years earlier when the green movement wasn’t that big, I think it would be much more dominant in the world today. So a lot of my activism is trying to get the political policies necessary for every alternative to be able to compete.
Sure. Did we have another... I think we had... Oh, Aidan, there we go.
Hi. You mentioned that your goal is to help humans flourish, but how are you going to help humans flourish when a lot of these policies will end up putting the lives of billions of people at threat? If fossil fuels continue to expand and grow, people in Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, all the populations that live near coastlines or live on islands, they’ll be at risk of basically being flooded. And then if they don’t die, they’ll be displaced, but the world cannot handle that much population displacement. How will you address that? Because that’s far more likely to happen if fossil fuels expand.
I’m curious—it’s a very confident question, so I’m curious where you have your confidence that there’s going to be a rate of sea level rise that’s going to be that dramatic where Japan has trouble—
Well, I mean it’s just like, if you just look it up. I don’t know, I can do some Google searches, but a lot of studies show that the coastline is shown to be shrinking at a high rate. I mean—
Okay, I’m just curious. I’ll give you my answer, but did you read the chapters of the book?
I read the beginning part where you talk about synthesis and then a bit of the summary.
Okay. Well, what did you think of the sea level parts of the summary? Because the summary addressed sea level rise.
Sorry, do you have a view on that?
Aidan, you going to answer the question?
Oh, that’s on me then.
Okay. No, I mean I’m happy to talk about it. So one of the reasons why—and I realize this all came together at the last minute—but one of the things that I’m trying to do in the first part of the book is break the, I would say, inordinate confidence people have in what they’re told is the expert position. I always emphasize what they’re told is the expert position. And so I go to a lot of lengths to show that there’s something very, very wrong with the system that is giving you certain kinds of conclusions like, “Oh my gosh, everything is at risk,” and stuff. And both from the perspective of it’s clearly denying these huge, huge benefits including this whole phenomenon of climate mastery, and then also that there’s at least a historical tendency to what I call catastrophize the side effects, because a part of that is to make people open to... And then I try to explain what’s going on there in terms of the assumptions and the values behind that. And part of it’s to make people open to a new analysis because otherwise why would you be, but then also to have a certain kind of questioning of, “Oh, when you look something up on Google, that might not be accurate.” And in particular, Google, if you look at their practices, are just totally locked into the UN. I mean the UN has publicly bragged like, “We control at least YouTube,” which is an aspect of Google.
So whenever you’re thinking about something like the sea level rise in the framework that I’m using—and I mentioned this at the end of chapter three—whenever you’re thinking about anything with emissions, there are three things that need to be factored in. One is that the CO2 emissions, the impacts of the emissions themselves, you need to look at in an even-handed and precise way, so you need to be open to negatives and positives. And then you need to be precise in terms of how significant is this? And sea level is one area where people are incredibly imprecise. Like Al Gore’s movie portrays sea level rises 20 feet imminently in a few decades, and that’s not at all what the science is. Right now, I’m curious, Aidan, do you know what the current rate of sea level rise is in the world?
I don’t think it’s 20, I think it’s around five or 10.
Five or 10 what? Feet?
No, like the M, that stat.
Okay. So the actual rate of... I’m just curious, does anyone here know what the rate of sea level rise is?
Hang on, let’s get Aidan to guess. Because Al Gore said 20 feet I think?
Well, in a few decades. Yeah.
And Aidan said five or 10, but—
Like half of what Al Gore said is essentially what my prediction is.
So 10 feet?
Okay. Does anyone know what the current rate is? Oscar, or I don’t know if you’re Oscar. Sorry, what’s your name?
I’m Axel. It’s three feet per 100 years, right? That’s like the most extreme prediction from the UN?
Well, yeah, that’s not the current, so that’s the extreme prediction, but yes. Yeah. So the extreme predictions are... Yeah, so currently it’s one foot a century, so one foot per 100 years, and then extreme predictions are three feet per century.
Sorry, one foot like an average, or on the more conservative side of estimates?
No, no. If you just look at... I mean you can just do it per decade, but it’s like it’s about an inch... I mean, it’s not quite an inch per decade, but it’s about an inch per—
But that’s how much it has changed?
Yeah, that’s its current rate.
But then the idea is, “Oh, it’ll get faster as temperatures rise.” And so there’s obviously going to be, insofar as we have a warming impact, which I do believe we do, I mean it’s going to have an effect. It’ll expand the water in the ocean, and then insofar as there’s ice on land masses, it’ll melt off. If it’s just ice in the water, like on top of the water in the Arctic, it doesn’t really make a difference. But if Antarctica at some point melted, that would be a huge thing. But we’re very, very far from that. So I think we need to be precise with these effects, and we need to be aware that the system that we rely on tends to be very sloppy in the direction of exaggeration.
And then at the same time, we need to be aware of: what about our ability to master these things? And so I think a stat that’s really powerful in this regard is we have 100 million people living below high tide sea level today, including people thriving in the Netherlands many feet below sea level. So we have different ways of dealing with sea level, and if you’re talking about... And then of course there’s the question of what are all the other benefits of fossil fuels? Because we’re making policy decisions with trade-offs. So if you restrict fossil fuels in the name of sea level rise, well then you’ll be less able to cope with sea level rise in the first place, and you’ll have all sorts of other problems as well.
And this is why, for example, if you read chapter seven, you’ll see with all these things like flood related deaths, flooding, they’re a much smaller problem than they used to be because our mastery ability is so much more significant. Whereas if Al Gore were right, yeah, that would be really, really fast to have many feet per decade and the world wouldn’t end, but yeah, it would be the kind of thing you’re talking about. It’d be really, really bad and you’d have to think about what you could do about it. But fortunately, we’re not in that position at all.
It’s something that’s very slow, and if you look at what’s actually going to be required... There’s also dynamics, by the way, which I talk about in I forget which chapter, I think nine, where certain places, there are a bunch of local factors including sometimes islands of Crete. And so even when the sea levels rise, the land rises… I lost my train of thought there.
So you have to really think about, just follow the methodology of: look at the climate impacts with precision, and then look at our mastery ability that comes with them, and look at the broader benefits that come with them when we’re thinking about policies. It’s really unfortunately been normalized to be incredibly irresponsible and just say, “Hey, I don’t like this thing that’s happening in climate, whether real or not, and so let’s get rid of fossil fuels.” But then if you’re getting rid of fossil fuels without a viable replacement in a world that needs far more energy, you’re also getting rid of your ability to master climate, which means you’re going to regress just as it was much worse 100 years ago, let alone 200 years ago. So that’s how I think about sea level rises.
Thank you for your answer.
Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks for asking. Oscar and Axel, is this a legacy hand or is this a new question?
No, this is a new question I have.
Okay, good, good.
So correct me if I’m wrong, but I sense that you maybe distinguish fossil fuels as having a greater benefit for human flourishing than nature. I’m just wondering...
Whoa, whoa, hold on a second. I don’t know what you’re comparing to. What do you mean “than nature”?
Well, okay, so let me rephrase that. So you kind of emphasized how fossil fuels are good for human flourishing. I’m just wondering how you weigh that against, say, a decaying ecosystem where people rely on, say, fishing, and ocean acidification lowers the supply of fish and then they can’t cover their expenses. Do you think there’s wiggle room or do you think I’m just exaggerating I guess?
No, I think it’s more of a terminology thing. I talk about this a bunch at the end of chapter three, how we don’t typically have very good pro-human environmental terminology. So we tend to think of it as: there’s, even when I say “human flourishing”, there’s sort of a conflict between human flourishing and nature. Now, there is a conflict between human flourishing and unimpacted nature as a goal. So if your goal is to advance human flourishing and somebody else’s goal is to eliminate human impact, those are at odds. Just like if your goal were to advance bear flourishing and someone wanted to minimize bear impact, those are not compatible goals. I mean you can say there’s some things, like for humans there’s some things we definitely don’t want to impact. So the way I think you think of human flourishing is we want the most human friendly world.
And so if you talk about something like fisheries—I talk about this in chapter nine—we not only don’t want to deplete the fisheries, we want to make the ocean bloom. From a human flourishing perspective, the ocean is just a giant desert that’s completely untapped because we’re not doing nearly as much as we could. And I talk about an experiment that was done very successfully, I think it’s the British Columbia area, where they put iron in the ocean and they were able to get a lot of salmon. And what was really interesting is they had this proliferation of salmon and the green movement really hated it, even though it led to way more fish. But it makes sense if you get that the goal is to eliminate human impact. It’s not for nature to proliferate, it’s for human impact to be gone.
So you had one of the leading people in the anti-fossil-fuel movement, Naomi Klein, she criticized it as an all-you-can-eat buffet for nature. It’s like, “Oh, it’s wrong and it’s unnatural.” It’s really like, no, we want a much more abundant planet and we want, all things being equal, to enjoy more wildlife and we want more opportunity to enjoy nature. But that requires having a lot of capability, and it also requires being able to get our energy and other resources with the flexibility to not need your local environment. I mean if you look at cutting down forests when you would rather not, and particularly endangered species stuff, so much of it is in poor places where the species are in direct conflict because people are just living off the land, and in particular, they’re living off wood.
So the vision is a world that’s much more human and friendly, and I think... I can talk about ocean acidification, but in general, it’s the wealthier you are or, let’s say, the more empowered you are with energy, the more capable you are, the more you can manipulate the Earth to be good in any way you want, including the proliferation of different kinds of wildlife. And the poorer you are and the fewer options you have, the more you’re at odds with those things, and they’re going to be traded off in order to meet your basic needs. So that’s kind of the general thing between industry and environment and wildlife and this kind of thing.
CO2 adds in another variable because when you’re impacting the Earth, when we’re using energy in industry and stuff, there’s this byproduct that then changes the composition of the atmosphere, and it also changes the composition of the ocean. So there’s more CO2 in both. And so in the atmosphere, it has a warming effect and it has a greening effect. But those are generally very good for life in terms of, the most lush places are places with more warmth and the more tropical places. And then historically the luscious times are those with very high levels of CO2. So in general, this would favor more of a kind of life-filled planet. And I think it’s revealing that this is almost never talked about. And I think it’s, again, because the goal is not to have the most life filled planet possible, it’s to have the most dehumanized planet possible. So the idea is if we create it, it’s bad. I talk about this in chapter three. It’s not a love of nature, it’s a specific hatred of human impact.
And then the CO2 in the ocean is an interesting one because—I talk about this in chapter nine—it’s just like, yeah, it has some impact, but it’s not the impact that makes the oceans dead. I mean the oceans proliferated in eras with far less CO2. The organisms that live in the ocean deal already in a very wide range of levels of CO2. So there’s a lot of catastrophizing there. And the bottom line is if we try to master the oceans, we can make them incredibly bountiful beyond anything we’ve ever experienced or dreamed of, even if there is a modest change in the pH.
And the acidification, by the way, is another catastrophizing term because it’s alkaline or basic and it’s becoming less alkaline or basic. It’s really becoming closer to neutral, but it’s not acidification. I mean that’s just a word to make it seem scary like, “Oh my gosh, it’s acid and everything’s going to burn.”
Can I just quickly clarify, what did you mean by “more lush when the temperatures are increased?” Are you talking specifically about humans?
No, I’m talking about everything. I’m talking about plant life. You just go to a tropical place with a lot of moisture—
Don’t increased temperatures affect migration and things like that? Can’t that severely impact ecosystems?
Yeah. So what I’m trying to point out is in general... So first of all, we’re dealing with very slow rises in temperatures. And this applies to the oceans and everything else. You have to be very wary of the tendency that’s given to us to think of the Earth as static and existing in an exact precise place, and then we’re changing it. So with temperature for example, we’re not changing the temperature. Temperature exists in a huge range, and if we’re warming, we’re slightly shifting up. We’re warming slowly, at least, which is happening now. We’re slightly shifting up the range. And the same thing with pH. It’s not one exact pH that everything is perfectly conditioned to.t’s a range of pHs in different parts of the ocean and as the water moves around, and then it’s, you’re shifting the range over time.
But it’s important because things live in ranges already and in quite wide ranges. So usually just an overall shift to the range is not that hugely significant. Usually what wipes out species is some sort of invasive species, like bringing a new species that’s going to consume something else. Or, in a sense human beings can be an invasive species. I wouldn’t quite call us that, but so far as the human interests are in irreconcilable conflict with their local species, then yeah, that’s an issue. I mean then you’re going to have destruction of the species habitat even if you would prefer not to have it because the people are poor and they don’t have many options.
But what I’m saying in general is, if you wanted to say, “Hey, I want the most life on Earth possible, would I make the planet warmer with more CO2 or would I make it colder with less CO2?”, you would definitely make it warmer with more CO2. I mean the periods with warmth and more CO2, we had freaking dinosaurs able to live on the plant life because there’s so much lushness on Earth. So I would try to just point out that we have this idea that our impact makes things worse. In every dimension, it’s intrinsically viewed as bad, but also it’s viewed as it’s going to be worse for every other species. That’s a bias that really needs to be questioned.
And notice that when it was supposedly global cooling, it was the same idea. “Oh, it’s making everything worse.” But actually global cooling is much scarier than global warming because it’s like when the world gets cold and certainly when it gets low CO2, that’s when you really have problems.
I think we have Grace.
Hi. So when you mentioned human flourishing, I would also want to add that there’s also the connection between the environment, natural resources, and also the fact that humans flourish because for example, indigenous people who depend on nature as their culture, we can’t really kind of separate those things. But I do understand your point about how compared to that and poverty, of course we should alleviate poverty before having those higher needs. But my concern is that how are we so sure that in the future we’ll guarantee that these people will become rich and we’ll be able to regulate and have the enjoyment of the nature and the environment surrounding them, when we can focus on the current and capacities we have as opposed to thinking about the future, where we don’t even know if we have the capacity to adapt to climate change? And if that adaptation would actually benefit all of the people around the Earth or just the developed countries?
So what I’m pointing out is maybe we could use the current ability of the status of the world right now to limit the severity of climate change, which in the future we might not know how much capacity we can have to adapt and actually make everyone inclusive to all.
Okay, there’s a bunch of different elements there. So in Fossil Future, I try to give my analysis of what’s the realistic kind of worst case scenario climate-wise. And I think it’s important to explore that, but to really look at it objectively in terms of, okay, what do we know about CO2 emissions and where are CO2 emissions... What could happen to the planet? And part of the context is we’ve had times in the planet’s history when the planet has had 10 or 15 times more CO2 than it does now, and what would that be like? And we can’t even get a quarter of the way there if we wanted to.
So I think when you really try to break down... So there’s this idea of, oh we don’t know what could happen, but it could be the end of the world. But it couldn’t be the end of the world. What it could be at the worst end is it’s a more tropical world that it’s a disruptive rate of transition. So it’s not even that the new world that we move to would be worse in an objective sense than the old one. It would just be, the transition would be fast. And so sea level rise ,before you look into the real likelihood, it’s like, that could be too fast. And it’s not that higher seas are really a problem as such, but it’s just that we’re not built around that.
So in my view, the worst case climate thing is not that bad, versus I view the current state of the world in terms of the impoverished world, as that bad right now. I believe lack of fossil fuels and lack of energy and more fundamentally lack of freedom, I consider that apocalyptic because if just about anyone I know who’s grown up in the wealthy world, the empowered world, if we were planted in a really poor place, we would think the world is over. This smart guy I’ve gotten to know over the last year or two, his name is Jusper Machogu in Kenya, and he’s sort of gotten into my work. And one thing he does, which I think is very useful, if you follow him on Twitter, @JusperMachogu, he’ll post his daily experience. And he’s a very nice guy, but it’s like, “Oh my gosh, nobody I know around here would accept this at all.” And he’s arguing for, “Look, we need more energy.” And the world is telling us not to, and that’s really immoral. The way we live is the way that you would find totally unacceptable to live.
So I think in terms of… the thing I’m confident in is: more freedom is the fundamental. So yeah, a lot of the world is poor, and what can guarantee that everything benefits them? The only thing that can guarantee it is if you have significant political reform around the world. And this is a very unpopular thing to say today, but it’s just totally necessary. If you look at the poorest parts of the world, they have very, very big problems with governance, lack of freedom. It’s hard to do business there. It’s hard or impossible to enforce contracts there. This is a big focus in chapter 10, of just what I call the freedom to trade. A huge part of it is leaving people free to use fossil fuels and other forms of energy, but what’s really needed most fundamentally is political reform. And that’s also related to cultural reform.
And as long as that’s not the case, then you’re going to have people who just stay really poor and they’re vulnerable to everything, and climate change is going to be the least of their problems. They’re just going to keep having many, many problems for being poor. But fortunately, one benefit is we have more and more communication today thanks to the Internet. More and more people ever are getting cell phones. And I think people are kind of realizing, “Oh wow, there’s better ways to live.” And so I’m optimistic that the poorer places are going to improve on their own, and I’m focused on, let’s not screw them over by telling them to not use energy.
Yeah. So I just have a question about the World Bank. So I think right now the World Bank is facing a pretty tough question on how they should use their limited resources to fund climate change projects while also helping the world’s poorest nations, because many of the poorest nations wants the rich nations to help them transitioning to cleaner energy because they argue that the developed nations are the most responsible ones for the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but yet the developing nations are the ones who have to face the burden. So I guess my question would be like, to what extent do you think the World Bank should be helping the developing nations to shift to cleaner energy?
So I mean, I have a lot of negative opinions about the World Bank, which are a little outside the scope of this. I would say that insofar as they’re doing anything, they should be doing absolutely nothing but things that are helping the poorer countries to become as prosperous as possible as quickly as possible. And they sure certainly shouldn’t be trying to prejudice the kind of energy they use. And I think there’s a somewhat good movement, which I know I’ve had some influence over that I mostly feel good about, although it’s a little compromised.So what you’re seeing more and more, particularly, I’ve seen it most in African nations and maybe coming in other poorer parts of the world, where they’ll talk about the so-called transition, but they’ll say, “We need a just transition.” And part of that is saying, “Hey, it doesn’t make any sense to restrict oil drilling in Nigeria and not allow us to take advantage of these resources that are really needed,” and this kind of thing. And I’m totally on board with that, and I’m totally on board insofar as they say, “Hey, look, there’s this kind of climate imperialism and you’re telling us what to do and you’re not even doing it yourselves.” I’m totally in favor of that.
But then there’s this other element ,which, in the part of your question about this idea which came up earlier, that they’re the most vulnerable and they didn’t cause the problem. And I should recommend, there’s a resource I created called EnergyTalkingPoints.com, where you can look up my opinion on anything. I think the link, one of the things might have been there. If you search “climate reparations”, I have a whole thing about this. But it’s a falsehood that the free world’s use of fossil fuels has harmed the poor world. This is just not true. The poor world is richer because of it, and they’re safer from climate because of it. And so it is wrong for the rich world to try to deprive the poor world of the right to take the same path that we did. But that’s different than saying we screwed up and we ruined the world and they are innocent and pure, something like that. It’s not true.
And mainly the reason why they haven’t used much in the way of fossil fuels is because unfortunately, they’ve had political systems that have held people back and kept people in poverty. That’s nothing for these leaders to be proud of. They should be ashamed of it. So I just don’t believe in this villain narrative. I believe that they should be free and encouraged to get prosperous as soon as possible, but not that they’re victims. They should stop us, they should stop what we’re doing bad, but they should not be trying to extract a whole bunch of favors. And by the way, the more this whole focus on extracting favors and extracting huge amounts of money, this is just hugely institutionalizing the dictators who are causing the problems in my view.
All right, I think we have time for... I don’t even know how long this is supposed to go, but I actually have to go get a marriage license today. So let’s do the last question.
Can I just ask, so for richer nations like say the U.S., do you think by switching to renewable energy, that maybe by having that energy sovereignty, by no longer being at the mercy of things like OPEC and just other nations through globalization, do you think that may actually lead to decreased inequality just because poor people in the United States don’t have to suffer from higher gas prices and things like that? Also, can I ask another question? What is—
Okay, hold on. Let me address that one because that has about eight things I don’t agree with. And again, this website, EnergyTalkingPoints.com, if you search “energy crisis”, I have tons and tons of material on this issue, and I was testifying about this recently.
It is really sad to me that it’s being promoted that so-called “renewable” energy will be more secure. So first of all, the main thing you need with energy is cost-effectiveness, so you need it to be low cost, reliable, versatile, scalable. So the main problem with so-called “renewable” energy—and I talk about this in depth in chapter six—is it just cannot do what fossil fuels can do right now, the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, and won’t be able to for the foreseeable future. So that’s the main thing, it’s just not nearly as good at providing energy. And as I argue in chapter four, that means everything gets worse. The more expensive energy is, the more expensive everything is. So one is it’s just totally inferior. It’s not a replacement at this stage.
And then two, the security is: it’s less secure than fossil fuels because fossil fuels, we can produce in abundance the core thing in the United States, whereas the core thing with solar panels and wind turbines and batteries, almost all of that occurs in China, which is clearly willing and in practice willing to use that power to extract all sorts of other things. So China totally dominates the supply chain of solar, wind, and batteries, so it’s just factually that there’s much less security there. In general, the way you get security is you allow as much development and freedom in your country as possible, and then you try to develop the best relationships with free aligned countries as possible.
And unfortunately, we’ve done neither. We’ve done it better than Europe, which is not saying much, but we still... And for instance, in what’s called the rare Earth field, we were a world leader in that, and we just decreased our ability so much because we had so much hostility toward mining in the United States. We have so much hostility toward development in the United States. And then we’ve also not been encouraging of our neighbors. For example, in Canada, we’ve canceled the Keystone XL pipeline after dangling it as a carrot for over 10 years. We’ve just joined in all these international things, sort of giving a blessing to Europe for gutting its ability to produce fossil fuel domestically, done very little about their dependence on Russia. Of course, we’ve become incredibly dependent on China. So this narrative that, “Oh, this is a path to security,” it’s demonstrably a path to insecurity.
Okay, second half of your question and then I think we’ll have to wrap up.
I was just going to ask, what’s your opinion on carbon capture technology? Do you think if we’re going to be increasing fossil fuel production, we kind of owe it to also try and take that carbon back out of the air?
So I talk about this a bunch in chapter six. The basic thing with CO2… So let’s just say broadly, let’s leave aside my particular analysis of CO2. If somebody is concerned about CO2, things they should be interested in are, one is liberating cost-effective alternatives, especially nuclear, as soon as possible. So that’s kind of one obvious thing that people should do. And most of the green movement doesn’t do that, most of it is hostile to nuclear, although fortunately it started to change a decent amount. So that’s a good sign actually. But so one is just liberating the development of alternatives, which means turning around most of these so-called green anti-development policies.
Two is you should be open to, and this is a controversial view, but you at least need to be open to, if you’re worried about really rapid, problematic warming, which for reasons I argue later, I’m not worried about, you should really be exploring how to cool the Earth. And particularly because we know things like volcanic eruptions have cooled the Earth non-trivially, and so we should be able to simulate that in a way that doesn’t have pollution, and people have explored that. And there’s this hostility toward it, but look, if the world was actually—and I do not think it is—but if it was actually warming at a dangerously rapid rate because of fossil fuel use, given the lack of alternatives to fossil fuel use in the near future, cooling the Earth is by far the most efficient thing and it’s going to be the thing you need to go to. So that’s just something people should consider if they’re actually concerned about human life and they’re actually concerned about CO2.
And then the third one to get to your question is, yeah, you should look for really cheap ways if possible of capturing the CO2. We have a precedent with many other byproducts of things where we turn something that’s waste and we turn it into wealth. For example, oil, half the oil used to just be dumped in the lake, and now we can turn that into plastics and we can turn that into all sorts of other very, very valuable things. So yeah, we’ve got all these amazing byproducts, and so theoretically you could do that with CO2.
In practice, it seems really far away. The most promising thing I’ve heard actually is people who claim that they can get CO2 from fossil fuel plants and fossil fuel facilities, and they can actually capture it and inject it into the ground and use it to get oil. It’s really, really good for getting certain types of oil. And they claim that they can actually do that in a what’s called a carbon negative way. My view is, more power to you if you can do it cost effectively, but if you’re trying to subsidize it hugely, that is not going to scale and that’s going to waste a ton of money.
So for example, what we’re doing in the United States right now with what’s called the Inflation Reduction Act, we give $85 a ton for just dumping CO2 underground. To put that in proportion, one ton of coal costs $30 and emits two tons of CO2, so you pay $30 for the coal and $170, so 85 times 2, to inject the CO2. That is not cost-effective. That is just a giveaway and it’s not going to scale. So I’m all for cost-effective CO2 capture and insofar as people are really concerned about CO2, it should be something they’re open to. But unfortunately, like many of these things, I think right now, it’s mostly a racket that’s not going to scale and that’s just enriching people.
So I just want to thank everyone. I really am thrilled that everyone asked a question, and I know we had a very short turnaround time, and all the questions were really intelligent and interesting. So I hope the reading was useful. I hope EnergyTalkingPoints.com is useful. And then, if you ever have any other questions for me, by the way, my email is email@example.com. And soon there will actually be... I highly suggest signing up for our newsletter to EnergyTalkingPoints.com. Very soon we’re actually going to have AlexGPT, which is ChatGPT but with all of my answers to energy questions. It’s really good actually already, so we’re coding it right now, but it’s already tested really well.
Well, thank you very much.
Thanks so much.
I’m really grateful that you have given us your time today and it was very stimulating and thought-provoking, and I think the people who listened to the call and joined in are going to think differently about some of the things that we talked about. So thank you very much, and I’ll be in touch with you about looking ahead to the summer.
(Note: In a future newsletter I’ll share the video and transcript from the summer event Martin mentions at the end.)
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