Discussing Fossil Future with students from the John Locke Institute, Pt. 2
More answers to intelligent pre-college students’ questions about energy, climate, and environment. This time, with economics professor Bryan Caplan.
I recently posted a video and transcript of my April 11 Zoom Q&A with pre-college students from the John Locke Institute’s Washington D.C. program, directed by Martin Cox. I enjoyed that experience, so I returned on July 6 to speak to more students from the Institute, this time, a roomful of students who were at Princeton University.
In the Q&A, I answer questions from many students about energy, climate, and environment. Readers of my newsletter who are interested in how intelligent students think about energy issues—and my complete responses to their questions, including many objections—will likely enjoy this discussion.
Highlights include: what it means and doesn’t mean to hold a dogmatic view, how to develop justified confidence by taking criticism seriously, how our dependence on China for solar and wind is far more worrisome than our dependence on Russia for fossil fuels, and how supporting energy freedom means both liberating nuclear and unleashing the continued growth of fossil fuels.
Here’s a video of the event, followed by a complete transcript, edited only for clarity (including avoided repetition):
I’m just going to tell you a little story about Alex. I first found out about his book, The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels, soon after it came out. What was that like 2013?
2014. And when I first saw the title, I said, “This book’s not going to be any good. It’s just going to be some dogmatic boring thing I’ve heard 100 times.” And so I didn’t read it. But then somehow the book got into my hands and I opened it up and I started reading, like, “All right, this isn’t that bad.” Then I started reading more, I was like, “All right, this is actually kind of good.” And then I read the whole book. I’m like, “Wow, I was so wrong. What a fool I was.” And then I was able to go and meet Alex. I think I actually tweeted it out that I thought it was going to be really bad, but it was really good.
Yeah, one of my favorite—
So I was able to meet Alex, and he taught some Brazilian jiu jitsu to my kids. Anyway. And then, this isn’t my main issue, so I thought it was good, but I didn’t do that much more with it. And then his second book came out in what, 2021?
2022. Last year, a year ago.
So 2022. So this time I got Fossil Future. And I looked at it, I said, “All right, well look, the first book was really great, but this is just going to say the same thing again. I don’t need to read it.” And then that sat on my shelf for a while. And then I picked it up and I go, “Oh wait, this is actually saying something different from the first book. It’s better.” And again, I read the whole thing very quickly. I’m like, “My God, I underestimated him badly twice.” That’s on me. But anyway, I appreciate Alex forgiving me for my so stubbornly assuming that the first book wouldn’t be any good, and then the second book, just assumed that it wouldn’t add anything.
Just one other thing that I’ll say about Alex is I asked him a question that really hurts for any writer. And the question is, “Well, now that you’ve written your second book, is there still any reason to read your first book?” Almost every writer is like, “Oh, I can’t abandon my first book.” And Alex just said, “No, there’s no reason to read the first book. The second book has it all. It’s better. The end.” I’m like, “Wow. All right, that’s candor.” So with that, I give you Alex Epstein.
Thanks, Bryan. Just, I don’t know what people’s expectations are. Last time we did almost all Q&A, which is what I want to do this time. So my understanding is you’ve been given chapter one of the book and then a summary of the book. So hopefully at least a bunch of you have had time to look at that. But even if you hadn’t, ask anything about the book, but more broadly about energy issues, environmental issues, climate issues. The only thing I want to say at the outset is: the book is making a very radical claim. The subtitle is Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas, Not Less. And this is not only contrary to what we hear, it’s in 180 degree opposition to what we hear, because what we hear is that we should be striving to eliminate fossil fuels over the next few decades. And I’m saying in the next few decades, the world will be a better place if we’re using more fossil fuels.
So, whenever somebody is saying that, I think they should be self-conscious about... It’s significant to say that, and people can be legitimately suspicious, even if, in particular if it’s viewed as well, the expert scientific view, is the exact opposite of you. And I don’t take that lightly. I don’t just say, “Oh, well ignore the experts, trust me.” And in fact, a lot of my view is that actual experts—that is, researchers in these fields, so researchers in energy, energy economics, environmental issues, climate issues—my view is actually a lot of what happens is that their actual expertise and research gets distorted in many different ways. And to me, the most interesting ways all this stuff gets distorted are philosophical. And my basic contention beneath the premise of the book is that 90% of disagreement about this issue is philosophical, not factual.
And in the book there are three distinctions or three contrasts that I draw. So I’ll just summarize them and then we’ll go into questions on specifics, but I think we’ll see these emerge. So one is the issue of what I call our method of evaluation, so when we’re deciding, “Hey, are fossil fuels good or not? What should we do about them? What’s our method?” And what I notice is that there tends to be—and this is what chapter one is largely about—there’s a tendency to significantly ignore the benefits of fossil fuels, and then—in chapter two, I argue—exaggerate or what I call catastrophize side effects. But if we just take the issue of ignoring benefits, one thing that really struck me when I was getting started was oil. Oil is this amazing fuel that’s been around so long, and it’s so, so dominant in transportation in particular because it has what’s called a high energy density: it stores a lot of energy in a small amount of space. Plus it is burned as this stable liquid.
And it’s 90 plus percent of transportation despite all these attempts to compete with it. And it makes it unique for things like agriculture where we power a modern combine harvester that can do 1000 times more work than one manual laborer, so you multiply his productivity by 1000. It’s really sticky. And yet when we talk about getting rid of fossil fuels, there’s very little talk about, “Well, how do you really replace the energy density of oil for everyone who’s using oil and then for the billions more people who need energy?” So there’s other examples like fertilizer. Natural gas is the basis of modern fertilizer, and we have no other way that’s close to that of making fertilizer. And yet people talk about, “Well, let’s get rid of fossil fuels.” And they don’t mention that. And often they mention food. So they say, “I’m so concerned about fossil-fueled climate change making it harder to grow food,” but there’s almost no concern about lack of fossil fuels making it hard to grow food even though modern food for 8 billion people is based on the benefits of fossil fuels.
So I want to highlight that, in terms of method of evaluation, even though there are a lot of smart people against fossil fuels, they do tend to ignore these benefits. And I think when somebody is ignoring benefits… so my view is: well, you need to carefully weigh benefits and side effects, which sounds like common sense, but I don’t think is common practice. And I think one thing is if you see people ignoring the benefits of something repeatedly, that can signify a bias and that can also mean they’re exaggerating the side effects. So one example I use is: imagine somebody’s mother-in-law bought them a house and gave them $1,000,000 and supported them, and all they ever have to say about their mother-in-law is negative and they never mention the support. Well, you might think, “Well, they’ve got some bias against the mother-in-law and maybe they are exaggerating about the negatives.”
And so that’s my view on climate. I think that’s a little harder to justify, so we’ll have to go into some details. But my basic contention is: the leading method of evaluation is to ignore benefits and overstate side effects. And I think you should carefully weigh benefits and side effects. And I think it’s actually quite rare that people do that. The second thing is: I think there’s two conflicting assumptions about the relationship between human beings and nature. So one, which I think is the dominant view, is what I call the “delicate nurturer” assumption, which is the idea that nature exists in a delicate nurturing balance that... I call it, it’s stable, so it doesn’t change too much. It’s sufficient, so it gives us enough resources as long as we’re not too greedy, and then it’s safe, it doesn’t endanger us too much.
But then what human beings do is, by impacting Earth, we disrupt the delicate balance and we ruin everything. I think this assumption is everywhere. With climate there’s the idea of, “Well, if we impact climate, it just must be incredibly destructive.” And people think of climate change in the sense of human-caused climate change as just bad. “It must be that we’re ruining things.” And if you know anything about the history of environmental predictions, we have 50-plus years of people being totally wrong about all these catastrophes, but there’s always this lingering view, “Well, the next impact is going to ruin it, the next impact is going to ruin it.” And I think this is because this has a religious dogmatic quality.
And I don’t think it’s true. Nature’s not a delicate nurturer. It’s what I call wild potential. So it’s not stable, it’s dynamic. It’s not sufficient, it’s deficient, in terms of having enough resources for us to all come close to flourishing, living at a high level. And then, it’s not safe, it’s incredibly dangerous. And human beings, I think, on delicate nurturer, we’re viewed as parasite polluters, so we mostly take from the Earth and then ruin the Earth. But I think that’s very inaccurate. I think we’re generally producer improvers. We add resources to the Earth and we can make Earth a lot cleaner and nicer, like taking naturally dirty distant water and making it clean and close to us. So I think this is another thing where, it’s philosophy. People have this delicate nurturer thing, and it just makes them expect that if we do something that impacts the Earth a lot, which fossil fuels do in any number of ways, it’s going to ruin it.
And I think that’s really a dogma. And it’s not true, but I think many people, including unfortunately many scientists, buy into it. And then the final issue, so we’ve got this issue of: are you ignoring the benefits and exaggerating the side effects versus carefully weighing them, or what I call considering the full context? There’s delicate nurturer including parasite polluter versus wild potential and producer improver. And then the third one is the issue of what I call the standard of evaluation or the moral goal, which is: when we’re looking at all these issues, including when we’re looking at the Earth and our environment, are we looking at it from the perspective that we should be minimizing our impact or eliminating our impact? Is that the goal? With climate, is our goal to not impact climate? Because that’s the goal today. Everyone’s goal today is, “Hey, let’s not impact climate.”
That’s our goal with climate, versus my view is: no, our goal in all these things should be to advance human flourishing on Earth, which means that with climate, our goal is a livable climate. It’s not an unimpacted climate. And if we can neutralize hurricanes, we should. And even if we change climate, but we also change our ability to what I call master climate, and we’re far safer, I consider that a better climate situation. Whereas I think many, many people have the view that it’s intrinsically wrong to change climate. And so my view is that these three issues of the method of evaluation, your fundamental assumptions about human beings on the Earth, and then your standard of evaluation, I think these shape everything. So I think with almost anything you can ask me, these things are going to come up. And I’ll try to point them out when they do.
So that’s sort of to give you an intro to... And my basic view is that quote, unquote, “the experts,” what we’re told the experts think, that’s definitely not always wrong, but it obviously can be wrong. And I think often when it is wrong, it’s the fundamental philosophical framework there’s something very off. And I think that’s what’s happening today with how we think about energy, and in particular environmental issues. I think of myself first and foremost, really, as I’m a pro-human environmental philosopher who therefore looks at energy very differently than other people. So with that kind of long intro, I’d love any questions anyone has.
So you said at some point that more CO2 is a good thing because it’s more fertilization for plants. Am I interpreting that correctly?
Or please correct me if I’m wrong. Oh, okay.
I said that aspect of CO2 is almost certainly a good thing, but CO2 has multiple aspects. So I said more fossil fuels in the coming decades is a good thing. And so an aspect of that is: what do you think about CO2? And then looking at CO2’s positives and negatives, but CO2 can also have negatives.
Okay. Yeah, that was just a clarifying question.
So just to put this back to the issue of framework, I think with climate, when human beings learn, so you take the scientific community—and this has been known in some form since the 1800s—but you have the idea of: we have this gas CO2 that obviously we emitted in some quantity by exhaling, but once we start burning this ancient dead life that we call fossil fuels or technically hydrocarbons, one of the by-products is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And carbon dioxide, it’s a fertilizing gas so it helps grow plants, but it’s also a warming gas. It’s the kind of thing that… framework determines everything. So I think on what I call the anti-human impact framework, the view that our impact is bad and self-destructive, the view is, “Oh my gosh, we’re changing the climate. It’s so bad. We’re making it warmer. That’s bad. We need to stop. We need to get rid of it.”
Whereas on my own framework, which I call the human flourishing framework, is, “Now, let’s just look at this carefully. So if we take the CO2, we need to look at carefully, okay, what are the negatives and what are the positives of that on its own?” So that’s one thing in terms of, okay, negatives, or positives could be greening and also benefits of warming in a world where far more die of cold than of heat. But then also, what are the problems with warming? So it could be warming directly in warmer places. We could talk about the specifics of that. Also, things like sea level rises, where you build your infrastructure based on certain sea level expectations. And if you make it warmer, it’s generally going to lead to sea level rises in various ways, including just expanding the ocean.
So you look at these things. So that’s one thing is looking at them in an even-handed and precise way, but then you also have to look at the benefits of the energy that comes with the CO2. And this is one of my big points is that you have to look at what I call the climate mastery benefits of fossil fuels. If you’re looking at, for example: well, will the heat in some way lead to more drought, at least in certain places? Well, you also have to look at: well, will the energy allow you to neutralize drought, in terms of having modern irrigation systems and drought relief systems, convoys that take food from one place to another?
And what we see over the last 100 years as we’ve been running this experiment of generating our energy with this by-product of CO2 is the rate of drought-related death has gone down by over 99%, and in general, climate-related disaster deaths down 98%. So it’s remarkable to me that so few people look at climate-related benefits of fossil fuels, even though one of the main things we do with them is make our climate safer.
Hi, I’m Maya. I have two questions, if that’s okay.
My first one is that I agree with you that we are still very much dependent on fossil fuels, and they have a lot of advantages. And at the moment, probably not immediately, and maybe not even in the near future, we won’t be able to phase them out completely. But why should we keep pushing to use even more of them like you suggested, when we could easily meet the needs you’ve outlined using renewable technology, which doesn’t produce harmful gasses, whether that produces negative impacts or not. Why isn’t that the better alternative, and it’s also already on the rise?
If I agreed with all the assumptions of that question, then I would agree with you. So one of the key assumptions of that, it is a little bit of a mixed set of assumptions because you talked about, “Well, we can’t exactly replace them that quickly, but then renewables are on the rise and they’re replacing them.” So part of it is when you talk about the next few decades, part of my context is always that the world is extremely poor, extremely, extremely poor. And that includes energy-poor, which is—that’s an essential aspect of poverty—is you don’t have cost-effective energy that can then power machines that can make you productive and prosperous. So, just some stats, I think, to drive this home are, we have 3 billion people using less electricity than a typical American refrigerator. We have 6 billion people using an amount of energy we would consider totally unacceptable.
So one thing is when you’re considering what’s going to happen to any given form of energy, it’s morally very desirable, and I would say imperative, as much as possible, to have an expansion of energy. So, already there, the argument that, “Well, you should be using less fossil fuel,” which is currently 80% of the world’s energy, that’s pretty suspicious if you are talking about a world that needs much more energy and so then there’s a question of renewable alternatives.
One thing though, when people emphasize renewable, I think one point of suspicion that’s philosophical is, why is the emphasis on renewable? And if you look at what renewable means, renewable typically means non-hydro renewable. Most of the renewable movement is specifically for solar, wind, and sometimes geothermal, but mostly solar and wind. So, why is there this almost fetish for solar and wind and not for hydro and not for nuclear when the track record of actually being able to meet significant energy needs in a non-dependent way, because solar and wind are dependent on other things as I’ll discuss in a minute, is hydro and nuclear have been by far the most successful. And with nuclear you have the most potential to scale because hydro you can’t do everywhere. You can do it more places, but you can’t do it everywhere.
Why are we so obsessed with this? And I think it’s, if you look at the world as we need far more energy, it’s very bizarre that we’re not just totally gung-ho over nuclear and totally gung-ho over hydro, large-scale hydro. So, it’s just a suspicion that there’s not enough concern about the desperate need for more energy and there’s this very restrictive attitude toward what we’ll accept and then you even look on top of that and you see, well, solar and wind, they get a lot of opposition too, and they get a lot of opposition for having too much impact on Earth in one form or another.
And they have a huge amount of impact. They take up a lot of space because they deal with dilute energy. They need huge transmission lines because they take up a lot of space. They can’t be in the city because cities can’t be supported by them. So, they need to be in these different places that are optimized for how much sun and wind there is.
And what you see is there’s this just general hostility toward all forms of energy, including solar and wind, on the basis of impact, and that’s why I want to just stress that because the whole focus on, “We don’t really care much about energy, and then, we have a reason to oppose every form of energy.” This I think is confirmation of my view that the underlying standard we’re using is eliminating human impact. It’s all about, “Human impact is bad, let’s eliminate it.”
Okay, so then let’s go to, is it actually true, that these are so promising? So solar and wind are so promising that we can shrink fossil fuels. We don’t really need nuclear, we don’t really need large-scale hydro. They’re just so amazing in their performance.his is just so far from the case.
So, what you find is they’re less than 5% of the world’s energy. That’s one thing. They’re growing, but you notice if you look at it, they’re growing in places where they have extreme government preferences. There are extreme subsidies, often mandates where you’re forced to. The grid is set up so you pay the same for unreliable electricity as reliable electricity, which totally works in their favor.
So, they depend on these extreme subsidies, and then you see that they tend to add costs to the grid. So, you have cost problems and reliability problems when they’re used, which, it’s pretty straightforward why. Because they’re unreliable, so that means they can go almost to zero at any given time, so you need to pay for the whole backup infrastructure, which is really a life support infrastructure. So, you need to pay for two sets of infrastructure, reliable and unreliable. It’s generally preferable just to pay for the reliable, cost-wise.
So, they add cost and then they also decrease reliability because people try to avoid paying for two separate infrastructures like California and Texas. So, we don’t invest enough in the reliable and then we play reliability chicken and then we lose.
So, the grids are getting much worse. Through the US, we have all these grid problems that we didn’t have 20 years ago because we’re using this “amazing” solar and wind. And then on top of this, this is only for electricity, which is, about a fifth or a quarter of the world’s machines are running on electricity. The rest of them run on transportation machines that directly burn fossil fuels, industrial heat machines, so very high levels of heat that directly burn fossil fuels, and then residential heat machines that directly burn fossil fuels.
And so, solar and wind are having all sorts of failures, even with electricity, let alone these non-electricity uses of fossil fuels that are non-electricity because it’s more cost-effective to do them by directly burning fossil fuels than electricity. So, I think, unfortunately, this idea, which was in your question as an assumption—and I don’t resent you for that—but I think it just shows how embedded it is that people can just take that as, it’s not even a question.
The question was based on that as obvious, but actually it’s the opposite of obvious. I think it’s totally false, but we’ve been so indoctrinated with the idea of: solar and wind are amazing, they’re replacing fossil fuels, they can do more. And they’re not even for electricity, let alone the other forms of energy. So, the big reason I’m for fossil fuels is because energy is so important and fossil fuels for the next few decades are uniquely cost-effective in terms of providing energy on the scale of the billions of people who have it and the billions of people who need it.
So, one way of summarizing is: the benefits are not replaceable, which means restrictions on fossil fuels, let alone elimination means restriction on energy, and to me that means the restriction on our ability to live.
Thank you. My second question is a different point.his probably isn’t really the case in the US, but Europe at the moment is seeing the pressure quite a lot because their supply of gas in particular has been cut off from Russia. So, don’t you think there are also political arguments for why we should be cutting out fossil fuels so that countries like the UK, Germany, and other countries in Europe are less dependent on big world superpowers that could potentially pose a threat, like Russia, for something as vital as their energy and other supplies as you just outlined?
Is it okay if I ask you a question in response before I answer?
Okay. So, can you think of any comparable or even worse security considerations in the utilization of solar and wind, besides the fact that they don’t work, which is, we’ll leave that aside.
No, not particularly.
This is an interesting thing because if you look at the, so the argument is, well, Europe is… “You don’t want to be dangerously dependent on Russia for fossil fuels, so let’s use solar and wind and then you’re going to be really well off.”
Well, one thing is the dangerous dependence on Russia, we’ve already seen them be able to overcome it quite a bit, even with just a little bit of pro-fossil fuel action for a year. And part of what this indicates is they have an immense ability to have a very secure supply of fossil fuels, both through domestic development and through good trade agreements with trading partners.
And yet, what they’ve done is, so you take the number one energy technology over the past several decades in terms of increasing the availability of energy is what’s called shale energy, often called fracking. So, this has taken oil fields that were useless or very unproductive, made them bloom with oil. And in particular with natural gas, they’ve just created this limitless supply of natural gas in the US.
And with Europe, Europe’s reaction has been, one is, “Don’t do much to import gas from the US.” But also they preemptively banned fracking throughout Europe, and then also didn’t try to create pipelines, didn’t try to secure imports. So, it’s the anti-fossil fuel policies that made their fossil fuel supply a lot less secure. So, that’s one thing. If you care about security, why not advocate those things?
But then if you look at solar and wind, so I mentioned the main security problem is they’re not comparable, so they’re not actual replacements. But secondarily, their supply chain is dominated by China. So, China controls a huge amount of the mining around the world. Above all, it controls the processing of the raw materials into usable elements. And so, China can hugely cut off the supply of many, many critical minerals, solar, wind, batteries, all of these things. China has very deliberately tried to control through all sorts of actions as part of their goal of being the world’s dominant superpower.
So if you talk about, well, Russia, if you look at Russia’s control of oil and natural gas compared to China’s control of solar and wind, there’s no comparison at all. So, I think it’s another case where, I always look for things where when people cite a problem with something, do they care about the problem or is the problem just a rationalization for their agenda?
And when mainstream people say, “I’m so concerned about security, so we just can’t use fossil fuels, but let’s do this thing that’s totally controlled by China.” The people who know, I’m not saying students and stuff, but the people who know, I think it’s a rationalization. I think there’s a lot of things like this. It also applies to climate.
When people say, “Oh my gosh, there’s a flood in Pakistan. I care so much about Pakistan, that’s why I want to stop using fossil fuels.” Wait a second. Well, if Pakistan was using fossil fuels and had a modern economy like we do, they would be much safer from floods, and in fact, they’re already much safer from floods because of advances in their economy and then others’ ability to help them.
So, I think often when people cite a problem, the question is are they applying that category of concern equally to all things or are they just using it to oppose what they want to oppose? I think this applies to immigration too, to bring up a Bryan point, but that’s a... When people say they care about security and immigration, it’s like, I don’t think they actually do usually. But sorry, go ahead.
I’m Anya. So, I know you probably had a fair amount of rebuttal for your opinions, and in this course we learn how to be really confident in our ideas. So, I was wondering if you have any tips for us who are learning how to be very strong on our ideas, and how you deal with the rebuttal?
Well, I think the number one thing is to, at all phases but maybe even more so early on, is you have to review all the attempts to—this is a broader point in life—but all attempts to criticize are, in a sense, a gift. And I mean that if you can really take that, it’s just an amazing tool for success.
So, just in personal life, anyone who criticizes me about anything... Usually when people have some criticism, there’s something right about it. Something, I mean, not everything. Sometimes it’s totally wrong, but sometimes it’s right. So, it could even be like somebody doesn’t like my... I don’t know. I was giving a presentation and I looked like, I don’t know, maybe I’m making some weird gesture and they comment on that on the YouTube video. Well one perspective is, “What, you didn’t listen to my content? You’re just commenting on that gesture? You’re badly motivated.” But really, why do I care if they’re badly motivated? Maybe I can learn to not make that gesture.
So, my view is: often, criticisms, there’s something to them. Now often when it’s criticizing their work, I think sometimes, like if you have somebody review your paper, I think often people when they say that something is wrong, they’re right. I think when they say why it’s wrong, I think they often don’t know what they’re talking about, and when they say how to fix it, I think they really often don’t know what they’re talking about.
But in general, all these negative things, I think the first thing is, look at what is true about it. And it could be, “Well, I’m wrong in some way.” Or it could be, “My explanations aren’t good enough.”
And so for me, early on, it was just the general opponents and debates and stuff that were useful. Actually as I go on, the most useful people are people who are generally allied, but still harsh if they disagree. So, I pay people like that quite a bit to catch my mistakes before they go public.
Another one for me is debate. So, I do debates and I’m not usually very convinced by the opposite side, but sometimes they’ll bring up an argument and I’ll feel like I didn’t have a good enough answer to that. So, in fact, I have some talking points coming out next week on solar and wind being cheaper than fossil fuels and part of it is answering an argument that I heard in a debate. So, I think the number one thing about the confidence, the real confidence comes from knowing that you did your best to challenge your view. That’s my view on it.
Hi, I’m Ria. So, I have two questions. The second one is a follow-up. My first question is that you said that experts, the data that they produce can be unreliable and the unreliability is there because there’s bias, and bias is the cause of them working for the government or another authority, right?
Wait, where did I say this?
First or second chapter if I’m not wrong.
Okay. Yeah, it’s one category of bias. So, most of the focus there is on how researchers get distorted by other things, but yes, it is true that sometimes one thing that can distort particularly what research is done and not done is funding. I just want to clarify that. So, continue.
So my second part of the question is that, I’m just answering based on the assumption that there is a government authority which is funding the research. So, if you’re seeing the bias exist, why would the government or authority want fossil fuels to be seen in a negative light and why would they want to promote solar and wind where in fact it’s going to be them who are going to have to pay the subsidies and cost for implementing this. So, in fact, it has a negative impact on them if people want to use solar and wind. So, it wouldn’t make sense for them to encourage a view which is giving solar and wind in a positive light.
I’m really curious. I have an answer. Bryan, I’m curious what you think about this because you’re a big incentives guy. Are you willing to answer for a minute?
Why is it the governments do this? The obvious thing is their goal as a politician, it’s not to get good policy, it’s to get reelected. So, people want to hear something and not another, you tell them what they want to hear and usually one part of telling people something bad is you wind up doing something bad as well. You could just say the bad thing and not do it, but see, I like that this anti-impact standard you talk about, I think it’s very real. This is something that even people who politically are on the other side of fossil fuels, people who like fossil fuels still, they basically share this anti-impact standard. So, if a politician says something that’s consistent with it, it resonates and it’s a good way to get reelected. That’s my story.
Yeah, I think that that makes sense. I think of it as, I mean the politician is definitely not... You kind of wish they were optimizing for like, “Oh, they’re really thinking… Their standard, personally, is scientifically calculating what’s really good for people and protecting their rights and stuff.” And A, that’s really hard.
So, one thing is, it’s hard for them to do. So even if they’re well-meaning it’s hard, but also their immediate thing is usually getting reelected. And then there are all sorts of incentives that they have directly, including just, well, there’s lobbies for different things and there’s different people who can support them.
And then also I think the anti-impact standard is an important point because really it ultimately depends on what voters want and my basic contention in Fossil Future is that what I call our knowledge systems—so, all the sets of institutions that give us supposedly expert knowledge and guidance, including all our educational system—it’s been taken over by this idea that human impact is bad, and self-destructive, and we should eliminate it, and these particular ways of thinking about fossil fuels. So, it’s basically, you have public and elected officials who buy this and then I think they’re taught the associated myths. So, they’re taught, well, solar and wind are cheaper, they can rapidly replace fossil fuels.
My belief is that this whole system is infected with certain ideas, and so that’s going to change. There’s a certain feedback loop there because insofar as people have the ideas, they’re going to fund more research on it and that reinforces it.
But a concrete example, there’s a good, if you read… by the way, all of you can get the book for free if you just go to FossilFuture.com. There’s a link for any student or educator to get it for free. So, I highly recommend it.
In chapter eight I have some good examples of these kinds of incentives, but one is when, there’s a legendary physicist who died fairly recently, Freeman Dyson, and he tells a story of when the government started studying CO2, there were people pushing for it to be studied in terms of what’s it doing to climate, what’s it doing negatively. And his view is, “Well, you should also study what it’s doing positively.” And for various reasons people weren’t interested in that.
I think one reason is some people like catastrophic narratives because it gives them more power and importance. It’s certainly hard to argue that Al Gore hasn’t gotten more power and importance because of the narrative that fossil fuels are causing a climate catastrophe. Also power lust. I mean a lot of politicians want power, and the more you say that free people doing something is causing a problem, then the solution is giving them more power. So, there’s a lot of reasons why they don’t always do the right thing.
Since I got the mic, let me just ask you a quick question. I just checked Wikipedia. So, today Wikipedia does not say you’re a climate denialist, but it oscillates actually. Some days you are, some days you aren’t. It’s obviously getting edited a lot. So, what’s the truth? Are you a climate denialist, Alex Epstein?
Thanks for pronouncing my name correctly.
I highly recommend this—I have a Substack, I know Bryan does too, and I highly recommend both of them—mine is just Energy Talking Points, but if you just go to alexepstein.substack.com, you can see last week’s entry was on how to answer loaded climate questions, and that has this kind of question there, and I think it’s interesting. I think many, many questions—I mentioned earlier, there was a question that had certain assumptions—I think one interesting thing, and I’ll get to yours in a second, but one interesting thing about questions is we tend to view questions as innocent in the sense of, “Oh, everything is just a question,” and just always give a direct answer to a question, and especially if it’s like a yes or no question. “Are you a climate denialist or not?” Right? My view is that so many questions that are asked are loaded questions, and by loaded questions, I mean in the broad sense of they’re loaded with questionable or false assumptions, that you could think about it as, every question involves certain statements.
A question basically means, “Here’s what I believe, and then what’s next?” So, with the climate denialist, part of the assumption is, “Well, there’s these two major categories. Either you’re a climate change believer or a climate change denier,” and I think those aren’t the two categories because I don’t think of it as the issue as, “Do we impact climate or not?” I think most people believe we have some impact on climate. I think the main issue is, well, what do we do about fossil fuels and their climate impacts? And that means weighing the climate impacts positive and negative, and then looking at them in relation to the benefits of fossil fuels. So, I think my quick answer, which I wouldn’t give all this elaboration normally, is just I think of myself as a climate thinker. So, I think carefully about the benefits and side effects of fossil fuels and I do believe that one of their side effects is to having a warming impact on climate, but I don’t think of it as catastrophic, and I think overall fossil fuels make our climate better in terms of the livability and I think they make everything better.
So, firstly, thank you, Mr. Epstein, for being here. It’s not easy to have a controversial view about the climate. So, my main question is more philosophical.
Can I have your name?
I’m William, by the way.
I have a more philosophical view about climate change and fossil fuels. So, before I go on, you did say that we do have a pretty dogmatic view towards climate change and that we are indoctrinated to think that more CO2 is bad, and to a certain extent I do agree with that, but I did read part of your book and you do seem to have quite a unparalleled distrust towards most climate research, and you do dismiss quite a few studies by saying that, “Hey, experts were the ones that caused racism and this or that.” So, don’t you think your immediate dismissal of many of these studies is also quite dogmatic in and by itself?
So, what studies have I dismissed?
I apologize. I say studies, right? But I think the thing I mean the most is researchers. So, during chapter one, you’re like, “Hey, researchers aren’t always correct, and many times they’re actually wrong, and it’s the people who don’t agree with these researchers that actually lead to improvements of our world.” So, don’t you think that’s also a bit dogmatic?
I think you’re significantly misinterpreting what I’m saying there. Again, I said this earlier as well, the main thing is that... So, it’s definitely true that research can go wrong in a number of different ways, including it could be... One thing is just, it’s difficult. It’s difficult to do, particularly if you’re at the cutting edge, which is what most research is. It’s just difficult to be right about things. It can be difficult to do studies well. There are all sorts of funding things and those aren’t very significant because it just determines a lot of what gets done and what doesn’t get done. So, even if all the researchers are totally honest, if all the funding is going toward climate catastrophe stuff you’re going to get a lot more climate catastrophists than you would get in a different kind of system where there wasn’t this kind of funding.
But all that said, particularly in chapter one, my focus is not on researchers being wrong, it’s research being distorted. So, one example I gave was this idea of 1.5 or 2 degrees C. So, the idea that that’s a catastrophe level. And 1.5 or 2 degrees C is: amount of warming since the 1800s. So, since we’re at about one degree, it means half a degree or one degree is catastrophic, and we should do everything possible to avoid it, and yet if you look at, say, researchers, say in climate economics, most of them don’t even consider this a possibility, like William Nordhaus, the guy who won the Nobel Prize. If you look at his work, he doesn’t even consider 1.5 or 2 degrees C on his list of alternatives because the economics of trying to achieve it would be so destructive. So, it’s an example of where the different institutions and people responsible for conveying the research are going wrong.
So, the way I divide it is, there are researchers and there are synthesizers who are trying to put all the research together, but part of what they can do is they can go really wrong, either because it’s hard or for other motives. If you search EnergyTalkingPoints.com, if you search IPCC, I have a really in-depth analysis of what’s called the synthesis report. So, this is supposedly a synthesis of all the climate research, and what I point out is it has no mention at all of any benefits of fossil fuels, no climate... what I call climate mastery benefits, and no mention of climate-related disaster deaths going down. So, think about this. A synthesis report on climate doesn’t mention the rate of climate-related disaster. It doesn’t have a different opinion; it just doesn’t address the issue. Even the reports don’t address it, these larger synthesis reports of thousands of pages.
So, it’s very, very easy even if the research is good for it to be mis-synthesized. So, I wouldn’t say that, but it’s not that I distrust it all and I just say, “No, no, no, no, no,” and then I go listen to some crackpot or something like that. When I read the stuff I look at, are they actually doing a good synthesis? And one question is, are they leaving out any obvious variables? I do this a lot, like you take AI, there was that open letter from Elon Musk and all these other different people on AI, and I read this letter and this is supposedly... Oh, this is a synthesis of the experts, and it’s all about AI, and they don’t mention the positives of AI. And I’m not an AI expert, but I know enough to know that there are life-changing positives very obviously possible at least from AI in terms of medical diagnosis and people having their own individualized AI psychotherapist, and this will probably make billions of people’s lives better.
So, if you’re talking about that, you’re talking about AI, and you don’t talk about the positives, I know that you’re biased. And so that’s the kind of thing I do. I don’t just say, “Oh, I’m not going to read it because it’s experts.” No, I’m always looking for expert knowledge, but it’s, how do you get at the real expert research and how do you get credible people who are trying to synthesize it and what I call disseminate it and evaluate it? And that’s hard, but I look a lot at, are there any obvious shortcomings in what they’re doing? And I think there often are.
Yeah. Hi, my name is Rohan, and I’m just wondering, what makes you believe that humans can “harness” fossil fuels to neutralize the effects of climate change and what gives you this optimism that we can maybe counteract some of these future effects?
So, the core is that, just the observation of all of human history in the present that we can master climate danger. So, it’s interesting. People put it like, “Can we deal with the effects of climate change?” There’s this view, and I think it’s related to delicate nurturer, of, oh, well, the climate was good, and then we changed it, and so now we have to deal with this whole new category of problems of climate change. But all the category of problems of “climate change,” and even if we just focus on the negative ones, are just different and sometimes more extreme versions of things we deal with all the time and things that we used to not be able to deal with before we could master climates. You take things like heat waves, and you look at early 20th century when there was a lot of really deadly heat waves. You look at just people dying all over the place from heat waves. That wouldn’t happen today and it’s like, okay, what happened is, well, we developed air conditioning systems and certain kinds of insulation and make it easier to get shade and stuff like that.
Okay, so you just look at the different categories of things that can go wrong, and we’ve gotten amazing at neutralizing the climate danger even in extreme scenarios. So, then there’s a huge burden of proof that the change is going to be so dramatic that we can’t deal with it. So, one thing I think of is, well, yeah, if the temperatures are just going to accelerate out of control indefinitely, okay, then that’s an issue, but if they’re going to go up a few degrees, that’s not going to fundamentally challenge us, and then you look at the physics of it, and temperatures don’t go up exponentially. They go up what’s called logarithmically, and if you look at the history of the planet, we’ve had 10-plus times more CO2 and the planet didn’t burn up, and it’s because CO2 does not... It’s not this exponential runaway effect.
And then you think, “Okay, well, yeah, if sea levels rose multiple feet a decade, that would be a big problem,” but right now they’re rising about a foot a century and if it’s three feet a century as extreme projections say, is that going to be a huge problem? Well, we’re already good at dealing with sea level rise. We have 100 million people living below high tide sea level. We have the Netherlands where a lot of people live well below sea level and do well. So, storms, if storms get two or three times more powerful, yeah, that’s scary, but if they get 10% more powerful, as many projections say, like is that going to be a problem?
The confidence comes from seeing we have such a mastery ability where we’ve neutralized huge amounts of natural climate danger and made ourselves far safer from the baseline that that same ability can be used for new things, and by contrast, if we lost the energy that powers all the climate mastery, then we’d regress. Then we’d have more climate danger than we can imagine, which is what people had 100 years ago. The climate livability of 100 years ago is unimaginably bad compared to today, even though the climate is supposedly worse. Climate’s a little bit warmer, but the overall climate situation is infinitely better.
Hi, my name is Christian, and I have a question about biodiversity. So, I know there’s a statistic that there’s more forestry and green areas on the Earth, but there’s also some disturbing trends about some ecosystems being compromised by what some might say is climate change, and we see patterns where if ecosystems fall, then that has negative repercussions for food supply and other populations that are vulnerable. So, how would you deal with that with your human flourishing framework?
Yeah, really interesting issue. So, I think this is another case where I think the framework is very at work. So, there is a way of, like you want to think about these things about ecological issues. You want to think about them, but my view is they need to be thought of from a pro-human perspective. So, it’s not that changes in the global environment are necessarily bad, and in fact, they’re necessary if we want human beings to flourish a lot more. So, the question is, one is, when you’re looking at these things, are you looking at them from a human perspective or are you looking at them from an impact as bad perspective? I think many people are looking at them from an impact as bad perspective, and then part of that is this idea of, well, if you change one piece of the global ecosystem, it’s going to have negative effects.
You need to really study that kind of thing, but what we’ve seen– anyone talking about this needs to recognize that the Earth has become a far better place for human life over the last 100 years, and we’ve had a lot of impact. So, if somebody says, “Yeah, I acknowledge we’ve made the Earth much better overall. Our changes have been amazingly positive, but I’m concerned about X, Y, and Z.” That’s one thing. Most of the people talking this way will say, “No, no, no, we’re ruining the Earth. We’ve ruined the Earth and we’re making it even worse,” and if they view it as, “we’ve ruined the Earth,” then we have different moral standard because the Earth has never been more livable for human beings. So, if you regard it as ruined, you’re not evaluating it by a human or what I call human flourishing standard.
The other thing is when they’re looking at fossil fuels, are they looking at—this is related—are they looking at just negatives or are they looking at positives? And then also is there a tendency to exaggerate negatives? So, in this case, one thing that’s interesting with the ecosystem stuff and species is that it’s pretty obvious that slow climate changes are not the biggest problems here. It’s much more direct things like cutting things down for food. I mean, “problems.” I’m not saying it’s always wrong to do so, but if you’re just looking at a given ecosystem, it’s like cutting things down for food, having invasive species. These are the things that really affect things and one of the best ways to be able to deal with any kind of ecological concern is to be wealthy and to have energy that does not come from local biomass and does not necessitate cutting down local biomass.
And yet that’s what fossil fuels and nuclear do. They allow you to get the energy from underground so you don’t rely on your local biosphere, and also in contrast to solar and wind, they don’t take up nearly as much space, so you don’t have to cut down as much stuff and move as much stuff out of the way. So, I think it’s a legitimate area to explore, but the fixation on the negatives of fossil fuels, particularly climate as the dominant issue, and then the ignoring of the benefits of fossil fuels in terms of being able to preserve the things you want to preserve, I think that’s another example of the wrong framework.
Hello. My name is Arian, and I’d like to... So, you mentioned your optimism about nuclear power and that optimism is one I share and therefore, if nuclear power is able to be proliferated around the world, or at least in more economically developed countries, would you to some extent abandon your case for fossil fuels? And if so, should you perhaps be advocating for nuclear energy instead of fossil fuels?
Well, definitely not advocating for fossil fuels instead of nuclear energy. I do a lot of political activism, and I’ve mentioned this website, EnergyTalkingPoints.com, so I’m an advocate of what I call energy freedom. I want the freedom to produce and use all forms of energy with reasonable limits on pollution and other forms of endangerment. So, I’m a huge advocate of nuclear, and that comes across very strongly in Fossil Future. I talk a lot about how to liberate nuclear. My only problem with nuclear is just I don’t think the policy is anywhere near what it needs to be and in fact, I spend quite a bit of time and will spend quite a bit of time working on better nuclear policy. I think most people in nuclear have done very little good policy work and so we have a lot of terrible policies, but not a lot of good alternative policies.
So, my view—I talk about this in Fossil Future and my other work—is like, yes, if nuclear can get to the point where it scales and can actually outcompete fossil fuels, with today’s energy use, but also energy for a lot more people, yeah, that would be great, but that’s not a matter of me being against fossil fuels. It’s just a matter of me being pro-energy freedom. But I just want to say we are nowhere near the point where that is remotely appropriate. I mean, we’re in a world where even if you look at the last year where we’ve had this really bad global energy crisis, even attempts to just slow the growth of fossil fuels have been catastrophic in terms of higher fossil fuel prices, all sorts of crises around the world, Europe security crisis, poorer countries having trouble affording fuel, having trouble keeping the lights on.
So, I mean, nuclear is amazing, but it’s unfortunately been held back for 50 years by I think the same basic movement that’s opposing fossil fuels, but generally, when you get at things earlier, if you’re an opponent, you get to stop more. Like in Europe, they’ve stopped fracking. They haven’t stopped all drilling, but they’ve stopped fracking, not for any scientific reason, but just because it had novelty to it. And so nuclear is way behind. So, I’m trying to get it going as quickly as possible, but it’s way behind and so the reason I wrote Fossil Future, that I wrote another book and a replacement book on fossil fuels, is I think that’s the most existential issue for humanity: what happens to fossil fuels over the next few decades?
Nuclear, I’m doing everything I can to liberate it, but if you get fossil fuels wrong, you shorten billions of lives. If you get nuclear wrong, there’d be less growth and progress in the future, which is really bad, but you can see why I might focus on fossil fuels.
Hi, my name’s Esfandya. I was wondering what you thought of Bill Gates who took your approach of trying to suppress the climate effects by putting dust... Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he put dust in the atmosphere to basically block the sun and many people were saying that the consequences of this are just as bad as the consequences of fossil fuel.
Just one question, what category of people are seeing this? Because I’ve seen a lot of criticisms from right-wing people about this, but are there left-wing criticisms as well?
I just saw on the media. I didn’t–
Okay. Let me just make a quick meta point here, which is that... I’ll try to say this without complimenting myself, so I’ll compliment Bryan. I always try to look for positions, like people whose positions are not entirely predictable on things. That’s what makes them interesting and that usually gives you a sense of, “Oh, there’s something like, that the person’s a real figure.” So, when I read Bet On It, which I read most of, I’m genuinely curious to see what he thinks and when he says something about sexual revolution, I don’t know exactly what he’s going to say, which, that’s the thing I tend to look for.
So, I just had this experience yesterday and the day before because a couple of right-of-center kinds of shows interviewed me on this, and they were just expecting me to just totally blast like, “Biden is blocking out the sun and Bill Gates is blocking out the sun,” and stuff like this. I think you just need to think about this carefully. So, the idea is what’s called... They call it geoengineering, but this specific kind of proposal is, “Well, should you explore ways of cooling the Earth, and in particular, ways of cooling the Earth that involve processes that we know work? So, you have volcano explosions and the Earth will be cooler for some amount of time, and so can you replicate that?” I think just on the face of it, it’s a totally legitimate thing to explore. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s necessary to do, but is it legitimate for us to explore ways of manipulating climate?
I think absolutely. And if you think about, we’re already... Think about, well, we already have inadvertent manipulation of climate by nature, volcanoes, and I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to that so we have to deal with that kind of thing anyway. And then, we also through... We’re using fossil fuels and there’s something called particulate emission and that is generally believed to have a cooling effect, in addition to certain air pollution challenges, and we’re doing that. I mean, ideally you wouldn’t have that side effect if you could avoid it but we are doing that. So we’re altering the atmosphere that way.
And then, of course, we’re altering the atmosphere with CO2 and other greenhouse gases. So I think there’s something anti-technology about saying, “Well, we shouldn’t explore ways to do it deliberately. We should just do it accidentally.” So I think it’s a legitimate thing. I don’t agree with the crisis motivation. But in general, I think human beings should explore being able to master the climate directly. So right now, we mostly master it by building ourselves a resilient local environment but you’re going to want the ability to master the global climate.
Just think about the next ice age. Maybe we want to put that off or, you know, a really catastrophic event. Of course, you want to... I was going to say meteors which is a little different issue. I think, in general, there is this hostility toward manipulating nature that I think is problematic. And then also, I would criticize both kinds of left and right for just having these rote positions where if Biden does it or if DeSantis or whatever does it, it’s just bad. I think that’s very unlikely to be true that everything those people do is all good or all bad.
Hi, my name is Laila. I was wondering: in your book, you talk a lot about the more short-term impacts of increasing fossil fuel use or decreasing use. Do you think to an extent that the long-term impacts of using an increasing amount of fossil fuels are unpredictable enough and could be damaging enough that it might undermine your argument for increasing the use?
So I’m very focused on the next several decades because that’s the relevant time to make policy and it’s also the relevant time... It’s a time where you can have relative certainty about certainly the irreplaceability of fossil fuels. In terms of the negatives, the way I would look at it is just what are the... If people just say, “Well, it’s unpredictable,” that’s pretty empty. We have a lot of history around this. I mean, we’ve been using fossil fuels, putting more CO2 in the atmosphere and we’ve increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by about 50%. Right so like .027% to .042%. We’ve had periods in the Earth’s history where we’ve had 10 times times more CO2. So someone would just need to give me something that was in a category of like, “Oh wow, this could really get worse in 50 years.” I would just say... The only thing I could say is, “Well, you want to monitor things and you want to keep exploring your knowledge in general.”
And in any case, I’m very in favor of having the freedom necessary to develop truly cost-effective alternatives. I think, ideally, if I had my wish, we could control CO2. So it might be we learn, “Well, the best amount of CO2 is 900 parts per million, probably about 420 or so, 430 maybe.” Like maybe we learn that, but I would like to be able to control it versus, “Oh. Well, it’s just a byproduct of fossil fuels.”
Now, right now we don’t have that ability but maybe in 50 years we’ll have that ability. So there’s certainly nothing that makes me worried in a fundamental way but I think people should explore things but I think they should also explore the long-term effects. It’s not just short-term, it’s long-term effects. I mean, in a sense, every slowing of progress that you have is irreversible for the foreseeable future. You might’ve had this experience. I have a couple close friends, one person in particular where their mother died of cancer. They were very young. And then ten years later, that cancer was curable.
And so, anything that slowed down the rate of progress deprived them of a mother, and I think a lot of things slowed down the rate of progress. I think with fossil fuels and energy freedom is, if you allow people to use as much energy as possible, that frees up as much time as possible, it leads to as much innovation as possible. You have all these sort of “positive externalities” that emerge that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
And that includes our ability to master climate. So any climate negative anyone can imagine, I can much more realistically imagine a greater ability to master it, including—somebody brought up already—cooling. Yeah, I think we’ll develop cooling technology. And if warming becomes identified as a serious problem, the obvious thing to do is direct cooling versus changing everyone’s machines, changing billions and billions of machines to things that are not cost-effective. You would just find a way to cool the Earth. And so, I think in general people are just way too afraid of unpredictable negatives that don’t have any specific basis to them and they’re not afraid of losing unpredictable but categorically predictable positives.
So you just said in response to my question that if we get fossil fuels wrong, we harm 2 billion lives and then if we get–
I said billions of lives, really 8 billion lives.
Billions of lives. And then if we get nuclear wrong, nothing really happens but don’t you think that getting–
Hold on. Hold on. So I just think... To be fair to everyone, you just have to listen carefully. So, I didn’t say nothing would happen. I said, “We slow progress,” which, that is significant. I just said it’s not the same category as harming billions of lives.
So you say it’s not in the same category but don’t you think that could still shorten the longevity of the human race as a whole? And if so, maybe you should suspend the case for fossil future and advocate for a nuclear future instead.
What’s the mechanism of shortening the–
Longevity of the human race as a whole? What’s that mechanism?
If we are reliant on fossil future, then that will create at some point a climate that is not as hospitable to human life as it is today.
I mean, I guess it depends what you mean “at some point.” So what I’m advocating is a policy of energy freedom where you’re free to use the most cost-effective forms of energy. And so, part of that is, yeah, you’re liberating nuclear. It gets the opportunity to expand. For various reasons, it takes a long time to do. That, I think, is the best thing. Related to my answer to the previous question, I think the number one thing is just: do you have the freedom? And it’s really about the capability increase. Are human beings’ capabilities growing?
Because the more your capabilities grow, the more you can deal with any category of thing. The more capabilities we have, the more we can deal with the next virus or the next thing that we can’t predict. In the same way it was difficult to predict, the biggest thing in the world for a while would be a novel virus that we didn’t have pre-existing immunity to. So I think you have to advocate both. And so, I advocate freedom for both but advocating freedom for it doesn’t mean we’re forced to use it forever but it means we’re free to use it for the foreseeable future, which is existential.
Hi, my name is Eva. And your point is that people should keep using fossil fuels because they benefit human. And the problem I always heard about fossil fuels is that it’s an unrenewable energy and people will eventually use up the energy. So how do you think people can eventually solve this problem when one day the fossil fuel is used up?
So it’s not a novel kind of thing. So first of all, I don’t believe philosophically in the idea of “renewable.” I mean, nothing is renewable. Things just last different amounts of time. The sun is not renewable. The sun will burn out. I mean, everything is finite. And so, the economic kind of thing is just... The policy is pretty simple. It’s just, you use whatever is most cost-effective at a given time. And then, you evolve over time depending on different things including material constraints.
So as in, when it becomes harder to get oil from the ground, then prices go up and then you start looking at other alternatives. Or preferably even, it’s not just that, it’s that even if the price of oil stays the same, you discover new things. One perspective on resources is—this is part of the delicate nurturer idea—that we’re taught resources as given to us by nature. Whereas really, they’re created from nature.
So, aluminum is viewed as a natural resource but it’s not naturally a resource. It’s very abundant and it’s useful if you know how to use it but it was naturally useless for a long time. Same thing for oil, same thing for coal, same thing for gas, and same thing for different deposits of oil, coal, and natural gas. Like all the shale gas that we have in the US, that was not accessible in the fairly recent past. It wasn’t a resource.
So the thing is you just want to leave everything free so the prices can guide what to use at a given time and that whole system rewards innovation. And so, what you find is the world has more and more “non-renewable resources” every time. Because it’s ultimately, the resource is just providing a service to you. And so, what you find is when people are free, you get more and more and more valuable services.
And what you don’t want to do is you don’t want to say, “Hey, I’m worried about running out of oil in 200 years so let’s use something inferior now.” Because then, you compromise your standard of living now, you reduce your rate of innovation, you screw over your future, and you don’t discover the better thing. So this idea of, well, we should use solar and wind now because they’re “renewable,” but if they’re inferior now, why do we want to commit indefinitely to doing something inferior? I would rather do six consecutive things in a row for a million years that were just superior, superior, superior.
Thank you very much, Alex. Martin here. I’ve been–
Oh, hey, Martin. Oh, wow. We ran out of time. So thanks, everyone. Wow. Thanks. We had so many people asking questions so thank you for that. That was exciting.
Yeah. Good. And I’m impressed with the kind of questions we got. I want to tie the whole thing up with one last question that’ll bring it to some of the things that we’ve been learning about during the last few days.
Dr. Jamie White has been arguing that when we generate energy with a byproduct of carbon dioxide, there’s a benefit to the energy, which is obvious, and there’s also a cost to the energy. Partly, that cost is the money it costs to buy but the other part of the cost is the externality that we impose on other people. And so, Dr. White has been arguing that rather than having a thousand regulations and subsidies and things like that, what we should do is we should try to price the externality and just say, “Everybody can do whatever they want as long as they’re willing to pay the Pigovian tax that is the best guess that we can make about the externality.” And I wanted to just hear what you had to say about that before we close off.
Okay. I can only say it a bit because I have to catch a plane. I have... I don’t know if you can circulate this but at EnergyTalkingPoints.com, one of the recent things is called The Myth of Fossil Fuel Subsidies. So it goes into this specific issue a lot. I think it’s Fallacy 4. It goes into... So one thing is yes, so part of the externalities argument... The one thing I agree with is it would be better to have a tax than to have these bajillion things.
But in practice, what happens is people don’t advocate... They don’t advocate the tax to replace it, they advocate the tax in addition to it. So this is one of the fallacies that you hear of people saying, “Oh, fossil fuels are still subsidized,” but the amount of tax that they have via regulation is just catastrophically high. I mean, that’s why we had so much of a global energy crisis.
So we’re already paying massive, massive prices for these, so-called “negative externalities.” So I would say that then, that’s one thing about policy. I’d say when you’re thinking about this, just in terms of a methodological thing, to go back to weighing benefits and side effects, you just have to make sure that you are really being even-handed and precise about it.
So that includes with the CO2. Are you being even-handed about the benefits of CO2? Because CO2 does have very significant benefits in terms of plant growth and in terms of warming. Warming is a big benefit in a lot of places, particularly if you look at how it occurs. It’s more concentrated in cold places than warm places generally and many more multiples of people die of cold than of heat. And so, what I see in these externality calculations is they tend to exaggerate negatives and ignore positives. And then, also, I think, ignore the positive externalities of cheaper energy.
So if you think about, “What are the positive externalities of having cheap airplane flight?” which nothing has been able to do for the past several decades. How do you measure those? What are all the innovations that have occurred from that? All the different life-saving things that have happened, those are not just captured in the price. They’re positive externalities.
So I tend to think that most people talking about externalities are making the same basic mistakes of ignoring positives—o in this case, the positive externalities of cheaper energy and these unique forms of energy and the positives of CO2and then, they tend to exaggerate the negatives. And I think if we had listened to these people X number of decades ago, the world would be a much poorer place. An interesting example of this is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who I debated a few years ago.e’s become big and he says he wants to debate everyone but he’s been refusing to debate me.
But when we debated last time, I asked him, “So how much should a gallon of gasoline cost under your externalities view?” and his view is $12.50 a gallon. And so, my view is like if you had done that to the global economy because of your skewed view of externalities, you would’ve prevented things like billions of Chinese and Indians getting out of poverty. So I think if you’re in the externalities framework, I have some stuff to say outside of this about what’s problematic with that framework. But if you’re in that framework, you need to apply it using even-handedness and precision and I think Fossil Future can help with that.
Okay. Well, we’re going to let you take your flight but we want to thank you first.
All right. Thank you. And if anyone wants to get in touch with me, my email’s email@example.com.
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