Is massive attempt to transform global energy system working against the interests of humankind? We should be asking this question
By Terence Corcoran, National Post, Feb. 8, 2023
The global policy consensus on the future of energy is clear: Fossil fuels are done, finished, peaking, on the way out and never to return once their 100-year role as the engine of human progress has been reduced to net-zero by 2050. That, at least, is the general thrust of the 2023 edition of the BP Energy Outlook released last week based on BP’S carbon control policy models.
The BP outlook is short but densely speculative, and not particularly convincing one way or another. The outcomes are based on simulated future energy environments “dominated by four trends: declining role for hydrocarbons, rapid expansion in renewables, increasing electrification, and growing use of low-carbon hydrogen” along with a “central role for carbon capture and removal” — all directed and subsidized by governments.
But: Could it be that the massive effort to transform the global energy system is working against the best interests of humankind? That’s the question now being debated on the sidelines of the great transition between two climate policy wonks who have been branded by greens and some mainstream media as members of the climate “denier” community.
The debate broke out last week when Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado — and an effective longtime critic of much official and media-driven climate science and policy — wrote a critical review of a 2022 book by Alex Epstein that challenges the prevailing view that carbon-emitting energy sources must be purged from the global energy system. The book’s title says it all: Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less.
Even though Pielke and Epstein have clearly stated that they believe climate change is taking place, both are ranked as climate disinformationists and/or deniers. On Desmog’s “Disinformation Database” their respective breaches of climate orthodoxy are documented at length. (Full disclosure: Desmog once described the editor of this page thusly—“Terry Corcoran: King ofCanadian Climate ChangeDeniers,” a title of whichI have apparently been stripped.)
Fossil fuels have led to ‘flourishing’ of humans and will continue to do so
In his book, Epstein sets his theme in the opening sentences when he writes
“I am going to make the case that more fossil fuel use will actually make the world a far better place, a place where billions more people will have the opportunity to flourish, including: to pull themselves out of poverty, to have a chance to pursue their dreams, and — this will likely seem craziest of all — to experience higher environmental quality and less danger from climate.”
Through a few graphs and 400+ pages of argument and exposition, Epstein portrays the soaring use of cost-effective fossil fuels over the past century as the driving force that made possible what he sees as the “flourishing” of humans on an otherwise inhospitable planet. “Save the world,” he says, “with fossil fuels.”
On its release early in 2022, Fossil Future received contradictory pro and con reviews. Pielke joins the debate late. He argues that Epstein’s claims about the transformative benefits of fossil fuels over the past century are based on faulty logic. Above all, he says, Epstein “conflates correlation with causation and also means with ends.” It is undeniable, writes Pielke, that global development since the Industrial Revolution has been powered almost completely by fossil fuels. But that correlation does not lead to the conclusion that the global energy future must also be based on fossil fuels.
As an example of how a country can flourish with reduced fossil fuel consumption Pielke cites France, which slashed its oil and coal consumption since the 1960s by shifting to nuclear power. Good point, although Epstein also happens to be a big proponent of nuclear energy, which he says “has demonstrated by far the most potential as an alternative to fossil fuels.” He argues that nuclear power, while filled with promise, has been “criminalized” by activists.
Pielke also accuses Epstein of ignoring the downsides of fossil fuel dependence, including “pollution, insecurity, and economic risks.” While Epstein in his book acknowledges such “downsides,” he does not see them as a justification for fossil fuel elimination. Just because economic activity does not properly price and account for all fossil fuel externalities such as climate change does not mean that “the government should take action to make fossil fuels more expensive.”
‘Sustainable’ fuels cannot provide energy system the world needs
Which takes us to what seems like the real heart of the Epstein/pielke clash. In Fossil Future, Epstein outlines his view that solar, wind, biofuels, carbon sequestration, electric vehicles and other state-mandated projects cannot offer the kind of energy system the world needs. Moreover, the externalities caused by moving to zero fossil fuels will exceed the externalities of their continued use. Pielke, on the contrary, is inclined to support the official global policy objectives as outlined by the International Energy Agency and the BP Energy Outlook mentioned earlier.
Pielke, in other words, has confidence in the need for and likely effectiveness of government-mandated decarbonization through cost-effective alternatives to fossil fuels. Epstein sees no such benefits and warns that fossil fuels are the key to human flourishing in the future.
In response to texted messages, Epstein said Pielke and other critics present a “significant distortion of my view and then argue against it.” He said he will be formally responding to Pielke and others in a few weeks. Let the debate continue!