Commentary: The Pessimistic Rationalist and the Philosopher of Fossil Fuels
Commentary by Rupert Darwall originally published by RealClearEnergy.org and RealClearWire.com
More than 80% of global GDP is covered by national net-zero targets. Strip away the hype, and net zero emerges as a project that the West is foisting on the rest of the world. Climate commitments of the fastest-growing emitters are worth little more than the paper they’re written on. If only strong commitments and clear plans are included, the number shrinks from 80% to 10% of global GDP, according to Oxford University’s Net Zero Tracker, a category that does not include the United States. Its net-zero target is not written into law, and its net-zero plan is deemed incomplete and lacking formal accountability. Nonetheless, the war on fossil fuels is taking a heavy toll—both on the West, which initiated hostilities, and on the billions of the world’s energy-poor.
A major front in this war is the West’s investment embargo on oil, gas, and coal production. The outcome has been to turn a cyclical squeeze from the economic rebound from the Covid pandemic into a structural one. According to the head of the world’s largest oil company, Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser, warning signs of an impending energy crisis have been flashing for the best part of a decade, years before Russia’s latest attack on Ukraine. Between 2014 and 2021, annual investment in oil and gas more than halved, from $700 billion to a little over $300 billion. In short, the world is experiencing the first crisis of the energy transition. Highly damaging energy shocks will intensify for as long as the West continues to prosecute its war on fossil fuels. Yet for Vaclav Smil, author of How the World Really Works, and Alex Epstein, author of Fossil Future, there is little doubt about the eventual outcome: the West is going to lose this war, the biggest unknown being the losses that the West inflicts upon itself and on vulnerable non-belligerents, principally among them 1 billion energy-starved Africans.
Their two books could hardly be better timed; as Smil puts it, “crises expose realities.” Although the approaches adopted by Smil and Epstein are different, there is synchronicity between the two. Both emphasize how fossil fuels multiply the effectiveness of human labor. “An average inhabitant of the Earth nowadays has at their disposal nearly 700 times more useful energy than their ancestors had at the beginning of the 19th century,” writes Smil in How the World Really Works. In two centuries, the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat fell from ten minutes to less than two seconds. Modern life is a product of fossil fuels. “If it were not for the time that fossil fuels free up, there would be no medical industry as we know it,” Epstein writes in Fossil Future. The conclusions of both are virtually interchangeable, Smil writing that society’s increasing dependence on fossil fuels is “the most important factor in explaining the advances of modern civilization.” Or, as Epstein puts it, posing a counterfactual of past elimination of fossil fuels and forgoing their uniquely ubiquitous benefits, “we can be certain that rapid fossil fuel elimination would have been catastrophic for billions of people—prematurely ending billions of lives, preventing the decrease of extreme poverty, and causing an incalculable amount of suffering.”
Climate and energy policy is systematically distorted by not evaluating the benefits of fossil fuels. As Epstein points out, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on down, no advocate of net zero ever answers this question: In what year did the climate costs of fossil fuels overwhelm the benefits of using them? Answering it requires conceding that fossil fuels benefit humanity, a line that climate activists refuse to cross, and the central purpose of both books is placing the benefits of fossil fuels front and center.
Smil and Epstein both recognize the threat of net zero to the welfare of the world’s poor. Per acre of agricultural land, Ethiopia uses one-eighth the amount of fertilizer that the EU uses. Cutting emissions by cutting down on the amount of fertilizer might be an option for affluent countries, but, writes Smil, “hundreds of millions of stunted children, mostly in Africa, need to drink more milk and eat more meat.” It’s easier to stop something new than to slow something already under way, Epstein points out. Thus, the West finds it easier to prevent fossil fuel development in Africa and indefinitely delay the world’s poorest places in freeing themselves from poverty than to slow down the economic development of India and China.
Smil demolishes the idea that decarbonizing electricity generation eliminates dependence on fossil fuels. Despite the long-term trend toward electrification, electricity supplies 18% of global energy consumption. Furthermore, fossil fuels are essential inputs into what Smil calls the four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. Global production of these accounts for 17% of the world’s primary energy supply and globally accounts for 25% of carbon dioxide emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels. Smil calls the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia “perhaps the most momentous technical advance in history,” paving the way for widespread use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers that took off in the 1960s with the use of natural gas as the source of hydrogen, thereby enabling the Green Revolution. “The high yields produced with unprecedented low costs would be impossible without direct and indirect infusions of fossil energies,” Smil writes. “Without fossil fuels or their equivalent,” Epstein observes, “food production would collapse,” a truth borne out by the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Sri Lanka caused by its government banning synthetic fertilizers at the behest of Western green activists.
Describing himself as neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but a scientist—we’ll come to Smil’s pessimism in a moment—Smil’s handling of the relevant history is second to none. A brief history of globalization starts from the Dutch expansion in the 17th century (“this was just an incipient, secretive, and limited globalization without any nationwide impacts”); the steam-powered, screw-propelled globalization of the late 19th century; the advent of containerization in 1957 and the first shipments of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) in the early 1960s through to the impact of the first energy crisis in 1973. Post-1973 globalization more than tripled the mass of seaborne trade and altered its composition. Before 1973, oil and crude tanker traffic accounted for over half the transported total. By 2018, goods amounted to about 70%.
The 1973–74 energy crisis is a major turning point in Smil’s narrative. In inflation-adjusted terms, the world price of oil was lower in 1950 than it was in 1940, lower in 1960 than in 1950, and lower still in 1970 than in 1960. OPEC more than quadrupling the price of oil brought to an abrupt end the three-decade postwar expansion. While the Marshall Plan gets credit for kick-starting Europe’s post-1945 economic recovery, the crucial role of cheap, abundant energy is neglected. “It is hard to understand why modern economics,” comments Smil, “has largely ignored energy.”
The flexibility of energy markets in responding to higher oil prices undergirded a second 30-year global expansion, lifting more people out of poverty than ever before. The Iranian revolution triggered a second oil-price spike, rising from $13 a barrel in 1978 to $34 a barrel in 1981 and in 1986, falling back to $13. In 1995, crude oil extraction surpassed its 1978 record, but oil never regained its previous prominence, its share of primary energy supply falling from 45% in 1970 to 38% at the turn of the century.
The market dynamics following the two energy crises of the 1970s, triggered by war and revolution in the Middle East, are fundamentally different from the current one caused by the West’s war on fossil fuels. This time, the casus belli is to save the planet from catastrophic climate change, so its very design creates energy shortages and structurally high prices. Here, Smil raises a question mark. “Appraisals of the environment are perhaps even more prone to unwarranted generalization, biased interpretation, and outright misinformation than those of energy and food production,” Smil says. Global climate change is extraordinarily complex. “To believe that our understanding of these dynamic, multifactorial realities has reached the state of perfection is to mistake the science of global warming for the religion of climate change.” More generally, Smil notes that those prophesying catastrophe in one form or another have been wrong time after time. Epstein comments that the climate impacts of carbon dioxide emissions are “extremely hard for current science to accurately predict.” He contrasts the failure of past predictions of catastrophe—in 1986, John Holdren, future science adviser to President Obama, had suggested that carbon dioxide–induced climate famines could claim the lives of as many as a billion people before 2020—with the 98% reduction in climate-related fatalities since the 1920s.
Differences between Smil and Epstein are also illuminating. Smil’s metrics to assess the future center on survivability—breathing, drinking, and eating. Epstein’s metric is the advancement of human flourishing, which he defines as “increasing the ability of human beings to live long, healthy, fulfilling lives.” Smil’s metrics imply a constrained, minimalist conception of the human condition; Epstein’s imply an expansionary, optimistic conception. Central to Epstein’s case is the century-long precipitous fall in climate-related deaths, when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen, demonstrating that having more wealth generates the means of providing greater physical resilience against extreme weather—what Epstein calls “climate mastery.” Using fossil fuels to generate wealth extends and deepens protection to billions of the world’s poor against a world that, in its primal state, is dangerous and inhospitable.
It is here that Epstein’s training as a philosopher comes to the fore. Smil takes as an objective datum the West’s elevation of man-made climate change as the preeminent global challenge of our times and therefore its decision to wage war on fossil fuels, pointing to the “unmistakably increasing (albeit not unanimous) conviction that, of all the risks we face, global climate change is the one that needs to be tackled most urgently and effectively”—but does not question it. As a scientist of ideas, Epstein explores the ideas and values that lie behind this conviction. The principal idea of this belief system—and let’s call it what it is: an ideology—is that human impact on nature is intrinsically bad. This, in turn, reflects another ideological tenet, one that Epstein calls the “delicate nurturer assumption.” Absent human impact, Earth exists in an optimal, delicate balance, neatly summarized by Mufasa in The Lion King, when he tells Simba: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance.”
This constitutes an antihuman standard of evaluation, Epstein argues, as its logic decrees that the world becomes a better place, the more that human impact is minimized. “To have as our goal the elimination of human impact is to fundamentally oppose the productive transformation of nature that human life requires.” He cites anti–fossil fuel activist Bill McKibben’s statement that the goal should be a humbler world where humans have less impact and where “human happiness would be of secondary importance”; and biologist David Graber’s statement that until humanity decides to rejoin nature, whatever that means, the only hope for biocentrists like him and McKibben is for “the right virus to come along.”
It is hard to overstate the long-term impact of these ideas in goading the West to declare war on fossil fuels. Fifty years ago, in the run-up to the first United Nations conference on the environment, in Stockholm, authors Barbara Ward and René Dubos wrote in “Only One Earth” that small changes in the planet’s balance of energy could change average temperatures by two degrees centigrade; “downwards, this is another ice age, upwards to an ice-free age. In either case, the effects are global and catastrophic.” Twenty years later, at the Rio Earth Summit, the idea that human impact on climate is presumptively bad was hardwired into the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, which has the objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at a level to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
Using a human flourishing standard, Epstein flips the framing. “We want to avoid not ‘climate change’ but ‘climate danger,’ ” a formulation that has a pre-echo in the developing world’s pushback against ecologism in the debates ahead of the 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment. The problem to be solved, Brazil’s ambassador to the UN, Miguel Álvaro OsÃ³rio de Almeida, declared, “is not achieving an ‘ecological balance,’ but, on the contrary, obtaining the most efficient forms of ‘long-term ecological imbalance.’ The problem is not to exterminate mankind now, in the name of ecological equilibrium, but to prolong our ability to use natural resources for as long as possible.” Based on that standard, there would be no war on fossil fuels. Instead, there would be renewed efforts to make them more abundant and more affordable.
Ultimately, disagreement about climate change is not about data but about values. As an ideology, environmentalism and its climate-change spawn are triumphant. Their conquest of the West is almost total. To oppose or even question it is to invite cancellation. The absence of opposition led the West to adopt an extreme manifestation of this ideology in the form of net-zero targets that require their societies to be completely reorganized around the goal of the near-elimination of fossil fuels and the minimization of the use of materials—Smil’s four pillars of modern civilization—that require large amounts of fossil fuels to make them.
Smil’s book demonstrates that there is essentially zero chance of this goal being achieved. Fanatical pursuit of net zero, what Epstein all too accurately calls the West’s “unilateral disempowerment,” will bring the West to its knees. The only way to avoid this outcome is to expose and defeat the animating ideology behind net zero. In this regard, Smil is circumspect. He tiptoes around the ideological component of climate change, an approach with important benefits in terms of widening the potential readership of his book.
By contrast, Epstein’s purpose is to defeat the ideology of climate change on the battlefield of ideas. For this reason, the most important chapter of his book—and, indeed, Smil’s—is the last one, which sets out Epstein’s blueprint on how to do this. “As long as the public remains clueless about the fundamental and unique benefits of fossil fuels, eliminating carbon dioxide emissions will seem like a low-cost or even costless goal,” he says. Epstein’s aim is to break the monopoly of the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels, and his most significant finding is that climate change as an ideology has feet of clay. Through countless interactions, Epstein has found that the key to changing minds is by asking people to agree to the principle of considering the full context—and what follows is relatively easy. “The whole anti-impact framework consists of largely implicit, unscrutinized beliefs that persist for most people only because their true nature and positive alternatives have not been made explicit.”
“One factor that will contribute to breaking the moral monopoly against fossil fuels is reality,” Epstein says. Because both books describe the reality of modern civilization’s dependence on fossil fuels, in the current climate, they are both dangerous books and subversive to the prevailing anti–fossil fuel ideology. One difference between the two is that How the World Really Works was reviewed in the Washington Post, whereas Epstein was the target of a botched hit job in the same paper. Both authors are to be commended for this achievement, as it shows that their books matter. Everyone should be encouraged to read one of these indispensable books. Or read both.
Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow at RealClearFoundation, researching issues from international climate agreements to the integration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals in corporate governance. He has also written extensively for publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including The Spectator, Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Daily Telegraph.