Should We Burn More Fossil Fuels, Not Less?

A sequel to “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” doubles down on a flawed defense of oil, gas, and coal.

By , a student at Harvard College, and , a student at Harvard College.
An earth mover loads a truck with coal at the Wieczorek coal mine in Katowice, Poland, on April 14, 2004.
An earth mover loads a truck with coal at the Wieczorek coal mine in Katowice, Poland, on April 14, 2004.
An earth mover loads a truck with coal at the Wieczorek coal mine in Katowice, Poland, on April 14, 2004. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This February, in the same week that Russian armed forces plunged Europe into war, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came together to finalize its latest report. The job of the panel, a United Nations-sponsored collaborative of thousands of top scientists worldwide, is to produce comprehensive summaries of what scientists know about our warming planet. And from ivory towers in the United States to bomb shelters in Ukraine, a clear call arose: The chance to limit warming to the bounds of the international Paris Agreement is still alive, but only with “urgent and ambitious action at all scales.”

The juxtaposition was lost on few—least of all, many Ukrainians: “This is,” as the nation’s top climate scientist put it, “a fossil fuel war.” From the hundreds of millions of dollars in oil money funding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military aggression each day to the years of efforts by Western fossil fuel companies to prop up Russia’s economy, the connection between the age of combustion and global destabilization has in many ways never been clearer.

So, is this the moment to tackle global security and planetary well-being by doubling down on clean energy and green technology? Alex Epstein, who describes himself as a “philosopher and energy expert,” would be the first to answer with a definitive no. Epstein first burst onto the scene with his 2014 book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, whose thesis, endorsed in the likes of the Wall Street Journal, has been echoed by governments and corporations worldwide. Now in his new book, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less, Epstein returns to his argument that fossil fuels aren’t the problem but the solution: “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.”

This February, in the same week that Russian armed forces plunged Europe into war, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came together to finalize its latest report. The job of the panel, a United Nations-sponsored collaborative of thousands of top scientists worldwide, is to produce comprehensive summaries of what scientists know about our warming planet. And from ivory towers in the United States to bomb shelters in Ukraine, a clear call arose: The chance to limit warming to the bounds of the international Paris Agreement is still alive, but only with “urgent and ambitious action at all scales.”

The juxtaposition was lost on few—least of all, many Ukrainians: “This is,” as the nation’s top climate scientist put it, “a fossil fuel war.” From the hundreds of millions of dollars in oil money funding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military aggression each day to the years of efforts by Western fossil fuel companies to prop up Russia’s economy, the connection between the age of combustion and global destabilization has in many ways never been clearer.

Book cover of Alex Epstein's Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less

Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less, Alex Epstein, Portfolio, 480 pp., $30, May 2022

So, is this the moment to tackle global security and planetary well-being by doubling down on clean energy and green technology? Alex Epstein, who describes himself as a “philosopher and energy expert,” would be the first to answer with a definitive no. Epstein first burst onto the scene with his 2014 book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, whose thesis, endorsed in the likes of the Wall Street Journal, has been echoed by governments and corporations worldwide. Now in his new book, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less, Epstein returns to his argument that fossil fuels aren’t the problem but the solution: “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.”

But while Epstein is right to demand a moral analysis of our energy future, he fatally undermines his conclusions with a lack of faith in human ingenuity and, in some instances, an apparent disregard for relevant scientific context.


Fossil Future starts with a premise few would dispute: Fossil fuels helped create the modern world. Access to low-cost energy, as Epstein rightly points out, has been responsible for lifting millions of people out of abject poverty, making inhospitable environments livable, and supplying the goods and services that underlie modern standards of living. In recent human history, energy has largely meant fossil fuels. As a result, we’re just not ready to turn off the taps tomorrow—fossil fuels are part and parcel of the world we’ve made.

From here, Epstein makes his moral claim: The goal for energy policymakers, he writes, should be to enable “human flourishing—human beings’ ability to live long, healthy, fulfilling lives.” As he sees it, access to cheap energy is what makes this possible. And, he adds, “Clearly there is something special about fossil fuels’ conduciveness to cost-effective energy production that makes them the dominant source of energy. With “virtually no possibility” for even “partial replacements” to viably reduce fossil fuel consumption, a greener world is to him inherently a more expensive one, resulting in “a moral case for a fossil future” that “extends generations.” As a result, by calling for a scale-down of fossil fuel usage, the mainstream environmentalist movement is profoundly anti-human.

Such is especially true, Epstein charges, for the developing world. Ten percent of humanity remains without access to power today. Given the book’s conviction that fossil fuels are and will be a “uniquely cost-effective source of energy,” the energy transition will thus “shorten and inflict misery on billions of lives, especially in the poorest parts of the world.” The net-zero emissions goals that most major countries and corporations espouse, if achieved, would be “the most significant act of mass murder since the killings of one hundred million people by communist regimes in the twentieth century.”

So, if we’re truly sleepwalking into moral tragedy, how did it go so wrong? In short, Epstein argues, we’ve been lied to. Everyone from the media to governments to the scientific community tells us that the consequences of inaction will be profound. But these voices, he writes, are the product of a deeply ingrained “anti-impact framework”—a philosophy that prioritizes the purity of nature over the well-being of actual humans. As a result, the climate establishment is not just anti-fossil fuel but anti-energy: it’s “operating [on] some kind of systemic hostility to cost-effective energy as such,” driving it to engage in “benefit denial” that undercounts the positive impact of fossil fuels while dramatically overstating their costs.

Rejecting this “anti-human, anti-energy” framework means realizing that “if you want to make the world a better place, one of the best things you can do is fight for more fossil fuel use—more burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.”


Underlying Epstein’s conclusion are two crucial claims: that the consequences of climate change are dramatically smaller than we have been led to believe and that fossil fuels are, and will be for generations to come, the only way to provide cheap energy at scale.

This first claim—that experts are “driving the climate knowledge system to overstate the negative climate impacts of fossil fuels”—deserves careful scrutiny, as science operates through the formation of expert consensus. Leading bodies of experts such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Royal Society, and the National Academies of Sciences are unequivocal that the consequences of climate change will be profound. If Epstein’s opinion is indeed true, it would represent a spectacular failure of the scientific enterprise as a whole.

So, is it? Epstein may feel that “climate scientists lack the causal understanding of climate needed to make meaningful predictions” and that climate models have been massaged to match past data and have “no real confidence.” But scholars who have empirically tested decades-old climate models have found that they’ve robustly and accurately projected temperatures up to the present day. Epstein states that temperatures and carbon dioxide levels were much higher hundreds of millions of years ago, so therefore CO2 can’t really be all that harmful to life—we’re merely moving “in a slightly more tropical direction.” But this statement lacks key context: While it is indeed true that life has persisted through a massive range of conditions, scientific study of this climate history finds that shifts between these periods were often defined by devastating ecological destabilization events.

And while Epstein takes the fact that “for even the last hundred years, let alone before that, there has been a very limited thermometer presence in much of the world” to signify a “lack of quality historical climate data,” he seems to be unaware of the volumes of research on how tools like ice core data provide exactly this with great accuracy. Epstein paints a paranoid picture of a climate science that cannot be trusted—that as a result of its anti-impact and anti-human philosophies is “incentivized to make extreme predictions.” Perhaps that’s because the book simply doesn’t engage with much of the relevant scientific context.

Back in 2014, Epstein didn’t hesitate to engage in explicit skepticism. His first book, for example, calls the idea that essentially all climate scientists agree on humans’ role in warming, which is well substantiated, a “fabrication.” Today, he seems to adeptly realizes that many policymakers will no longer find that stance credible. Thus, the new book repackages the same skepticism in a different vessel, paying lip service to the idea that human activity may cause “a few degrees of warming” while arguing that it’s simply not a problem. This is because of “fossil-fueled climate mastery,” or the belief that humans have “mastered” climate until now and therefore will continue to do so into the future. “The fact that we flourish under a dynamic set of climate dangers,” he writes, “means we will be able to handle a wide variety of future dynamic dangers.”

It’s an approach that represents a profound cynicism about humanity’s scientific and technological capacity. Rather than changing the climate’s overall course, the book presumes that the only pragmatic option is to reactively respond to the challenges the present course might pose. Sea level rising? Just build more dams and seawalls, he says. (Perhaps the people of Kiribati should try that.) If the ocean is acidified, that’s no matter—he endorses seeding the oceans with iron dust to increase nutrients for marine life. (Never mind the massive economic and biological costs of excessive phytoplankton blooms.) If CO2 levels rise, recall how “Almost no one even thinks about the fact that CO2 is plant food.” (Research suggests changing temperatures decrease crop yields overall, likely outweighing any benefits of increased CO2 levels.) Addressing the issue at the root is impossible, the argument goes, so we might as well just slap Band-Aids on the wound.

Moreover, this is the sort of approach that writes off the very countries Epstein purports to be defending. Top climate economists are clear that the cost of unmitigated climate change dwarfs the spending required to reach net-zero and that when the bill comes due, it’s those least able to pay who will face the highest costs. Perhaps Epstein has the likes of New York or San Francisco in mind when he brushes off the many billions of dollars that projects such as seawalls can require. But telling the developing world that it will have no choice but to allocate ever greater percentages of its GDP to holding back the oceans and cleaning the air as the developed world continues warming the planet simply isn’t a reasonable or just plan.


The second claim deserves careful scrutiny as well, given the massive technological advances in renewable energy in recent years. How does Epstein justify the idea that fossil fuels will be the most cost-effective energy source long into the future?

Sometimes, it’s simple carelessness with the data. For example, he dismisses wind and solar by suggesting that metrics such as the “levelized cost of energy” (that is, costs of adding new generating capacity to the grid) dramatically overstate their affordability by failing to consider government subsidies. The documentation clearly states, however, that the industry-standard methodology for calculating these statistics explicitly takes subsidies into account. And as it turns out, even when incentives for renewables (and the far more sizable government handouts to fossil fuels) are considered, they’re still every bit as competitive across a wide variety of use cases.

Other times, it’s the result of broader limitations of his philosophical framework. On hydropower, he suggests that the ways in which environmentalists have “suppressed” it limit its prospects for growth. On nuclear, he contradicts himself: He states at one point that if only the environmental establishment would cease its “criminalization” of the technology, nuclear energy could “produce low-cost, on-demand energy that can meaningfully supplement and someday even replace fossil fuels,” while stating elsewhere that there is “virtually no possibility” that “alternatives to fossil fuels will become partial replacements for fossil fuels” for the foreseeable future. Epstein is absolutely right to note the safety and massive potential of nuclear and hydropower, but his need to depict the climate establishment as “anti-human,” as “a menace to our future, spreading deadly lies about energy,” gets in the way of his ability to take these potential solutions seriously.

Certainly, scaling first steps into global energy systems that can meaningfully displace fossil fuels will be no easy task. From technical questions (like how best to build the transmission lines and other physical underpinnings needed for reliable green grids) to moral ones (like how to ensure that the fruits of the green economy are shared in a fair and regenerative way), many steps remain on the road to climate justice. But for a self-declared proponent of “industrial progress,” Epstein’s evaluation of this endeavor as doomed from the outset represents a profound lack of faith in the power of technological innovation and transformative change.

There is an unavoidable contradiction at the core of Epstein’s “fossil future”: Even as the author depicts himself as a defender of laissez-faire freedom, the world he wants is simply dying on the open market. Investors are allocating far more toward renewables than fossil fuel power. Institutional funds that divest from fossil fuels are often making money in the process. Electric vehicles, heat pumps, and batteries are progressing to a point where opposing them is simply anti-business. Even fossil fuels’ reliance on massive levels of corporate welfare isn’t saving the industry from a story of historic long-term decline. Meanwhile, this is an age when the price of new photovoltaic generation has fell nearly 90 percent from 2009 to 2019, when the clean energy sector is creating millions of jobs worldwide, and when rather than be left behind as the global north cashes in on the energy transition, the developing world Epstein claims to speak for is increasingly seeking to lead: India, for example, is as of writing the world’s third-largest producer of renewable energy.

Denying the opportunities brought about by this reality only works if one presumes that when faced with the questions of the future, the best we can do is to turn to the answers of the past.


The shortcomings of Epstein’s analysis of science and technology make clear the shortcomings of his philosophy. He conceives of “nature” and “humans” as two wholly disparate entities and thus sees a binary outcome: either nature subordinate to humans (the “pro-human” framework), or humans subordinate to nature (the “anti-impact” belief). Were he not so driven to underestimate the state of climate science and renewable energy technology, however, he’d see that there’s a third option: a coexistence with nature that allows for human flourishing in the long term. In demanding a moral analysis of the issue, and one centered around delivering progress for all, Epstein makes a welcome intervention. But a framework that presumes prior results guarantee future outcomes is hardly a way to get there.

Ultimately, no amount of special pleading can change the fact that the industrial progress Epstein is so fond of is inseparable from the practice of the scientific communities and social movements he tries so hard to ignore. Epstein’s disregard for climate science leads him to serially underestimate the dangers of a warming world. And his cynicism about the scientific endeavor leads him to miss out on the immense opportunities that the energy transition creates. The disproportionate dangers faced by the world’s poorest only emphasize the urgency of this transition. And, slowly but surely, markets and nations are waking up to this fact.

This is not, of course, to merely substitute one narrative of market triumphalism with another. Massive challenges remain as the world moves toward a greener future, and relying on the invisible hand alone to deliver salvation would be to deny the history of every economic and technological transition up until this point. Technological advancement is hardly automatic or guaranteed, and that we’re at this inflection point is a demand for more research, more protest, and more boldness in policymaking.

In calling for a recommitment to the carbon age, the book requires us to ignore the leaps and bounds made in the past few years. It requires us to ignore the innovators, scientists, activists, and policymakers laying out pathways to a brighter future. It requires us to presume that our status quo world of climate disasters, of ecosystem die-off, of environmental injustice, and of fossil fuel wars is the best that we as humanity can do. While Epstein declares Fossil Future to be a work of moral philosophy, at the end of the day, the only philosophy he’s selling is pessimism.

Suhaas Bhat is a student at Harvard College, where he helped organize the successful push to divest the university from fossil fuels.

Connor Chung is a student at Harvard College, where he helped organize the successful push to divest the university from fossil fuels.

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