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Alex Epstein’s Fossil Future Flames Out on Climate Change

In his book Fossil Future, Alex Epstein wants us to believe that using more—not less—fossil fuel will make the world a better place. He fails. Badly.

Epstein is good at explaining why everyone else is wrong but not very good at explaining why he is right.

He dedicates much of Fossil Future to the great benefits of fossil fuels that he already presented in his earlier book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. That was a very unoriginal thesis in 2014 and it has not become more original with time. No one with even a superficial knowledge of energy needs Alex Epstein to tell them that much of human progress is because of fossil fuels. Not today, not 150 years ago.

He wastes a lot of time in Fossil Future trying to convince us that there is a deep state conspiracy called the “knowledge system” that has distorted everything we hear about fossil fuel and climate change. Experts, governments, international agencies and the press cannot be trusted. They ignore the benefits of fossil fuels and want to impoverish humanity by forcing renewable energy on the public despite its inferiority to coal, oil and natural gas. They are anti-human.

In an earlier post, I documented Epstein’s absurd proposition that everyone is wrong about energy except him, and how his entire approach and evaluation framework is based on a series of straw man fallacies.

Now, I will examine his case that climate change is not a big deal—that it is “mild and manageable”—and that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 are necessary for human flourishing.

Climate Change is Manageable

Epstein thinks that threats from climate change are greatly exaggerated. There has been amazing progress overcoming climate threats by what he calls “climate mastery.” By this he means that hydrocarbon-powered technology will find solutions to climate change.

The proof, he says, is in the already drastic reduction of climate-related deaths which is completely ignored by everyone except him.

The evidence for this unique observation is found in a single graph shown in Figure 1 (his Figure 7.1). It turns out, he says, that climate-related deaths have plummeted over the last 100 years in spite of rising levels of atmospheric CO2. Humans are winning the war over any negative side-effects of climate change.

Figure 1. More Fossil Fuel Use, kPLummeting Climate-Related Disaster Deaths. Source: Alex Epstein Fossil Future Figure 7.1

The problem is that the graph does not show climate-related deaths. It shows deaths from natural disasters.

Figure 2 shows the details from my research behind the deaths in Epstein’s figure. The overall pattern of decreasing deaths is similar in both graphs but climate-change has nothing to do with it. Rather, the leading causes are drought, floods, earthquakes, storms and volcanic activity. Earthquakes and volcanic activity are unrelated to climate change. Drought, floods and storms are weather-related, and not climate-related causes of death.

Figure 2. What Alex Epstein represents as “Climate-Related Deaths” are really deaths from “natural disasters” that include “weather disasters.” Decrease in deaths over time because of better prediction & relief efforts. Source: Our World In Data & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Epstein’s own definitions show that. Weather, he says, is a short term phenomenon that ordinarily lasts a few hours or a few days. In the case of drought, it may last several years.

For something to be a symptom of climate change, it must persist for approximately 30 years, according to Epstein.

Weather: The atmospheric conditions, especially temperatures and precipitation, in a given area at a given time.

Climate: The longer-term (usually thirty-year) weather trends in a given region, including what range of temperatures there is and what frequency and range of precipitation there is.

–Alex Epstein, Fossil Future

His evidence for climate mastery is inadmissible because all it shows is that weather-related deaths have decreased over time.

So much for climate mastery and the idea that climate change is manageable.

More CO2 is Needed for Human Flourishing

Epstein believes that a warmer world with higher CO2 levels will be a better, greener world with more human flourishing.

“Human flourishing requires that CO2 emissions increase.”
–Alex Epstein, Fossil Future

In order to believe this bizarre claim, we must accept his conspiracy theories about how the knowledge system distorts the truth. We must reject the 88,000 peer-reviewed climate papers published since 2012 that do not support his position.

The knowledge system, he says, ignores the benefits of carbon dioxide. Those benefits may have been a recent discovery for Alex Epstein but every scientist has known about them since Joseph Priestly described photosynthesis 200 years ago.

Epstein bases his case for better living through higher levels of CO2 on three pieces of evidence.

For Exhibit A, he cites the work of The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, and shows photos of a tree whose size increased with higher levels of CO2 (Figure 3, his Figure 8.1). That’s some powerful science.

Figure 3. The Fertilizer Effect In Action. Source: Craig ldso, Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change.

No one disagrees that CO2 has a fertilizer effect but that’s not what the CO2 debate is about. It’s about rising temperature and the negative effects that increased temperature would have on life, crop yields, water supply and sea level.

Incredibly, Epstein only talks about temperature in 10 of the 427 pages of text in Fossil Future.

For Exhibit B, he introduces a geological time scale showing temperature and CO2 levels (Figure 4, his Figure 9.2). He points out that CO2 is near historical low levels over geological time, and that the correlation between temperature and CO2 are not conclusive.

The first problem with the graph is its scale. The x-axis covers nearly 600 million years but human civilization is less than 5,000 years old so there is no detail for our history. In fact, the last increment on the x-axis covers more than 10,000 years.

Figure 4. CO2 and Temperature Used to Be Much Higher, but They’re Not Consistently Correlated. Sources: Nasif Nahle /2009/; C.R. Scotese /2002/; W.F. Ruddiman /2011); Pagani et al. /2005).

Figure 5 from my research shows the last 10,000-year increment in Figure 4. It reveals a giant spike in CO2 concentrations beginning around 1800 when humans started using fossil fuels. Now that we know the truth, we can go back and see increases in both CO2 and temperature on the far lower right of Figure 4 that Epstein failed to mention. That’s a big problem for his case that more CO2 is not only good but necessary.

Figure 5. World CO2 levels have increased +43% since 1900 and +14% since 2000. Source: Our World in Data & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The second problem with his graph is the strong correlation of changes in global temperature and average atmospheric carbon from 1800 to the present (Figure 6). Nothing inconclusive there. Correlations of real-world data don’t get much better.

Figure 6. Yearly temperature compared to the twentieth-century average (red and blue bars) from 1880–2021, based on data from NOAA NCEI, plus atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (gray line): 1880-1958 from IAC, 1959-2019 from NOAA ESRL. Original graph by Dr. Howard Diamond (NOAA ARL), and adapted by NOAA

This relationship is well-known and dozens of versions of it are available with the simplest web search. The fact that Epstein does not show or explain this powerful counterpoint to his claim of “inconclusive correlation” is dishonest.

Climate Change is Mild

At this point, Alex Epstein invites us to join him on journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.

He tells us that

“Life on Earth thrived at far higher CO2 levels and temperatures in the past…Okay, dinosaurs could live back then–but could anything else?

“Yes, our evolutionary ancestors lived back then.
–Alex Epstein, Fossil Future

I would like him to explain exactly which of our human ancestors lived during the period of elevated CO2 and temperatures from 250 to 50 million years ago along with the dinosaurs.

It’s a popular trope among climate deniers that life was just fine for dinosaurs so there should be no problem for humans as climate change proceeds. There are rich and abundant species of plants and animals living under the sea so, by the same logic, rising sea level shouldn’t be a problem either.

The truth is that dinosaur biology gave them a had a vastly different tolerance to temperature and CO2 that humans do not have. There may have been as many as 20 million dinosaurs on earth at their peak during the Jurassic period about 60 million years ago. These animals were either solitary hunter-gatherers or lived in small herds.

There are now 8 billion humans living in a complexly connected civilization that relies on global supply chains to move goods and services all around the planet. Biological differences aside, the comparison is absurd.

But Epstein blasts right through this contradiction and tries to show that it is impossible for current CO2 concentrations to increase to levels at the time of the dinosaurs.

“There is no near-term mechanism of getting anywhere close to even historical CO2 levels–let alone far higher levels where life on Earth flourished for millions of years.”
–Alex Epstein, Fossil Future

He doesn’t understand that comparing the present and near-future for humans to conditions for now-extinct creatures in the deep geological past is simply irrelevant and does nothing to make his case.

For his climate-change finale, Epstein introduces Exhibit C. This is a predictive model that shows a series of sensitivity cases for the relationship between CO2 levels and degrees of warming (Figure 7, his Figure 9.3).

He does not explain the source of these curves. That is journalistically dishonest especially because this graph is the centerpiece of his argument that climate change is not a big deal.1

In addition, he ruthlessly disparaged predictive models in earlier parts of the book and does it again just a few pages after he uses an undocumented predictive model to argue his case.

For Epstein, the point of Figure 7 is that a doubling of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere only results in about a 1°C increase in global temperature.

Figure 7. Different Estimates of CO2 Climate Sensitivity. Source: Alex Epstein.

According to him, that’s no big deal.

“From a human flourishing perspective, this is a mild effect.

“This is not an amount of warming that would be cause for concern–especially given that we haven’t doubled CO2 even once since 1850 and, even under extremely high emission scenarios, aren’t expected to until the second half of the century.”
–Alex Epstein, Fossil Future

The problem with Figure 7 is that it is inconsistent with the observed relationship between temperature and CO2 concentrations. Global temperature has increased +1.6° Celsius with only a +35% increase in CO2 concentration since 1900 (My research, Figure 8).

Temperature has increased 60% more than 1°C with only one-third of a doubling in CO2. This is history, not a model. Whoops.

Figure 8. Global temperature has increased +1.6° Celsius from the 1900-1950 average with only a +35% increase in CO2 concentration over the same period. Source: Our World in Data, Columbia University & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The centerpiece of his entire thesis—“that the well-established greenhouse effect of CO2 should be no object of concern whatsoever”— just bombed in a big way.

Fossil Future Flames Out on Climate Change

I mostly agree with Epstein about the benefits of fossil fuels and the shortcomings of renewable energy. I disagree with him on almost everything he says about climate change.

But it’s not a matter of agreement or disagreement because there is simply no substance to his arguments about climate change.

Reading Fossil Future was a painful experience for me not because of Epstein’s positions but because the book is flawed and dishonest journalism. He never presents the views of people with alternative perspectives or viewpoints except to attack them as enemies of humanity.

Fossil Future is a ponderous manifesto of Alex Epstein’s grievances against the scientists who have delivered a message about climate change that no one likes to hear. It is an angry criticism of the institutions and policy makers who are now beginning to act on climate research. It is a futile attempt to change the overwhelming momentum of public policy away from energy sources that threaten human flourishing. It is desperate and impossible appeal to return to a better and seemingly less complicated time when fossil fuels were king. That, I suppose, is its appeal.


1I followed a nearby text footnote to a 1998 geophysics paper on radiative forcing that did not include this graph.


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For Alex Epstein To Be Right, Everyone Else Has To Be Wrong

The fatal flaw in Alex Epstein’s Fossil Future is found in the book’s flyleaf.

Figure 1. What if the ‘experts’ have gotten everything about the future of energy wrong? Source: Alex Epstein














For Epstein to be right, everyone else has to be wrong.

“In this book, I’m going to try to persuade you of something that may seem crazy to you…

“While we are almost universally told that more fossil fuel use will destroy the world, 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…to experience higher environmental quality and less danger from climate.”

He encourages his readers to enlist in his fight for using more coal, oil and natural gas, and to reject “the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels.”

As a scientist and a proud 45-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, I disagree with him but I wanted to read his book in order to understand the logic and supporting evidence behind his positions.

I was completely unprepared for what I found.

In Fossil Future, Epstein develops a conspiracy theory to explain why the experts have gotten everything wrong.

There is a deep state organization that has created and spread fake news about fossil fuels and climate change. The purpose of the book is to open our eyes so we can rise up and stop the madness before current policies “have truly apocalyptic consequences.”

The Knowledge System Distorts Scientific Information

Epstein describes a shadow structure that he calls “our knowledge system.” It synthesizes and disseminates research about energy and climate change to policy makers and to the public.

“I am referring to the mainstream knowledge system: institutions and people that overwhelmingly influence the ideas and policies of today, including our ideas and policies regarding fossil fuels.”

The knowledge system consists of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.S. National Climate Assessment, the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). These “synthesizing bodies” routinely manipulate and omit crucial information in order to conform to the knowledge system‘s guiding principle  “that fossil fuel use needs to be rapidly eliminated.”

This “moral case for the elimination of fossil fuels” is its mission, vision and sole purpose. Competing cases are rejected.

Once the knowledge system has organized, refined and condensed research information, it is passed along to disseminators for distribution to policy makers and to the public.

Disseminators include The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC; the spokespeople for the IPCC and the governments that signed the Paris Climate Agreement; and the leaders of corporations like Black Rock and Apple that have articulated “net-zero” or “100 precent renewable” pledges.

By the time this information gets to the public, the research upon which it is based has been distorted beyond recognition.

The knowledge system probably began as a conceptual framework for Epstein. He may have been trying to understand how information that he considers wrong has gained public approval.

The knowledge system that he describes in Fossil Future, however, comes across as a living, breathing organism.  It has the character of a corporation with a charter, officers, and employees whose mission is to manipulate information about energy and climate in order to deceive the public.

The Knowledge System Chooses Designated Experts

The knowledge system has among its staff what Epstein calls “designated experts.”

These are individuals or institutions selected by the knowledge system be its public spokespeople and to represent the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels. They include the IPCC, Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, James Hansen, Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Michael Mann and Amory Lovins.

After studying the writing and speeches by these experts, Epstein discovered that they systematically ignore the benefits of fossil fuels.

“As a deep believer in expert knowledge who found that the supposedly expert moral case for eliminating fossil fuels, as he understood it, was making the egregious moral error of calling for the elimination of fossil fuels while ignoring their massive, life-or-death benefits, I went directly to the source: the leading experts who make the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels.”

The experts either don’t understand or don’t care about the tremendous benefits that fossil fuels have over all other sources of energy.

“Shockingly, they exhibit no concern about the prospect of losing these benefits, including what would happen to the billions of people who currently lack cost-effective energy or the billions of people who would lose cost-effective energy if fossil fuels were rapidly eliminated without a miraculous alternative.”

Most experts oppose all cost-effective forms of energy including nuclear and hydroelectric power regardless of CO2 emissions. That is because they do not meet the knowledge system‘s standard of “green” or “renewable.”

Epstein, therefore, rejects the credentials of these spokespeople because they don’t meet his definition of an expert.

“Observe that our leading designated experts on what to do about fossil fuels are almost exclusively people who are experts not on energy but rather on energy’s negative side-effects—so-called environmental experts…I don’t consider someone an environmental expert unless they acknowledge the massive environment-improving benefits of cost-effective energy, which our designated experts do not.”

That is not surprising since the starting point for Fossil Future is that experts can’t be trusted and have gotten everything wrong.

The Anti-Human Standard of Evaluation

The knowledge system deliberately misleads the public by promoting ideas and policies that are counter to the flourishing of human life.

Human flourishing is the only appropriate standard by which to determine energy and climate policy. Policies that do not promote human flourishing are by definition “anti-human.”

“Standards of evaluation can be pro-human (for example, I use the standard of “advancing human flourishing”) but also anti-human (for example, the elevation of a particular race or class at the expense of the rest of humanity).

Epstein argues that fossil fuels are the most affordable, reliable, versatile and scalable source of energy. They are the only hope for the billions of people in developing countries who are struggling and dying for lack of cost-effective fossil energy.

The evaluation standard used by our knowledge system favors expansion of green, renewable energy at the expense of fossil energy. It ignores that most of human material progress over the last 200 years is because of the productivity of machines that run on fossil fuels.

Solar and wind cannot possibly meet the requirements for current or future human flourishing. Human flourishing in the modern world requires fossil energy.

Today’s proposed policies to eliminate fossil fuel will make the world “an impoverished, dangerous and miserable place for most people.” That is anti-human.

Science’s Poor Track Record

Epstein explains that science experts have a track record of supporting anti-human policies. As proof, he cites the early 20th historical example of eugenics, the belief that intelligence has a genetic or racial component. He condemns this as an example of how science experts can’t be trusted.

“I have long been haunted by the fact that some of the worst ideas in history (such as slavery, racism and eugenics) were successfully spread as the consensus of ‘the experts’.”

What he doesn’t explain that eugenics was discredited and renounced in the 1930s by the entire scientific community. It took research to discover that early hypotheses linking race and intelligence were wrong.

Epstein lays out the poor track record of climate change predictions over the last 50 years. He cites this as proof that climate change is an exaggeration by science experts who can’t be trusted.

What he doesn’t explain or understand is that humans are chronically bad at all predictions. If human progress was predicated on accurate predictions, we would still live in caves.

Science is a work in progress. It is a very human enterprise. It moves forward, like people, by making predictions based on hypotheses, getting it wrong, recalibrating, and trying to do better the next time.

Epstein’s believes that the industrial progress of the last 200 years is because of machines powered by fossil fuels. Those machines were invented by scientists. He has faith that scientific technology will find solutions to climate change’s negative side effects in the future.

It is ironic that he disparages the same science community when it comes to climate change. He can’t have it both ways.

Fossil Future is A Straw Man

The principal arguments in Fossil Future are fallacies. They exist only in Epstein’s imagination. They are not real.

Fossil Future is a straw man.

A straw man is an argument that distorts an opposing position into an extreme version of itself and then argues against that extreme version.

“The straw man fallacy avoids the opponent’s actual argument and instead argues against an inaccurate caricature of it.”
Lindsay Kramer

“Experts can’t be trusted” is a straw man. “The knowledge system” is a straw man. “Designated experts” is a straw man. “The moral case for eliminating fossil fuels” is a straw man.

Epstein is arguing with a scarecrow. He can make any argument he wants but the straw man can’t argue back. That makes his position seem infallible.

Experts can’t be trusted

Once he has launched the “experts can’t be trusted” straw man, he’s half way home. If the experts have gotten everything about the future of energy wrong, then Alex Epstein is here with the right position that we already live in the best of all possible worlds.

The problem is that none of us treat experts like that in our daily lives.

When was the last time you chose a surgeon, an attorney, an investment advisor or a tax accountant who wasn’t an expert? Have you hired amateurs lately to work with you in your business?

Epstein can’t make it past the flyleaf of Fossil Future if he doesn’t convince the reader that experts can’t be trusted.

Epstein is heavy on the benefits of fossil fuels but disturbingly light on their negative effects on the earth or human flourishing. He acts like these subjects are a new frontier that has yet to be explored.

“Let me be clear: we absolutely need to study and consider the negative side-effects attributed to fossil fuels.”

Spoiler alert. Exhaustive research on the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change is precisely why so many experts recommend a radical re-thinking of our energy use patterns.

The knowledge system does not exist. 

There is no organization or structure in between research and the public. Epstein observes,

“Whenever we hear about what the “experts” think, we need to keep in mind that most of us have no direct access to what most expert researchers in a field think.”

Seriously? Perhaps he hasn’t discovered the internet. We can access tens of thousands of free research papers on energy, climate change and public policy at any time.

I would like Alex Epstein to take me on a tour of the knowledge system‘s headquarters, introduce me to its executives, and show me the offices where research data is filtered and distorted.

There are no designated experts.

Since there is no knowledge system, there’s no one to hire experts to broadcast its distorted, anti-human moral case against fossil fuels.

Every field and industry has opinion leaders because of the depth of their knowledge and experience. Energy and climate change are not exceptions.

There is no moral case for the elimination of fossil fuels.

There are very few scientists or organizations that favor completely eliminating fossil fuels yet Epstein represents this as the norm. If eliminating fossil fuels is not the norm but is a minority position, then his entire argument falls apart.

There is no longer some anti-human monster trying to destroy human flourishing. There are just smart people who are trying to find ways to maintain human prosperity with cleaner energy.

Certainly there are experts and organizations that are alarmist. Those can be found in any group of humans. Failed predictions and even bad scholarship are sadly found in many areas of society, not only in climate science.

The exceptions, however, do not prove the rule.

If we strip away Epstein’s straw man arguments, what is left?

  • A (completely unoriginal) thesis that fossil fuels are responsible for most of the material progress of modern society.
  • A man who believes that humanity is going in the wrong direction toward a world of lower living standards.
  • A man who cannot accept that the benefits of fossil fuel use may not outweigh the environmental damage that they have created.
  • A man who is willing to bet against science on climate change but bet everything on the same science community to find  ways of accessing unlimited fossil fuels, and manage the negative effects of climate change.

The problem is that he cannot win a fact-based argument for his beliefs. so he has manufactured an imaginary universe populated by straw men.

If you accept the straw men, his positions look rational and appealing. Readers with limited knowledge of energy and climate change may not even recognize the straw men. Many are already conditioned by politics to accept deep state, fake news and untrustworthy expert memes.

Readers with greater knowledge of energy and climate change may disagree with his positions but simply not take Epstein seriously.

Epstein is narrowly focused. He doesn’t see the larger system needs that are the backdrop for his narrow focus on fossil fuels and climate change.

For example, he believes that there are no practical limits to fossil energy supply yet his own graphs show that reserves have flattened over the last decade or so.

The bigger picture is that more than half of the energy and ever used since 1800 was consumed during the last 30 years (Figure 2). If global GDP grows at 3% per year, we will need twice as much energy and materials in the next 30 years as we used in the last 10,000 years. That will will double again by 2080.

Figure 2. Half of all global energy and oil consumed since 1800 was in the last 30 years. Energy supply needs to double again by 2050 to meet projected GDP growth of 3% Source: OWID & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc

What will be left of the natural world if we are successful? What will happen to human flourishing if we are not?

Epstein thinks that human flourishing and nature are separate and disconnected entities. He doesn’t understand that there will not be any human flourishing in a degraded world environment and ecosystem.

“Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know.”
Vaclav Smil

A recent study showed that the total world wildlife population has declined by 69% since 1970 (Figure 3). This is not about species extinction but about the populations in the natural world plummeting.

The reason for this shocking drop in animal population is loss of habitat to human expansion and the unsustainable use of our planet’s resources by humans.

This is not an anti-human standard. These are facts and numbers don’t lie.

Resource use including fossil fuels, climate change and a damaged biosphere are interlinked system problems that do not show up on Alex Epstein’s radar screed.

Figure 3 There has been a 69% decrease in wildlife populations since 1970. Source: World Wildlife Federation (2022)


There are well-reasoned opinions on all sides of the climate change debate and disagreements about how much risk to attach to a warming climate but most accept what Epstein cannot: the correlation between fossil fuel use and increased CO2 emissions is strong and will only get worse unless humans change consumption patterns.

Investor flight from fossil fuel companies has not abated and few commercial banks will them money. Most world governments are moving forward with laws, regulations and agreements to limit carbon emissions. Many more corporations than Black Rock and Apple have made net zero pledges. These things are happening in spite of Alex Epstein’s effort to become the world’s leading champion of fossil fuels.

In the long run, it doesn’t really matter whether Epstein is right or wrong because the earth will have the final vote.

The train that Epstein is trying to stop left the station a long time ago.

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