I'm currently most of the way through Alex Epstein's Fossil Future, and I find the arguments within very convincing.

In (extreme) brevity, they are:

  1. Fossil Fuel use and the cheap energy it enables is responsible for unprecedented human flourishing for billions. Billions more need access to ever-increasing amounts of cheap energy to flourish.
  2. Any argument against fossil fuel use must argue that its side effects (CO2 warming the planet) overwhelm the good they do by providing cheap energy. These side effects must be so bad that it's worth compromising the safety and flourishing of billions of humans to curtail their use. Such an argument must also prove that those negative side effects are beyond what humanity is capable of adapting to or overcoming, given cheap energy provided by fossil fuels.
  3. No such argument is justifiable, given the current state of climate science.

Does anyone (preferably those who've read the book, although I don't want to restrict answers to just those people) have an opposing view/opinion, and if so why?

I'd like to do my intellectual homework on this one, and actively seek disagreement, given how convincing I've found the argument so far.

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Haven't read the book, but I'm a cleantech consultant with a materials science and physics background. I spend my days helping companies find and adopt and strategize around new technologies.

It's a good question and worth engaging with. I'll start by saying that, first of all, we need to consider that climate change is not an existential risk. It's a serious risk where not adapting fast enough can cause large amounts of suffering for billions of people, but it won't wipe us out or prevent the continuance of technological civilization unless we do incredibly stupid things in response to said suffering. Which is not impossible. But Earth isn't going to become Venus, or anything like that.

I'll follow that up with an observation that in the excerpts of this and the author's other books that I've found, he mostly accurately represents a number of misunderstandings and misrepresentations from the past and present of environmentalism, but he also misrepresents many aspects of the technological and economic state of competing energy sources, and of the current state of climate science. He makes some very isolated demands for rigor, like complaining about nuclear being expensive relative to fossil fuels without (AFAICT) noting that this is because it's held to a uniquely high regulatory standard way out of proportion to it's actual risks in ways that drive up construction times, financing costs, and plant engineering requirements, while preventing scale-up from letting industry grow enough to realize experience curve cost reductions and preventing plant design iterations over time. The sections I've been able to access read like someone who decided their bottom line before they decided what to write above it.

More concretely:

  1. Today, in much (possibly most) of the world, kWh for kWh, solar (unsubsidized, without energy storage) is the cheapest source of electricity on the grid. This happened within the last <10 years depending on location, and I think it's important to note that Alex Epstein does not seem to have adjusted his rhetoric in response to this shift. Yes, not every market can currently afford the capex/opex tradeoff, or has the land and weather available for large scale deployment, or has a grid that can remain stable under increased intermittency, but over time these problems have been getting steadily less severe as the equipment gets cheaper, grid management gets better, natural gas use grows and gets used as peaker plants, and existing dispatchable fossil fuel capacity gets used for load following more. Today nations can credibly do things like ban building new coal plants, and there's no outcry from industry and no flight of data centers out of said country.
  2. Energy storage is also getting cheaper rapidly. For lithium-ion batteries it's been on the order of 10x in the past decade, down to around $150/kWh today. This, combined with improving power and energy densities, are why we're starting to see more electric cars, and more plans by utilities to installing energy storage. I've done the math for a few models of electric and serial hybrid electric cars at current retail gasoline and electric prices, and it seems common to find that after 40-50k miles the electric car has lower total cost of ownership. For grid storage, currently most near-term plans I've seen talk about batteries on the order of 1-4 hrs of backup. That's enough to stabilize the grid to short-term fluctuations of supply and demand, improve efficiency by reducing need for spinning reserves and load following, and just generally allow each type of power plant, including fossil fuels, to be operated in the most efficient way for that plant instead of varying due to the instantaneous needs of the grid. For other types of batteries it's harder to say because they're less commercially mature, but there's been a lot of progress in areas like vanadium flow batteries, which are easier to scale to longer durations, and iron-air batteries, which are less efficient but should be much cheaper to build (making them potentially suitable for seasonal storage, where you slowly charge them whenever there's excess generation to use a few times a year.
  3. Fuels. Hype about batteries and hydrogen aside, it will likely be decades before there's a truly viable alternative to hydrocarbons for many diesel and jet fuel use cases. Biofuels are pretty cost competitive these days but biomass availability is finite and probably can't sustainably scale enough to meet a large fraction of current usage, let alone future demand. E-fuels - which use electricity to capture CO2, make hydrogen from water, and turn it to hydrocarbons - are very expensive ($15-40/gallon) due to high electricity requirements and high capex. Yet we see the EU (in one of it's bold but less ridiculous moves) mandating use of sustainable aviation fuel and companies signing offtake agreements for more e-fuels than suppliers can provide. Why? Because it's a very early stage technology, and we can expect capex to fall over time like it does for anything else not unavoidably dependent on large amounts of precious metals. Because in the near term people are building plants in places where they can get nearly free electricity from trapped assets (like hydro in Norway and wind in West Texas). And because by the time it does need to scale up, that electricity is going to be coming from renewables, and peple are going to be building plants wherever renewables are cheapest. That means (even with current solar power tech) <$0.02/kWh, compared to a global average of around $0.19 today for the grid as a whole. That's why we see Australia announcing a 50GW solar power project to be built in the outback by 2030 to make hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol for export.
  4. In the long run, that which is not sustainable will not be sustained. Global fossil fuel use will eventually end, and we're lucky humans are in a position to decide how to do that on our own terms. An abrupt end would genuinely be terrible. A decision 30 years ago to phase fossil fuels out by today would genuinely have left humans with no viable replacement that could have been cost-effectively scaled up in time. That's no longer the situation we're in. We've solved many of the problems technologically, and some of them economically. We can see the shape of both the major remaining problems and of multiple solutions forming for each of them that can feasibly be ready by the time we need them.

I'd encourage you to read Fossil Future, because Alex addresses a lot of the points you make.

One of the points he emphasizes is that (quoted from my response below)

large portions of the energy we need have nothing to do with the grid. Specifically, transportation (global shipping, flight) and industrial process heat (to make steel, concrete, etc.) comprise a large percentage of our energy needs and solar/wind are pretty useless (far too inefficient) for meeting those needs.

He talks extensively about how nuclear power is the best option, and has only failed... (read more)

4AnthonyC9mo
Thanks for the correction on nuclear. I understand the impulse to want to avoid government interference, but I don't think it's reasonable unless he is making detailed proposals for a lot of other policy changes to happen in advance or in parallel. I'll set aside past subsidies and government investments in fossil fuel extraction, use, and infrastructure to support same except to note that the playing field did not start level. For anyone involved. Instead I'd focus on how existing policy choices have shaped and constrained the development of alternatives. 1) We have pipelines for oil and methane, not hydrogen and methanol and CO2. 2) Our grid (due to Edison-era tech constraints) uses AC, which is great for spinning turbines, but means solar and wind need more equipment to interface with the grid, and similarly makes charging batteries (for vehicle or grid-scale storage) less efficient. It also makes long-distance transmission less efficient. 3) For safety (to avoid errors), airports only have one fuel type on site, and it's kerosene. Any alternative has to be refined and blended to be identical in function and properties to kerosene. 4) Electricity market structures vary extensively and are defined by regional and national government policy. How prices are set, how capital expenses get planned and approved, who gets to compete in the market, all heavily regulated in ways that, for historical reasons, favor fossil fuels. This situation has getting better for a while, but slowly and very unevenly. He's just plain wrong on wind and solar being useless for fuels and industrial energy use. It's going to take decades to scale up and implement the relevant tech, because any shift that large and complicated does and because there just isn't enough renewable energy production yet to make sense at scale. But:  1) Global shipping companies like Maersk are ordering dual-fueled ships that can burn methanol, and partnering with companies scaling up production of e-methanol (f
3AnthonyC9mo
Edit to add: historically, nuclear should have been the best option for baseload power. It could have gotten there for slower load-following use if capex had stayed low and gotten lower, in  better regulatory regime. The higher capex/lower fuel cost would not have let nuclear replace faster load-following and peaker plants at any time in the past 50 years. Hydro and geothermal could have helped with that, but I'm not sure to what degree, Today energy storage technologies are at a point where they could fill in the gaps like the can for renewables, but that's only true because of all the government policy kickstarting and supporting their development that Epstein doesn't think should have happened. 
1Sable9mo
Thank you for the long and detailed response! This was exactly the sort of stuff I was looking for. I think the foundation of Epstein's argument - that we should be prioritizing human flourishing (which requires large and increasing amounts of cheap energy) and carefully evaluating the costs and benefits of our choices (not just the costs) is largely accurate. That being said, you've made me think that Epstein's treatment of solar, wind, and other alternatives to fossil fuels is perhaps too short and/or not up-to-date. Out of curiosity, how long would you expect it to take for a large percentage of the world (say, already-developed economies) to move to getting 90% of our energy needs from non-carbon-emitting sources? Based on my own understanding, what you've said, and the current state of permitting and environmental review, I'd guess no sooner than 2050 at the very earliest, with 2075 being more likely.
2AnthonyC9mo
I think that's a very reasonable range, with more developed countires likely getting there by the 2050s and others a bit later. Most countries and companies that have stated net-zero goals have set them in the 2040-2050 time frame. And that's not just because all the current leaders will be retired by then :-). All the ones that don't have aggressive commitments will take longer. I think 2075 is a bit conservative actually? Economically speaking I would doubt any developed country is still building coal plants by 2030 or gas plants by 2040, the ones that do get built are already increasingly using designs chosen to be retrofittable for other fuels (hydrogen, methanol, biofuels, etc.), and more of them are being used for peaker plants and not baseload (lower utilization, so they make up a smaller fraction of generation relative to nameplate capacity). Plus the existing stock will mostly all be retired by the early 2050s. By the early 2030s I'd expect renewables + storage to be cheaper to build than anything but natural gas plants even in developing countries. Like you said, permitting and reviews are some of the big limiters here. We are plausibly talking about 10,000-200,000 km2 of solar panels, worldwide, for a complete transition combined with continued economic growth. The Australian Outback might be one of the best places in the world to make green hydrogen, for example, but it's also one of the largest mostly-undeveloped wilderness regions remaining. Somehow arguments like "Yeah, but even more will be lost if we don't replace fossil fuels, and all the other options are worse" seem to lack the power to overcome project-specific objections.

… climate change is not an existential risk… Earth isn't going to become Venus, or anything like that

 

Last I heard, the big question was what positive-feedback “tipping points” exist, and at what CO2-level they become triggered. This would give quite wide error bars on what average heating is caused by a given quantity of cumulative emissions. If we can burn all the fossil fuels, turn the rainforests to desert, and vaporise all the methane clathrates, and still not end up like Venus, that’s… reassuring, I guess

3AnthonyC9mo
Doing all that would be very bad. Not Venus, but enough to greatly decrease Earth's carrying capacity for humans and everything else, for a long time. We really should want that not to happen. But methane clathrate release turns out not to be as rapidly self-reinforcing as once feared, and at this point there's no longer an economic or technological reason to think we'll need to keep using fossil fuels and cutting down rainforests long enough to get to that point. We're already seeing slowdowns in net deforestation, in part because in some countries there is net reforestation, though rainforests in particular are being lost faster in part because these exist mostly in less developed countries, but even then it's (2020 aside) slowing down.

If Epstein’s thesis is, broadly, “cheap energy from fossil fuels is awesome and climate change isn’t that bad”, weaknesses would be likely to fall somewhere under these, classified in increasing controversy:

  • Climate change might be worse than he’s positing. Particularly, climate is a global system we only partly understand, and our error bars for the effects of inadvertently perturbing it may be quite large
  • Cheap energy may be obtainable from non-fossil sources. Epstein is keen on nuclear energy (why?), but, as AnthonyC points out, solar & wind are getting surprisingly cheap (for example https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-23/building-new-renewables-cheaper-than-running-fossil-fuel-plants). Obviously that only gives you a bonanza of cheap energy when the wind blows and the sun shines, but “the sometimes-free-energy bonanza will destabilise the grid!” feels a long way from common-sense
  • GDP may be possible to decouple from energy use by purely technical means: compare the computation-per-watt-hour of a Pentium with that of an iPad. Compare a Passive-House-standard building with an average building. How far are we from the optimal frontier? There will be, at some point, a limit, because we’re operating with optimal designs and can’t get any better, but we might be quite far from that point - countries with more energy-tight housing often have codes that require that, rather than the market doing it spontaneously? Why is that? Principal-agent problems? “Market for lemons” informational issues?
  • GDP may be possible to decouple even further from emissions use via selective lifestyle changes (higher-density cities, more bicycles, fewer automobiles)
  • GDP may be argued to be decouple-able from human welfare. Broadly, this is the “degrowth” argument. Critique here, for example  (https://www.noahpinion.blog/p/people-are-realizing-that-degrowth)
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I have not read the book. Nonetheless, I would like to point out two things:

  1. As presented, the argument seems to suggest that there are no other potential sources of energy (except via the word "cheap").
  2. According to Muller, Mendelsohn, Nordhaus (2011): Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy, American Economic Review, the air pollution of "solid waste combustion, sewage treatment, stone quarrying, marinas, and oil and coal-fired power plants" has external costs that exceed the value added of these sectors even before taking climate change into account.

Thanks for the response!

  1. As for alternative sources of energy, the book goes into more detail about the specifics. Basically the only sources of reliable, on-demand energy available today are fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro. The author is vastly in favor of more of all three, while noting that solar and wind actually reduce the reliability of the grid due to their intermittent nature. Additionally, the author notes that large amounts of energy are used for transportation and process heat, which fossil fuels are very well-suited for, and solar/wind in particular are very ill-suited for.
  2. I looked at the study, thanks - they estimate $184 billion in costs, but I think the author would disagree with large portions of their analysis. One of the large take-aways from the book is that so far the climate science does not even support the idea that increased atmospheric CO2 levels and the warming they've caused is a net negative for humanity, meaning that he would discount the CO2 emissions from calculations of the external costs in the paper. This doesn't negate the conclusion  of the paper necessarily (although I think it blunts it significantly), but I also didn't get the impression the paper was fairly considering the benefits of the industries it was analyzing in its Value Added metric.

As far as I remember (but it is a while ago that I read that paper), the paper I linked to does not include CO2 externalities but focuses on the effects of local air pollution on the United States itself. So no, if anything the negative externalities derived in the paper are too low, and net value added would be even lower if climate change was taken into account. What is your criticism of how the benefits of the industries are calculated?

From the paper you linked to:

For all values of the social cost of carbon, emissions of CO2 have the largest percent impact on the damages from natural gas–fired power plants (40 percent to 90 percent). This is because natural gas–fired power plants generate very small amounts of the local pollutants. In contrast, the CO2 share of GED* for both coalfired and oil-fired power generators is between 5 percent and 40 percent. Although coal-fired plants generate a great deal of CO2, they generate greater damages due to other pollutants

So it does go into CO2.

As for the Value Added, they seem to be using the straightforward economic value of the industries in question, which omit positive externalities just as much as they omit negative externalities.

Positive externalities is a bit of an odd way to phrase it--if it's just counting up the economic value (i.e. price) of the fossil fuels, doesn't it also disregard the consumer surplus? In other words, they've demonstrated that the negative externalities of pollution outweigh the value added on the margin, but if we were to radically decrease our usage of fossil fuels then the cost of energy (especially for certain uses with no good substitute, as you discussed above) would go way up, and the tradeoff on the margin would look very different.

Yes, the statement that switching off coal-fired power plants etc. is only true at the margin. However, for the OP's question, it seems that the sign of "marginal social benefit - marginal social cost" seems crucial.

Yes, I misremembered - but the CO2-based calculation is not driving the main results; instead, it is an extension calculated for one sector (electric power generation). See these two paragraphs from the introduction:

"We then turn to the estimation of damages by industry. We find that the ratio of GED/VA is greater than one for seven industries (stone quarrying, solid waste incineration, sewage treatment plants, oil- and coal-fired power plants, marinas, and petroleum-coal product manufacturing). This indicates that the air pollution damages from these industries are greater than their net contribution to output. Several other industries also have high GED/VA ratios. We also present the overall size of GED by industry. Five industries stand out as large air polluters: coal-fired power plants, crop production, truck transportation, livestock production, and highway- street-bridge construction.
In order to explore the robustness of our results to certain assumptions in the integrated assessment model, we conduct a sensitivity analysis. The analysis shows that the level of GED is sensitive to assumptions about the value of mortality risks, how this value varies by age, and the adult mortality dose-response function for particulate matter. A final analysis examines the fossil fuel electric generating industry in detail. It presents a more detailed calculation of GED for coal-fired power plants and it includes the impact of carbon dioxide (CO 2)." 

The 184 bn $ (in 2011) do not include CO2 (see first paragraph of section B)

Concerning positive externalities: Yes, the authors note that this is not part of the calculation. But it is completely unclear what the relevance of this is. Every economic action may have a positive externality, but why exactly should this favor fossil energy sources in particular? And why should I assume these externalities to be so large that they are relevant=

I haven't read Fossil Future, but it sounds like he's ignoring the option of combining solar and wind with batteries (and other types of electrical storage, like pumped water). The technology is available today and can be more easily deployed than fossil fuels at this point.

If you only have solar + wind + batteries, you have a problem when you have a week of bad weather. Batteries can effectively move energy that's produced at noon to the night but they are not cost effective for charging batteries in summer to be used in bad months in the winter. 

While I think Epstein's treatment of solar/wind and batteries is too brief, his main points are:

  1. Large portions of the energy we need have nothing to do with the grid. Specifically, transportation (global shipping, flight) and industrial process heat (to make steel, concrete, etc.) comprise a large percentage of our energy needs and solar/wind are pretty useless (far too inefficient) for meeting those needs.
  2. Epstein also points out that replacing current fossil fuels with solar/wind + batteries will require massive amounts of a) batteries, b) transmission lines, and c) solar and wind farms, which the environmental movement seem to oppose locally whenever possible. Just because the technology exists doesn't mean we're capable, as a society, of deploying it at scale.

Any argument against fossil fuel use must argue that its side effects (CO2 warming the planet) overwhelm the good they do by providing cheap energy. These side effects must be so bad that it's worth compromising the safety and flourishing of billions of humans to curtail their use. Such an argument must also prove that those negative side effects are beyond what humanity is capable of adapting to or overcoming, given cheap energy provided by fossil fuels.

It looks like you are using a double standard here.

Any argument against fossil fuel use must argue that its side effects (CO2 warming the planet) overwhelm the good they do by providing cheap energy.

Seems reasonable. If someone wants to build a new coal plant, I agree with you that, to know if it is a good decision, we need to compare the coal plant, including its benefits and its side effects, to alternatives (another source of electricity, or even no plant at all).

Such an argument must also prove that those negative side effects are beyond what humanity is capable of adapting to or overcoming, given cheap energy provided by fossil fuels.

This part sounds like an unrealistic standard. Assuming that, in the same scenario, taking into accounts benefits and side effects, the coal plant is not the best alternative, then it should not be chosen. If you want to claim that we should discount or ignore the negative side effects, based on the fact that we could overcome those, then you need to prove it, you need to bear the burden of proof.

It looks like you are using a double standard here.


Could you elaborate? I'm not sure I follow.

Epstein spends a large portion of the book going into how human ability to master the dangers of the earth's climate have grown with our ability to deploy cheap energy and machines. He argues that the dangers of CO2 emission, in particular, are entirely masterable with fossil fuel energy.

I'm not prepared to do service to his entire argument here; I'd encourage reading the book for yourself if you haven't.

Let's say Alice wants to support some fossil fuel project, ans Bob is against it. What evidence does each character need to provide, according to you?

Purely looking at evaluating the book Fossil Future, I'd want Alice to provide evidence that the project she supports delivers energy at market or below-market rates, while avoiding any sort of obviously terrible pollution (e.g. dumping toxic waste into a river). I'd want Bob to provide evidence that the project will impact human beings and the environment so terribly that the energy generated by the project is insufficient to account for the damage done.

Of course, outside of evaluating the book I'd only make sure that the project wasn't doing anything obviously terrible and then be all for it; our society is heavily biased against action, and so I try to be biased towards action to correct for it.

Thanks for your answer.

It seems to me that it is not what you said though. Quoting you:

Any argument against fossil fuel use [...] must also prove that those negative side effects are beyond what humanity is capable of adapting to or overcoming, given cheap energy provided by fossil fuels.

That is, even if evidence of terrible impact is provided (e.g. dumping toxic waste into a river), you will require Bob to prove that this impact cannot be mitigated/adapted to/...

To reiterate, you will not ask Alice "How do you plan to solve the dumping toxic waste into a river problem?". Instead, you will ask Bob "Can you prove that the dumping toxic waste into a river problem cannot be solved?".

Since it is very difficult to prove that a problem cannot be solved, the standard for Bob is orders of magnitude harder to reach than the standard for Alice.

I see your point, and part of this is the difficulty I'm having distinguishing - and communicating the differences - between the book Fossil Future and my own personal views.

I think your interpretation might actually be correct when it comes to Alex Epstein's answer to the question. He shows that dangers from climate are consistently surmountable, and we should expect to continue to be able to surmount them.

Granted, he certainly wouldn't support literally dumping toxic waste into a river, but that isn't really what the book is about, or indeed what the modern conversation regarding fossil fuels is about either.

Previous eras of environmentalism focused on pollution - acid rain, the ozone layer, toxic waste, etc. Today's environmentalism focuses on greenhouse gases, largely because we've basically solved all the previous problems. Epstein argues that greenhouse gases are not a sufficient reason to stop the use of fossil fuels.

Today's environmentalism focuses on greenhouse gases, largely because we've basically solved all the previous problems. 

That's not true. We have research like what's described in https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/09/fossil-fuels-pollution-deaths-research that suggest that fossil fuel emissions kill over a million people each year. 

We also have other enviromental problems like nitrogen accumulation in the ocean, PFCS and microplastic. 

Sure there are other environmental problems, but my experience of the main concern of modern environmentalists is climate change, largely because it's seen as apocalyptic in scope and thus the most deserving of concern.

As for deaths resulting from fossil fuel pollution, I suspect Epstein's response would be that we should be evaluating fossil fuel use in its full context. How many lives were saved/improved by access to the energy generated? How many people were lifted and kept out of poverty?

The largest effect in the article is also found in East Asia, which deploys large amounts of coal.

I think Epstein would prioritize lifting people out of energy poverty, at which point they would have the slack and the wealth to get to work on pollution, following a similar trajectory as we did in the US.

Very clear, thank you for your patience and your answers!

Happy to engage, and thanks to you as well!