Alex Epstein: The Truth About Net-Zero CO2 and the Anti-Human Ideology Fueling the ‘Green’ Movement
“What we’re told the experts think can be murderously wrong—not just a little long wrong, but murderously wrong,” says Alex Epstein, author of “Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less.”
“We should never make the mistake of thinking that a specific set of experts in a specific field can dictate policy. Policy always depends on multiple fields. And it depends on your particular values,” says Epstein, a philosopher and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress think tank. “The science is being perverted or distorted to advance this set political agenda.”
Net-zero CO2—if achieved—would be devastating to human flourishing and deprive the developing world of desperately needed cost-effective energy, Epstein argues.
“Low-cost, reliable energy that’s versatile, can power every type of machine, that’s scalable, that can provide energy for billions of people and thousands of places—that’s literally the difference between poverty and prosperity, between danger and safety,” Epstein says. And that’s precisely what fossil futures provide, in contrast to “green” sources of energy like wind and solar.
The push to minimize “impact” doesn’t merely mean minimizing water or air pollution or unnecessary destruction of natural beauty, Epstein says. It fundamentally means minimizing farms, factories, roads, “everything that makes the world livable for 8 billion people. So they very cleverly masked this anti-human, anti-technology agenda.”
“Look at how glorified being green is. But what does green mean? … The ideal ‘green planet’ is the earth that would exist had human beings never existed,” Epstein says.
Alex Epstein, such a pleasure to have you on “American Thought Leaders”.
My pleasure. Very nice location we have here.
Absolutely, and very relevant to what we’re going to talk about today. Viewers of this show know that a common mantra of mine is, “How could the experts have gotten so much wrong over the past few years?” It’s unbelievable. As I read Fossil Future, especially the first few chapters, you talk about exactly how a whole consensus of experts can get things wrong. I want to start with that. How does that work?
First of all, it’s a great question. It’s something that has really bothered me a lot in my life, because I try to always be historical in my thinking. There’s a conceit that, “Everyone in the past was wrong and they were stupid and they did things like slavery and racism and eugenics, but we would never be that stupid. What we do is obviously right, and the rest of history will view it as right.” That doesn’t seem very likely, because that’s what the past thought, too.
Even Germany, when they’re voting in Nazism by a plurality, they’re in some way thinking they’re right. They’re thinking they’re progressive in the sense that they are forward-looking. And yet, you look back and you see that majorities were very often wrong, but also that their being wrong was often connected to the alleged experts. These things like slavery, racism, and eugenics were viewed as scientific, and they have a strong alleged science to them.
That’s scary, when what we’re told by the experts can be murderously wrong. Not just a little wrong, but murderously wrong. One thing I realized is that a big part of what’s going on there is not that these really murderous, bad conclusions come from the actual researchers themselves, but it comes from some set of factors distorting the research. That’s a really interesting kind of thing.
It’s like there are advances in genetics. That doesn’t logically lead to eugenics in my view and I don’t think in many people’s view, but people would distort this. One thing I talk about is when we’re getting what is considered expert guidance on some issue, it’s actually coming through what I call a knowledge system, a set of people and institutions that has four main phases.
One is the research phase. That research, to be useful to us, has to be synthesized dramatically. Even if all the research is right, which is hard enough in the first place, the synthesis can be way off. After that, it has to be further synthesized and disseminated, so that it’s accessible to somebody who’s just reading the paper and has very limited bandwidth.
The last step, and this is the least appreciated one, is the evaluation stage. Whatever is the disseminated truth in a field, even if it’s true, you could have a totally wrong evaluation. Let’s just say you have a disseminated truth that COVID is a new virus and it’s significantly dangerous, and that we don’t have antibodies in response. But then, people went from that to, “The policy should be to zero out COVID at all costs. Eliminate this one virus at all costs.”
But whatever the science is, that doesn’t follow. Because when you’re thinking about policy, you can’t just think about one virus. You need to think about all the threats to human life and all the potential benefits to human life. COVID is a clear-cut case that whatever the science is, you can see how science can be distorted for a certain evaluation.
The danger is when people say, “Listen to the scientists,” or, “Listen to the experts.” What they think is, “This zero-COVID policy is scientific.” The truth is, actually, no one science can ever dictate policy. They can just inform policy.
Whatever the best science is on COVID, we want to know, and that’s hard enough, as we’ve seen in many cases. But we should never make the mistake of thinking that a specific set of experts in a specific field can dictate policy. Policy always depends on multiple fields and it depends on your particular values. If we don’t keep that in mind, we’re going to do terrible things and think it’s from the experts.
And indeed, we’ve actually seen that happen and play out in real time over the last few years. There’s another element. You have this really helpful and logical breakdown of these points of failure where you go from actual experts, many of whom are doing pretty good research, to an interpretation and policy around this research which are largely devoid of what the original findings were.
There is another element, and I’m curious how you see this fitting into the whole stop climate change at any cost narrative. There were actual experts in the COVID context who were trying to get information out that would counter the prevailing narratives and counter the prevailing policies. They were basically pushed aside or called fringe epidemiologists. This is another piece, and I’ve been struggling with this. We need experts to interpret things, but it seems like most experts are really failing us.
Those are what I would call designated experts. There’s a class of people who are designated as the spokespeople for all experts. Like in climate science, there’s a guy named Michael Mann who’s an actual researcher in the field. Now, granted he’s got a lot of controversy and a lot of problems, but nevertheless, he’s a researcher.
But then, he is also trusted to summarize climate science. Crucially, he’s trusted to make good evaluations of policy, which I argue he does a terrible job at, because he totally ignores the benefits of fossil fuels. You have those designated experts.
Part of the problem is we need more of a separation between expertise in a given field and actual policy. Particularly with policy, we need a very free, open debate about things with openness to a lot of factors. Think about COVID, because you can stipulate, even if everyone agrees on the science, there’s a lot of different views of what policy should be based on different risk tolerances and all kinds of things.
One of the dangers we saw with COVID is that it became so political that people wanted to have a political view that is called, “The science.” As I said, the political view can’t follow from the science. It also percolates into science negatively because anyone in science who’s saying anything that would seem to contradict the political narrative becomes persona non grata.
It’s no longer, “Here’s a person expressing an opinion. We can take it or leave it.” It is, “This person is derailing my political agenda.” That’s what happened with a lot of the opposition to lockdowns. It was said, “They’re opposing lockdowns, they’re a crank.” Now, I think certain people who were opposing lockdowns were cranks, and I think certain people definitely were not.
You get the same thing with energy and climate. Anyone who derails the stop climate change at all costs narrative, or what’s often called net zero thing, what are they called? They’re called climate change deniers and you shouldn’t listen to them at all. You have this even with recognized, prestigious climate scientists who have had decades of experience doing this and have real achievements in the field, somebody like Richard Lindzen, who’s emeritus at MIT, and was one of the most impressive people in the field for a long time.
You have congresspeople who say, “That’s an idiot climate denier.” It’s like, “Wait a second. You know nothing about this field. This is somebody who has real achievement in the field. Even if he’s wrong, he knows a lot more than you do. But you feel comfortable dismissing him out of hand, you who know nothing.” This is because it has become so political. Lindzen is just viewed as a guy getting in the way of their political agenda.
We need to separate the political agendas. We need to say that we’re going to try to factor in the best science, but part of that is we want a robust debate about politics, and we want to be open to different views in science. Although in science it’s important to know what the state of consensus is. That doesn’t mean we should obey it, but you want to know. But even that needs to be explained very carefully.
One thing I’ve pointed out is that when you hear these numbers, “97 percent of climate scientists agree,” invariably, the consensus is distorted to promote the policy. Today we hear, “97 percent of climate scientists agree,” and the actual studies say they agree that we have some climate impact, not at all catastrophic impact. But yet, that’s interpreted to mean 97 per cent of climate scientists agree with the net zero agenda, which doesn’t follow at all. Again, it’s the science that is being perverted or distorted to advance this set political agenda.
I’m going to get you to make your quick case in a moment for me, but there’s a couple of things I wanted to ask you. Have you ever thought about how similar this phraseology of net zero and zero-COVID is? Has that ever struck you? I’ve thought about the zero in general. They are both bad as a goal, but net zero is much worse than zero-COVID.
Much, much worse than zero COVID. With zero COVID, all things equal, that would be something you would want. I don’t know many people that would say, “I’m really glad this coronavirus came along,” like we should have some of it. You can’t say once it’s out there, it’s not a realistic goal, or it’s a damaging goal. I certainly think that’s the case.
The best people were saying from the beginning that this is going to become an endemic virus. It’s going to be like the flu, and absent some total breakthrough in vaccination, this is going to be with us for a long time, and it’s going to be an issue. But it will be progressively less of an issue as we develop immunity.
Whereas, with net zero, I believe pursuing that would be much worse. We could get into that today. Trying to zero out our use of fossil fuels or even our emissions from fossil fuels in a 27-year timeframe would be the single—and I mean this literally—would be the single most destructive act in human history in terms of depriving people of energy and shutting down civilization.
It’s also bad because net zero climate is really net zero climate impact. It’s part of a broader movement that says that our impact in general is bad. This is why I find it so abhorrent. I talk about this a lot in Fossil Future.
You talk about an anti-human framework.
Which I thought was fascinating.
My basic premise is that so much of what’s going on with energy and environment is this view that human impact on nature is evil and we should eliminate it as much as possible. When I was 18, I learned some pro-human environmental philosophy. I didn’t know anything about energy back then, and I was still afraid of climate catastrophe.
But I concluded that the green movement was anti-human, because I realized, “Wait a second, they’re against human impact, one. And two, humans survive and flourish by impacting the earth. So, you’re against our means of survival.” But that’s really true, and look at how glorified being green is. But what does green mean? It just means less impact.
The ideal green planet is the earth that would exist had human beings never existed. I believe we have a very deep-seated anti-humanism in our culture that has been growing over the past few decades and generations. When you say net zero CO2, it’s part of a broader idea that means, “Let’s not impact the earth at all.” That’s the same as saying, “Let’s have a lot fewer humans.”
Because if somebody said, “Hey, I’m for zero bear impact,” that means you want to kill all the bears. It’s the same thing. To be against human impact is to be against human life, because we survive and flourish via impact.
This is beginning to sound like the depopulation agenda I keep hearing about.
It is the underlying idea, and that is sometimes viewed as conspiracy. But if you look at the history of it, this was a very overt belief during the early modern environmental movements in the late ’60s and in the ’70s—depopulation. It was usually put as, “We have a problem with overpopulation.” How do you solve a problem with overpopulation?
You depopulate, there’s no other solution. That was a very popular idea, like with Paul Ehrlich. His ideas never seem to die. He’s the most wrong person in recent history, and every prediction he makes is 180 degrees wrong. He says the world will end and it gets much better.
In the ’60s, he was on “The Johnny Carson Show” many, many times. That’s considering him to be a totally normal person. Imagine somebody who’s on Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon and all these different shows. That was just a normal idea, as was, interestingly, anti-technology.
In the ’70s, it was quite common for environmental activists to say, “We’re against technology.” Basically, what they learned is both of those are bad messaging. If they put it as, “We’re anti-population,and anti-technology,” it’s too literal. It’s literally too anti-human. People pick up on it.
But if you say, “I’m against impact,” what happens is, impact is a vague term. Impact can mean impacts that harm us or impacts that help us. People think, “We want to minimize impact.” They just think, “We want less air pollution or less water pollution or less unnecessary destruction of natural beauty.” You think, “Great, sign me up. Get me on that minimize impact bus.”
But wait a second. Minimize human impact also means minimize farms, factories, roads, everything that makes the world livable for 8 billion people. They very cleverly masked this anti-human, anti-technology agenda under, “Let’s minimize impact.” That’s why I like to take it literally and say. “Wait a second, we survive by impact.”
My argument is that we should replace this with what I call a human flourishing perspective, which is that we want the earth to be as good a place as possible for human flourishing. That means we actually need to have as much positive impact as possible. We’re going to maximize our positive impacts and we want to minimize our negative impacts. That is going to allow us to really have a world that 8 billion people can enjoy, with things like natural beauty and clean air and clean water.
Or possibly more people?
More than 8 billion?
My view is that we could easily have twice the population, if you have free countries that are allowed to use technology. In terms of food and water, we have limitless ability to produce those, provided that we’re not restricted in our ability to create value. But the green movement is totally attacking that.
Let’s take this moment and give me your case, the elevator pitch version. I’m going to commend you, here. You’re an incredibly logical thinker. You take people all the way from the beginning of the issue with the existing arguments, all the way through to what a good world looks like. What does human flourishing look like? What is the positive vision with fossil fuels? Please give me the short version of your argument.
The subtitle of the book is Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas, Not Less. The first part we’ve talked about a bit, global human flourishing. It’s important that I’m putting it in terms of global human flourishing. Because the prevailing way of thinking of it is that our goal should be to eliminate our impact in general, but particularly our CO2 emissions. In my view, that is a bad goal.
Even if CO2 emissions are a way bigger challenge than I think they are, it can’t be your main goal. It’s like with COVID. Eliminating COVID cannot be your main goal. At most, it’s only one aspect of human flourishing. If we’re thinking about global issues, it should be about promoting global human flourishing.
That’s a very distinctive thing. My argument is that 99 percent of thinkers on this topic are not thinking in terms of global human flourishing. They’re thinking in terms of eliminating CO2 emissions. The question is, how many countries have made an energy abundance pledge? How many countries have made a human flourishing pledge? How many companies have? How many financial institutions have?
All the countries and major companies and financial institutions all have net zero pledges. Their animating moral goal is no climate impact. The first thing is to step back and say, “That’s the wrong goal.” Absent whatever the science is, the goal should be global human flourishing. At most, climate is only one aspect of that, and that’s why I stress that.
I’m saying more oil, coal, and natural gas, not less. The next thing I ask, and it’s ordered a little differently in the book, “Should we continue using fossil fuels; oil, coal, and natural gas? Should we diminish them or should we increase them? If you’re looking at it from a human flourishing perspective, it is essential to carefully weigh the benefits and the negative side effects.
In our culture, we tend to only look at negative side effects and not benefits. That’s a terrible, terrible way of thinking about it. I mentioned this guy, Michael Mann. He has a whole book on fossil fuels and climate. But when he talks about food, he only talks about, “What are the negative side effects of fossil fuel use on food?” That’s a fine thing to look at. It’s a good thing to look at, insofar as you’re doing it accurately, which I don’t think he is.
But revealingly, he has nothing about the benefits of fossil fuels to food, even though fossil fuels literally make it possible to feed 8 billion people. They provide the fuel for all the amazing agricultural equipment, particularly diesel fuel, which is very hard to replace. They provide natural gas, which is the basis of modern fertilizer, which allows us to feed 8 billion people.
My view is that you need to carefully weigh the benefits and side effects. Actually, my argument is, if you do that, it’s pretty obvious that we need more fossil fuels. The basic reason is the benefit of having what I call cost-effective energy; low cost, reliable energy that is versatile. It can power every type of machine, it’s scalable, and it can provide energy for billions of people and thousands of places.
Literally, it is the difference between poverty and prosperity, between danger and safety. When you have a lot of energy, you have an abundant and safe world. When you don’t, you have a deficient and dangerous world. The benefits are so huge. They’re desperately needed.
There are 6 billion people who use an amount of energy that we in the U.S. would consider unacceptable. There are 3 billion people who are using less electricity in their lives than a typical refrigerator of ours. Just think about it. Energy is so crucial, and it’s so desperately needed. Nothing comes close to fossil fuels for the next several decades.
Fossil fuels provide 80 percent of the world’s energy. They’re still growing. They’re particularly growing in parts of the world that care most about cost-effective energy, such as China. I just posted on Twitter today that China has more coal plants in the pipeline than we have coal plants, period. They have more new coal plants planned to last 40-plus years than we have coal plants, period, never mind their huge inventory of existing coal plants. Fossil fuels are uniquely cost-effective for the foreseeable future.
You’ve got this thing that’s crucial to life. Billions more people need it. Fossil fuels are uniquely able to provide it. The final thing, because everyone is concerned about climate, fossil fuels actually make us safer from the climate. They give us an ability to neutralize climate danger, not just with heating and cooling, although that saves millions of lives, but building sturdy buildings, using high-energy machines, and maybe most significantly, alleviating drought through irrigation and through crop transport.
Drought is historically the biggest climate killer. It used to kill millions of people a year, 10 million people some years, adjusted for population. Now, it’s less than 1/100th of that. Fossil fuels, unlike a prescription drug where you have benefits and you have negative side effects and sometimes the benefits outweigh them, fossil fuels have this unique ability to cure their own side effects. Because when you have energy, you can neutralize almost any danger.
Even if we made drought worse in the atmosphere, we could be 10 times better at fighting it because of all the energy that we have. That’s why I think it’s obvious. You realize how beneficial fossil fuels are, including how good they are at protecting us from climate danger. You realize we’ve already been affecting the climate for 100-plus years and we’re safer than ever from climate.
The only way fossil fuels could really be a problem that would justify restricting, let alone eliminating them, is if the climate change had totally changed, like it went from something we can totally deal with and be fine with, and then suddenly it’s some devil climate that just ruins everything.
I argue in the book, there’s no science to support this at all. There’s science to say we’ll continue to get somewhat warmer, but we’ll continue to master that, and we’ll continue to flourish if we have the freedom to use fossil fuels.
You also make the point about safety, that it’s essentially fossil fuel use which has reduced the deaths associated with these hurricanes, or things related to these types of weather events, but which also seem to be declining, not increasing, which is against the prevailing narrative.
You mean the actual incidence?
The most important point is that the danger is decreasing. We often talk about climate change as this evil thing, and that actually reveals bad philosophy. Climate change really means man-made climate change. What people are thinking is, “If we made the change, it must be bad.” This is part of this anti-impact philosophy, or really it’s a religion—human impact is bad. Climate change caused by humans is assumed to be bad, instead of asking, “What are the benefits of warming, and what are the harms of warming? What about the greening? What about all the energy benefits that come along with it?”
It’s just a totally totally irrational way of thinking about it. The way you want to think about negatives in terms of climate is climate danger. That’s the key concept. If you ask what has happened to climate danger in the last 100 years, it’s declined precipitously.
The best piece of evidence we have is that the number of deaths or the rate of death from climate disasters like storms and floods and extreme temperatures and wildfires is down by a factor of 50. It’s down 98 percent in a century. The reason is because the ability that fossil fuels and other technologies give us to master the climate and neutralize climate danger. That ability is so much more important than any changes in the atmosphere.
Sometimes people focus a lot on, “What exactly has happened to hurricanes and is there a difference and what will happen in the future? But the truth is, that stuff doesn’t matter too much compared to the ability to master it. The only way it would matter is if it was a total difference in kind.
If hurricanes doubled in intensity, that would be a huge challenge.
But if you look at the literature, there are projections that they will actually decrease in frequency, and then increase one to ten percent in intensity. That’s not the kind of thing we should really be super-focused on as a society. We have 6 billion people who need a lot more energy. We ourselves could be a lot more prosperous. It’s just the wrong focus. Again, it shows the culture is not thinking in terms of human flourishing. They are thinking in terms of eliminating our impact.
I went to school for my graduate work that had a prominent forestry school there. One of the things you learn in forestry classes is that there is always a fire cycle in any area. If you interrupt that fire cycle, you get these big, catastrophic fires. You mentioned wildfires, so this is why I think about this. Are wildfires really a result of climate, are they a result of forest management, or is it a mix?
It depends how specifically you’re asking that. In general, they’re a result of nature, so they’re just a natural phenomenon.
I’m talking about these big catastrophic wildfires.
Unusually catastrophic wildfires or out-of-control fires, if you just think about it for a second, it’s pretty obvious that bad practices are involved. You’ve studied forestry, so it’s easier for you to think about it. But for somebody to think logically, let’s say it got three degrees C warmer, or five degrees Fahrenheit warmer. So far, it’s really one degree C, so let’s say about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer. Is it really possible that the earth is just going to catch on fire and there’s nothing we can do about it? Is that really likely?
You just think, “No, it’s not.” What actually causes fires? There are ignition events and then what causes them to go out of control is there’s a lot of kindling for them. You can imagine that rationally we could manage forests in a way where we would reduce the amount of kindling, including building barriers if we need to between different areas.
And people do this, I might add.
Right, they do this. I want to point out there is this ridiculous fatalism when it comes to climate change-type stuff. People think, “We did the wrong thing and nature is going to punish us and there is nothing we can do.” It shows it has a religious quality. It’s like the climate god is punishing us and we just have to accept it, versus in other realms, we don’t.
Just a little bit of a sidebar, I made fun of Elon Musk about this years ago. He’s saying we can make Mars livable, but then he’s warning that a two-degree warming of the earth will be a catastrophe. How does that make any sense? You can make Mars livable, but you’re worried about two degrees on earth and that we can’t handle it?
Once you think technologically about the earth, it’s obvious even if they don’t have your expertise in forestry, that we should be able to avoid these fires. You look into it and yes, they manage the forests ridiculously. They allow what’s called the fuel load to build up to these huge levels. They don’t build barriers.
At least if we’re talking about California, where I’m from, there’s just no rationality to the management at all. What we’ve done is we’ve just created this enormous environmental hazard. This is a literal fact. The California forest is the biggest environmental hazard in the United States. If it were a private company, it would be shut down immediately.
You have this unlimited source of fire that we just build up. We shut down logging. We don’t clear enough brush. We don’t do controlled burns properly. It’s totally a man-made thing. The fact that we’re focused on, “Was there a drought that made it more conducive, and did we contribute to that?”
A, that’s obviously not the biggest factor, and B, it’s so ineffective, because we have no near-term control over CO2 in the atmosphere. No matter what we do, the world is going to increase it. Even if we stop now, CO2 takes a while to leave the atmosphere. It’s a perfect example of how people aren’t interested in solving the problem. They actually like the problem to exist, because it justifies their power and their attacks on various things like capitalism.
Since you mentioned this, let’s talk about this ideology, or you’re calling it a religion, that’s driving a lot of these policies. Please explain that to me.
I call this the anti-impact framework. I’ll summarize it in one sentence and then we can go into it. The core of it is the idea that human impact on nature is intrinsically immoral and inevitably self-destructive. Those are the key elements. It is intrinsically immoral for us to impact nature and then, inevitably self-destructive. You can see this with the climate issue.
Climate change, us impacting climate, which is what it means in practice, is viewed as a wrong thing, which is very odd. If you think about it logically, we would like to be able to change some aspects of the climate. We’d like to neutralize Hurricane Ian in Florida that was fairly recent.
But notice that it’s climate change that is viewed as wrong. We shouldn’t be doing it, it’s playing God, and it’s tampering with nature. The view is that it has the quality of a commandment.
In the environmental religion, its number one commandment is, “Thou shalt not impact nature.” Really, today it is, “Thou shalt not impact climate.” Again, that’s viewed as the highest goal in all of society is to not impact climate. That’s what net zero means.
If we violate this commandment, we get punished and the world is going to become a hellish place. Notice all the consequences of climate change. They’re supposed to be all bad. Think about how impossible that is, just logically.
What happens physically is we increase CO2 in the atmosphere. That has a warming and greening impact. The warming impact affects other parts of the climate system, like storms and other precipitation-related things. How is it possible that all of that would be bad for everyone? It makes no sense.
You’re just changing a system. There will be good and bad and my view is what matters is our ability to deal with it anyway. But it shows that it’s really viewed as we are upsetting the climate gods, and the climate gods are punishing us. It does have that quality to it. The way I elaborate on this is that its one goal is eliminating human impact. That’s the goal of this religion, or I sometimes call it the framework.
The assumption that it’s self-destructive and the earth is going to punish us, I call this the delicate nurturer assumption, the delicate nurturer. It is the view that earth exists in a delicate, nurturing balance. You’ve probably heard delicate balance, you hear it in Disney movies, and you see it in academic papers.
But the three elements I think of as balance are that it’s stable, so it doesn’t change too much. It’s sufficient, it gives us enough resources as long as we’re not too greedy. And it’s safe, it won’t endanger us much.
The view of humans is that we are what I call parasite polluters. We just take from the earth and we ruin the earth. With this view, our impact is bad, so the more we impact the earth, the more the earth is destroyed. That’s why you have all these catastrophists predicting the end of the world. It doesn’t happen, but they keep thinking it’s right.
It has that quality where you have an end of days view like,”Everyone is going to die on this date.” And then, they don’t. But usually, the people keep believing it for the next date, if they still believe in some guy on earth who keeps saying this.
It’s similar to how we believe in the delicate nurturer. As long as we believe in the delicate nurturer, we’re going to believe that catastrophe is imminent. Again, it’s really that we shouldn’t impact nature. If we do, the delicate nurturer is going to punish us.
Let me ask you about this. One thing that I’ve been observing and a theme that has come out in all the different areas I cover on American Thought Leaders is the increase of the relativist view of the world, that reality is purely what I perceive. There’s only so many people that can believe that, because reality has a way of punching you in the face when you stray from it too much. I’m wondering how much you think that has influenced things? Because I see it everywhere and it’s something maybe a little bit different.
I’m curious how you think of it here. In some ways it presents as the opposite in the sense of there’s a dogma element where it’s just, “Listen to the scientists.” But the scientists are viewed as having pure access to reality. It’s like a religious leader where only they have the access to the deity.
People say, “Just listen to Michael Mann. He’s the scientist, just do what he says.” So, I’m curious how you might see relativism. Relativism and dogmatism aren’t exactly the same, they go together in different ways.
Sure. I’ll just tell you my observations in different areas. People are living more and more in the virtual world on screens. Let’s say that it’s easier for me to believe, it’s easier for me to just say this is what I believe and this is reality, if this way of thinking has crept into my view of the world because it’s been taught in the academy or taught in grade school.
Let’s take this idea that if I don’t social distance, I’m going to kill grandma or something. There’s all sorts of these mantras where, on the face of it, when you sit down and think about it for a moment, you’d say, “This doesn’t make sense. “ It wasn’t like you believed this before. This idea just came in. Maybe it was propagandized quite heavily, but somehow a lot of us very well-meaning people accepted it. This is one example. There’s a million of them, and especially over the last few years, this kind of thing keeps recurring and you have all these well-meaning people pursuing something that patently, on the face of it, when you really think about it logically for a moment, seems kind of absurd. That’s what I’m thinking about.
It’s interesting, but do you think they hold it as relativistic? There’s a certain kind of relativist view, particularly on matters of science where it’s like, “Nobody knows what’s true.” And that’s wrong, as if there’s no knowledge or anything like that. That has a lot of problems with it.
But then, there is, “Science is whatever the scientists say.” What you really want is science as a method. It’s a method we have to get a better and better understanding of reality. We want to take information from people who follow that method. Part of that is they need to explain it to us and they need to respect our independence to integrate that with other things.
Unfortunately, in so many fields, you see either relativism or dogmatism. Here’s an example in climate that some of your viewers might find offensive. There’s this view on one side saying, “The science is settled. “We need to get rid of fossil fuels.” Then, there’s a response that says, “No, science is never settled.”
But I don’t think that’s a great response because without qualification, it just means, “We can’t ever know anything, so you can believe whatever you want to believe.” It’s like, “You can believe that there is COVID or there isn’t COVID, and that’s okay.” And that’s not what it is.
It’s that science is not dogmatic and that people believing it doesn’t make it true. But you can still have progress in science. In a sense, you can say, “The law of universal gravitation is sort of settled science.” It’s a dangerous term either way to put it as settled or unsettled.
The response to people saying, “Climate catastrophe is settled,” is not to say, “Nothing is ever settled, so I’m not going to think about it.” It’s to say, “No, actually, this is not settled at all. There’s no evidence that we have climate catastrophe. We have climate impact. There is certainly no evidence that we should get rid of fossil fuels as a solution to that because the benefits of those are so huge.”
It is interesting how it’s so common to have dogmatism and relativism, versus a more objective approach where you really think in terms of scientific method and logical method. That’s what we really need as a culture—a culture of scientists and other experts who explain things rather than try to dictate them. If you have that, then you can really make progress.
I think of it as genuine truth-seeking, which is really what science is. It’s a method to try to get at the truth of a situation. We come up with models and some of them work incredibly well almost all the time. Then, we say, “Okay, that’s settled.” But then we sometimes find a problem which causes us to rethink the whole thing. And again, coming back to this relativism piece, I wonder if a whole lot of people have given up on this idea of truth-seeking, because maybe there isn’t truth to seek.
That’s true. They’ve also given it up in terms of, “Let’s just listen to authorities.” They say something this week that they didn’t even think about last week. You notice how quickly the dogmas shift. It’s just immediately this thing. There’s no recollection of what I believed, but this suddenly becomes my biggest conviction.
You even see this with priorities on issues. It’s just some issue in the news, and then this is my biggest priority. There’s a whole virtue signaling-type thing like, “Racism is now my life’s passion to fight, because I saw something on TV,” or, “There’s a storm this week, so now climate change is my focus.” It’s a problem.
It was global warming at one point, then it shifted to climate change. But this idea, the fad, or the way you’re supposed to think or you’re relegated to the margins of society for quite some time, this one seems to have incredible longevity. What are the things that can truly challenge such a longstanding perception, which you argue pretty convincingly is not accurate, that anthropogenic climate change is a cataclysm?
An imminent cataclysm or something.
Exactly, yes. You’ve made me think about why it is so enduring. It’s an interesting thing and let’s speculate on that, quickly. I hate this term, but it is falsifiable, because even if you make a specific prediction about change and it doesn’t come true, you can still say, because it’s such a vague term, you can still say, “Oh, we had climate change,” or, “We had impact.”
If you say, “The world is all going to end from acid rain in this decade,” when you speculate specific human consequences by a specific date, then that can be proven false. If you just say something vague like, “The climate is going to change, and it’s going to be really bad,” then no matter what happens, it’s easier to claim vindication, which is part of what has happened.
You make predictions, they are vague enough, and no matter what happens, you can say you were right. Because the Greens got burned on so many predictions like, “England is mostly not going to exist by this year.” And so, they start making vaguer and vaguer predictions.
The other thing is, because it deals with our use of fossil fuels and specifically our CO2 emissions, it deals with a ubiquitous aspect of life. If you’re claiming a ubiquitous aspect of life is very damaging, that justifies unlimited control. That was actually part of the appeal of COVID to certain people, that breathing was considered dangerous, so you had the right to control everyone’s physical location indefinitely.
You saw that some people loved that idea and it wasn’t just, “There’s a danger, it’s an emergency. Let everyone sit in their home for a week while we figure things out.” It was, “No, we might do this indefinitely.” There was a lust for power with some of the people.
It has this effect of you can claim to be right even if you’re wrong, and you get to control everything if it’s true. The key is just making two things clear. One is making the distinction between climate impact and climate catastrophe. That’s a huge one.
The other thing I mentioned is just bringing up the benefits of fossil fuels. What we should be really thinking of climate-wise with fossil fuels is that fossil fuels have made the climate far safer. That’s the real narrative.
Imagine somebody just came here from 100 years ago in a time machine. Young Jan, you came here just 100 years ago. Your experience of climate, if you just watched for a year what happened around the world, your dominant experience would be, “Wow, climate danger has plummeted.”
That would be your overwhelming experience, I guarantee you. It would not be, “The climate sucks now.” That would not be your experience at all. Maybe you could tell if it was two degrees warmer or something, but probably not. What you would see is, “When I was alive, it was common for 3 million Chinese people to get wiped out by drought and famine, and that doesn’t happen anymore.”
It was common for a few hundred thousand people to get wiped out by a storm and it would take years to recover from these events. And it’s not like that. Or a heat wave could kill so many babies so easily. It’s not like that anymore, because we have such a mastery over climate. That’s the real story.
Let’s reframe the whole thing where we’re talking about human flourishing and we’re talking about both positives and negatives of fossil fuels, and let’s tell the true story. There is one way I put it that is sufficient; fossil fuels didn’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous. They took a dangerous climate and made it safe. That’s the real story.
Part of that story is, yes, we’ve had somewhat of a warming impact on the climate. That’s only part of the story. People often try to deal with things by just reacting to them, whereas often, the solution is to reframe them.
One of the themes that I kept getting as I was reading your book is that we’ve all lost this ability to do cost-benefit analysis, which is exactly what you’re saying. The real story is let’s look at the costs and benefits and do the benefits ever outweigh the costs?
That’s another way of saying weighing the benefits and the side effects. I talk about this in chapter 11 of the book. It’s called “Reframing the Conversation and Arguing to 100.” It’s advice on how to talk about this issue. But I hope that other pro-freedom people take it to other issues. Very quickly, I introduce the idea of arguing to 100, versus arguing to zero.
Basically, arguing to 100 means that you say, “This is my goal,” and then you argue that your policies will get you to the goal. The net zero people say, “The goal is to eliminate our impact on climate, and the Green New Deal will get us there.” Now, I totally disagree with the goal and the policy, but that’s a good model of how to fight for things.
If you disagree with the direction of policy, you should challenge the goal. But often what people do is they will say, “No, I agree with the goal of net zero, but the Green New Deal is inefficient, “or “It’s not the right way to get there.” Then, they try to shoot down the Green New Deal. I call this arguing to zero, because they just try to zero out the other person’s policies, but they don’t challenge the goal.
My thing is, “No. I don’t agree with net zero as a goal. That’s a bad goal.” Let’s have the goal of global human flourishing and then let’s look at the policies. If you weigh the benefits and the side effects of the technologies involved, what are the best policies to get there? That’s why I believe in energy freedom, including freedom for fossil fuels and nuclear and everything else.
In general, pro-freedom people need to more what I call reframe and argue to 100. If the debate’s going in a direction you don’t want, you should expect that the framing is bad and needs to be changed. Don’t just react to the framing and try to come up with another clever way to shoot them down. Because even if you shoot them down 100 percent in one instance, you can’t shoot down the direction if they’re setting the direction.
That’s such a powerful lesson, looking at the frame and deciding whether that is what actually makes sense in the first place. It’s a powerful lesson to carry forward for all of us. Alex Epstein, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Thanks so much for having me.
Thank you all for joining Alex Epstein and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.