My main intellectual strategy is to explore important neglected topics where I can find an original angle to pursue. As a result, I tend to lose interest in topics as they get more attention. Which is why I’ve avoided climate change. Yes, it is plausibly important, but I’ve always seen it get plenty of attention, and I haven’t yet found an original angle on it. So I’ve let it lie.
But on the recommendation of my colleague Bryan Caplan, I’ve just read Alex Epstein’s contrarian new book Fossil Future. And my overall review is that, on the big issues, he’s basically right: CO2 induced planetary warming is going slowly, doesn’t remotely threaten extinction, and its harms will be more than offset by gains from our growing fossil-energy-powered wealth. It would be crazy to actually try to end fossil fuel use by 2050, as many are now “committing” to do; fossil fuels will likely remain our most cost-effective way to do many useful things long after that.
Most fundamentally, Epstein diagnoses the key problem well: the main emotional energy behind climate activism is the desire to stop humans from having any substantial impact on nature. In my terminology, they see nature as sacred, and thus as eternal, pure, not in conflict with other sacred things, and to be sharply distinguished from, not mixed with, and not at any price sacrificed for, profane things. We are not to calculate such choices, but to intuit them, aesthetically.
Epstein is right that our elite academic and media systems focus on a few celebrated and oft-quoted climate expert/activists, who are not that representative of the larger world of experts. And these activists are opposed to nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and hydroelectricity, all of which avoid CO2 warming. They even sympathize with those who oppose new solar and wind energy projects, and any land developments, that have substantial impacts on nature. It seems that, thought they may deny it in public, what they really want is a smaller human world, with fewer people using less materials and energy.
My main complaint (echoing Caplan) is that Epstein avoids and sometimes seems to reject econ-style marginal thinking. For example, he doesn’t really distinguish the marginal value of more fossil energy from that of more other kinds of modern inputs and capital. And he doesn’t seem to want to admit that CO2 emissions might have mild negative externalities which could justify mild taxes. But given how big these intellectual errors are, I’m impressed that Epstein seems so consistently right on most everything else. I guess that’s because activists on the other side also tend to be little influenced by marginal thinking.
Epstein acts as if the only force strong enough to resist pressures from seeing nature as sacred is seeing something else as even more sacred. And for that Epstein picks: human flourishing. He treats that as so sacred that not even mild taxes on fossil fuels can be tolerated. As an economist I’m sad to think we can’t make a more reasonable choice in the middle, where everything we value gets traded off via conscious calculation mediated by mundane prices. But, alas, I don’t know that Epstein is wrong on this key sacredness point.
Added 8a: I think we see this Nature-as-sacred emotional energy in those eager to dismiss concerns about falling fertility leading to a smaller human population.