5-9 November, 2018

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19 September 2017

Alex Epstein: ‘Our global energy discussion is biased and anti-human’

Fossil fuel usage is a controversial subject in a world of finite resources and environmental awareness. Crucially, the industry still has its major champions – and no one flies the hydrocarbon flag higher than Alex Epstein.
 
Mr Epstein is an author, theorist, policy pundit, founder of industry think tank the Centre for Industrial Progress, and one of the gas industry's most divisive figures. He burst on to the international scene in 2014 after publishing “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”, his bestselling book where he theorises that the economic and societal benefits of hydrocarbon usage far outweigh any negative environmental impact.
 
Of course, such bold ideas have not been without their detractors - but where does the truth actually lie?
 
At Africa Oil Week 2017, Mr Epstein will be taking part one of the conference’s key debates: “Phasing Out Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case”, as well as delivering a keynote speech on "Winning Hearts and Minds".
 
To get ready, we sat down with Mr Epstein himself to get to grips with his energy philosophy, and the arguments he’ll be bringing to Cape Town this year.
 

How would you summarise the moral case for fossil fuels?
 
Our global energy discussion is biased and anti-human. We are taught to look only at the positives of trendy forms of energy like solar and wind, and only at the negatives of fossil fuels. To discover what energy policy will maximize human flourishing we must think full context—we must carefully look at the benefits, risks, and side effects of all our alternatives. 
 
If we truly look at fossil fuel energy by the standard of human flourishing, we discover that it is not an immoral product we need to restrict but a moral product we need to liberate. Fossil fuels are the only form of energy that can supply the cheap, plentiful, reliable energy human beings need to flourish — economically and environmentally — on a scale of billions. 
 
Our society’s lack of a clear, pro-human, full-context framework for thinking about energy is leading to disastrous, anti-fossil fuel (and anti-nuclear and anti-hydro) policy decisions that are already harming millions and will harm billions.
 
How does this apply to Africa in particular?
 
Nearly half of the 7 billion people on this planet lack one of the essentials of human flourishing: affordable, reliable energy. 40% heat their homes and cook their food with wood or animal dung. 15% have absolutely no electricity.
 
Thus, today there are premature babies dying for lack of electric incubators, children choking on smoke from burning manure, and hundreds of other afflictions related to global energy poverty. Many of these people live in Africa. 
 
By far the greatest alleviator of this problem over the last several decades has been the fossil fuel industry. For example, China and India have made tremendous progress toward energy abundance by quintupling their use of affordable, reliable coal and oil since 1980. This increased energy fueled increased productivity, which in turn, contributed to a 7 year increase of life expectancy in China and a 10 year increase of life expectancy in India, a wondrous lengthening of the lives of 2.5 billion people.
 
The fossil fuel industry is the first and only energy industry capable of providing affordable, energy to 7 billion for many decades if not centuries to come—and has the potential to end energy poverty in Africa. 
 
Unfortunately, Africans are being encouraged to turn to expensive, unreliable sources of energy, like solar and wind. The moral case for fossil fuels is vital for helping them understand why they should reject those calls and embrace an energy abundance policy that liberates the development of fossil fuels and other affordable, reliable sources of energy like hydro and nuclear.
 
What should be the role of Africa's governments and lawmakers regarding fossil fuels and their use in the continent?
The role of African governments should be the same as the role of any government: not to decide what forms of energy we use through subsidies and restrictions, but to protect energy freedom. That means freedom from endangerment, so that we are shielded from the risks involved in energy production, freedom to develop, so that energy producers can create affordable, reliable energy, and freedom to compete, so that we can choose the best energy source at any given time. 
 
How should fossil fuels and power sources like solar and wind co-exist in the energy mix?
 
The right energy policy is freedom of competition. Solar and wind producers should be free to try to outcompete affordable, reliable sources of energy like fossil fuels. But governments shouldn’t mandate that unreliable forms of energy be added to the energy grid, which deprives people of energy through higher energy prices.
 
What is the main counter-arguments that your work generally provokes? How do you counter them?
 
I have publicly offered to debate any of the leading fossil fuel opponents, because I think it’s important that the public sees that they are not being offered the whole picture about our energy choices. But very few fossil fuel opponents are willing to meet that challenge. When they do engage with these ideas, they almost always commit the very errors I warn against: bias, sloppiness, and anti-human thinking. 
 
For example, the popular American magazine Rolling Stone listed me as one of the world’s most influential “climate deniers.” But like most of the people on their list, I don’t deny that climate changes or that burning fossil fuels has some impact on the climate. What I argue is that the impact  is mild and manageable rather than runaway and catastrophic. Rolling Stone, and anyone else who throws around vague smear terms like “climate denier,” is being sloppy rather than precise. Unfortunately, that is the level at which most critics respond to my ideas.
 
In your opinion, what do the general public misunderstand most about fossil fuel use?
 
The number one thing that public misunderstands is that “being green” does not mean being anti-pollution. It means being anti-impact, which means that whenever we develop nature in order to improve human life—by building a dam, or a coal plant, or a car, or a hospital we’re doing something immoral. 
 
I’m an anti-pollution but pro-development, because human beings need to transform nature in order to flourish. And to transform nature requires a lot of energy, especially fossil fuel energy.
 
Have you seen changes in public opinion on fossil fuel use in your speaking and writing career?
 
At an individual level, yes. I recently published an ebook called 1000 Hearts & Minds, which has quotes from a thousand different people who have been impacted by the moral case for fossil fuels—including young people and former environmentalists who have become fossil fuels champions after being exposed to my work. 
 
What needs to happen now is that millions of people need to be exposed to these ideas. I will soon be launching an energy ambassador training program, which I hope will make hundreds of thousands of people inside the fossil fuel industry more persuasive at championing their work. When we have hundreds of thousands of people making the moral case for fossil fuels, I think we will see an enormous impact society-wide.
 
What can Africa Oil Week delegates expect from your presentation, Winning Hearts & Minds?
 
This speech, designed for senior management, discusses why companies have so much difficulty winning the hearts and minds of their stakeholders, including employees—and how reframing the conversation in what I call pro-human, whole-picture terms is the fundamental solution. 
 
To see Alex Epstein in action, make sure you are at Africa Oil Week 2017 in Cape Town between 23-27 October. He will take part in a live debate with Charlotte Aubin, president of green investment bank GreenWish Partners SAS, entitled ‘Phasing Out Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case’ - as well as delivering a keynote presentation on Winning Hearts and Minds.
 
Alongside Mr Epstein is a full speaker programme packed with leading African policymakers, representatives from majors and much more. 
 
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