The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Advocate promotes fossil fuels for poor nations he once disparaged

Alex Epstein, author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” while at Duke University wrote pieces for a conservative paper that criticized non-Western cultures

Alex Epstein at the People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014. (Kert Davies)
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As countries around the world grapple with how to curb their reliance on fossil fuels to fight climate change, conservatives are increasingly making the argument that the poorest nations should pursue the opposite course.

One of the most prominent proponents of this strategy, Alex Epstein, has testified before Congress and delivered public lectures arguing that the shift to clean energy is “immoral” because it denies developing countries the cheap electricity needed to lift people out of poverty. His new book, “Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less,” will come out May 24.

“Those of us who benefit from [fossil fuels] in the U.S. should really have sympathy for those in Puerto Rico — let alone the rest of the world that is really, really poor — and we should be doing nothing to impede them from using the most cost-effective energy they can,” Epstein told the House Natural Resources Committee last year. At a debate last month with a prominent climate scientist, he argued that “this modern green movement, I think, is fundamentally immoral and in practice is harming the poorest people in the world.”

The question of how much fossil fuels developing nations can use has emerged as a flash point in global climate negotiations, as countries push to cut greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Scientists warn that at the current rate, the world will have to stop burning fossil fuels by 2030 if it wants to limit the Earth from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels. But the question remains whether developing countries, from India to Barbados, should keep extracting the same fossil fuels that fueled industrialization in wealthy nations.

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The defense of fossil fuels Epstein has helped inject into this debate has previously been dismissed by critics as ethnocentric and paternalistic. Now they are pointing to newly resurfaced articles he wrote in 1999 while in college that dismissed non-Western cultures as inferior, saying they raise further questions about whether his argument is rooted in a “moral” concern for developing nations or is a cynical attempt to promote the use of oil, coal and natural gas.

Epstein served as editor and publisher of the Duke Review, a conservative student newspaper, from 1999 to 2001. In a March 1999 piece, Epstein wrote that students should be required to take courses on Western civilization, according to a copy of the article provided to The Washington Post by Documented, an investigative group that argues the “urgent dangers of climate change are being downplayed or ignored.”

Without mentioning race or ethnicity, he claimed that Western culture’s achievements far surpass those of other cultures.

“Just compare New York to Chad,” he wrote. “No benefit can be gained by focusing an education on anti-reason cultures, their only academic merit lies in contrasting them to Western civilization as models of inferiority.”

Epstein’s critics said his college writings undermine his argument for fossil fuels.

Epstein and other advocates are “suddenly concerned about poverty in Africa when it has to do with the policy they want to favor,” said Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown University who studies climate disinformation. “Epstein is latching onto that argument to try to make a moral case for fossil fuels, when there’s many alternatives to get those people out of poverty. … For me, this is also a colonialist attitude.”

Epstein defended his college writings after being contacted by The Post last week. He took to Twitter to criticize the newspaper and a reporter by name and asserted The Post was engaging in a “smear campaign” to discredit his work and called for the journalist to be fired.

In an email, Epstein said a story focusing on his college writings is “so beyond the pale in terms of false content, terrible methodology, and bad motives.” When asked to specify which parts of the information provided he believed were false, he declined to comment further.

In his Twitter thread last week, Epstein said his criticism of non-Western cultures was unrelated to race or ethnicity. “I made clear that I believe that culture, which is fundamentally *ideas*, is totally different from skin color!” he wrote.

He stood by the argument he made in college.

“I do think Western culture is overall superior and certainly in terms of government historically, because it’s really the birth of modern freedom,” he added in a YouTube video criticizing The Post for inquiring about his articles.

A self-styled philosopher and energy theorist, Epstein occupies several perches that have put him in position to influence the national debate over climate and energy policy. GOP lawmakers have invited Epstein to testify before Congress three times, while other Republicans have cited his work in public policy debates. He is slated to speak at a conference in June sponsored by the oil giant Chevron, and serves as a member of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a powerful body that advocates for the “responsible development” of oil and gas resources in 38 states.

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Wayne Christian, a Republican member of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, praised Epstein and his ideas.

Epstein “is one of the most articulate voices fighting for cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy,” Christian said in an email. “At a time when government, education, and financial institutions are attacking fossil fuels, Alex provides the ammunition to fight the myths and presents common-sense solutions that ensure human flourishing is prioritized in our energy policy.”

Epstein runs the Center for Industrial Progress, which he describes as a “for-profit think tank.” While he does not disclose its funding sources, he has acknowledged that fossil fuel firms have paid him for consulting services, saying, “If there’s an oil company who wants to fight for their freedom, then they might come to us.”

Epstein’s argument that burning fossil fuels will not cause serious harm — he said last month that “there are huge positives” to rising temperatures — runs counter to conclusions of leading scientists, who say the world must rapidly phase out fossil fuels and slash greenhouse gas emissions to stave off worsening floods, heat waves and other climate disasters.

Over the past decade, Epstein has offered prominent climate scientists and journalists large fees to publicly debate him, according to people who have been asked. Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, squared off with Epstein last month at the Steamboat Institute, a conservative nonprofit in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

In comments to a member of the Steamboat Institute after the debate, Epstein said that “with [carbon dioxide] you get that, yeah, it has a warming impact. But even some of that is good, and there’s nothing resembling a catastrophe.”

The moral case espoused by Epstein is one that has been embraced by several conservative policymakers.

“Look those people in the eyes that are starving and tell them, ‘You can’t have electricity because as a society we decided fossil fuels were bad,’” Rick Perry said at a major energy conference, CERAWeek, in Houston in March 2018, when he was U.S. energy secretary. “I think that is immoral.”

Epstein took credit for inspiring Perry in a subsequent speech to the Ayn Rand Institute, a nonprofit think tank that promotes the libertarian writer’s philosophy.

“We were meeting that morning and [Perry] said, ‘Hey, did you hear my speech? I was basically — I was giving your ideas,’” Epstein said.

Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has also cited Epstein’s views. “He states that you cannot be a humanitarian and condemn the energy humanity needs,” Barrasso said at a 2017 hearing.

Epstein has also sought to influence state lawmakers. As millions of Texans went without power during a winter storm in February 2021, Epstein emailed the chief of staff of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R): “The root cause of the TX blackouts is a national and state policy that has prioritized the adoption of unreliable wind/solar energy over reliable energy.”

Abbott, along with other conservatives, faulted renewable energy for the grid’s failures. The governor said on Fox News on Feb. 16, 2021 that “our wind and our solar got shut down” during the storm. Independent experts have debunked that claim, finding that the blackouts were largely caused by freezing natural gas pipelines. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the governor was influenced by Epstein’s email.

While developing nations do need greater access to affordable energy, they should not look to fossil fuels, said Jacqui Patterson, founder and executive director of the Chisholm Legacy Project. The group — named for Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress — seeks to help Black communities tackle climate change.

“I share a commitment to addressing energy poverty, and I share the level of urgency around doing so,” said Patterson, who previously ran the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. “But we don’t want to do it in a way that further harms nations in the Global South — not only with the climate impacts of fossil fuel burning, but also the environmental health impacts.”