Last week, a group of Republican senators gathered for a special closed-door lunch on Capitol Hill with author Alex Epstein, who distributed signed copies of his newest book to attendees. After the lunch, Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota told E&E News that Epstein was “brilliant,” adding, “He made the case that fossil fuels contributed more to people getting out of poverty than the other way around.”
Epstein’s name may not be recognizable to most Americans, but his star has been rising on the right for quite some time. We may all start hearing about him more often because the time is ripe for his particular brand of fossil fuel boosterism to become the GOP’s mainstream climate talking point.
Epstein began his career at the Ayn Rand Institute, where he rose to prominence with op-eds on subjects like abortion, animal rights, and keeping the United States hooked on oil, which he described in 2006 as “a wonderful, life-sustaining product.” In 2011, after leaving the organization, he founded the Center for Industrial Progress; per its website, CIP is devoted to “helping industry fight for its freedom, with new ideas, arguments, and policies that will improve our economy and our environment.” Since then, he’s written two books (2014’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and 2022’s Fossil Future). He’s been on countless right-wing media shows extolling the virtues of fossil fuels, and debated climate activist Bill McKibben on the topic in 2015. Despite his carbon-loaded arguments, Epstein famously does not want to be called a climate denier, claiming that he “explicitly acknowledge[s] the phenomenon of global warming.”
CIP’s financial activities are harder to track than those of other right-wing organizations working against climate action. Epstein’s organization openly bills itself as a “for-profit foundation,” claiming on a (now-deleted) part of its website that it is “proudly not a 501c-3 non-profit.” Still, even without this financial information, it’s clear from the company Epstein keeps that he’s become a darling of groups with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry. This year alone, he’s spoken at two organizations that are members of the State Policy Network, a cluster of groups that work with the Koch-funded American Legislative Council, or ALEC, and gave a keynote address at the Heartland Institute’s annual climate conference. Heartland has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from oil and coal giants to push climate denial.
There’s a big difference, however, between the rhetoric of these old-school organizations—which, traditionally, have challenged the science behind climate change—and Epstein’s schtick. While Epstein does his fair share of bad-faith science (like promoting the idea that carbon dioxide is necessary as a plant food), his central point is that using fossil fuels is a moral imperative. Because humans have achieved so much in the past using coal, gas, and oil, his thesis goes, we should keep using them. By contrast, stopping fossil fuel use will do nothing but stifle human “flourishing” and end up only hurting the world’s poor.
“The fastest way to decrease energy poverty and overall poverty is to end all favoritism for wasteful, unreliable solar and wind schemes,” he writes. “And above all reject any proposal to outlaw reliable fossil fuels and nuclear in favor of unreliable ‘renewable’ energy.”
This is, obviously, a colossal misdirect. People who are advocating that the world must transition off fossil fuels are not saying that we should all go back to less efficient forms of energy, like burning firewood, or that the poor must stay poor. The whole idea is to develop new technologies, curb some of our enormous energy use, and beef up alternate forms of energy like wind and solar. These emissions cuts, in turn, can protect the world’s most vulnerable, whom Epstein professes to care so much about, from the impacts of climate change.
But for Epstein, there’s no future in which we’re able to divorce ourselves from fossil fuels; no possible world where reducing our energy consumption and putting guardrails on our natural tendencies to use and produce more could be beneficial. This is an argument that Ayn Rand herself probably would have loved: Letting a gargantuan industry like oil or coal run wild with zero government intervention would, in a book like Atlas Shrugged, probably fix all sorts of societal ills. In the real world, it’s gotten us into a catastrophic mess.
But Randian rhetoric also makes Epstein an ideal tool for the GOP’s new approach to attacking climate policy. I’ve written before about how the age of old Republican climate denialism—embodied most famously by Senator Jim Inhofe, of snowball fame—is over. In this summer’s intense heat, with temperature records being smashed left and right, insisting that absolutely nothing is wrong with our planet is ludicrous. For a GOP politician focused on keeping fossil fuels in business, especially in the face of the rapid expansion of cheap renewable alternatives, squabbling over numbers and charts is counterproductive. It’s all about repackaging fossil fuels, turning them from the problem to part of the solution.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy demonstrated some of this new rhetoric this week. When a reporter asked him at an event about wildfires and climate change, McCarthy didn’t waste time denying them. Instead, he proposed planting a trillion trees, which the AP notes “would also require a massive amount of space—roughly the size of the continental United States,” and lauded “American natural gas” as having a key role in “a cleaner world.”
Epstein’s arguments are also an attempt to turn the tables on Democrats’ push for environmental and climate justice—the idea that cutting emissions is crucial to keeping people, especially Black and brown communities, safe and healthy. In Epstein-land, fossil fuels are the good guy. It’s climate “alarmists” who are the racists, who want poor people to suffer without energy access. It’s no wonder that in addition to right-wing dark money groups and traditional climate deniers, he’s also gained favor with conservative technocrats like Peter Thiel and “thinkers” like Jordan Peterson, who make scoffing at social justice the entirety of their brand.
This wasn’t Epstein’s first visit to Congress, but given the glowing reviews from the book signing, it definitely won’t be his last. In the Biden era, as temperatures keep getting hotter and climate action finally becomes federal policy, the GOP and its fossil fuel allies need a new savior—and Epstein is gunning for the job.
The Environmental Protection Agency said last week that it would be making $20 billion available from a specially earmarked “green bank” fund established by the Inflation Reduction Act for clean energy projects, especially those in disadvantaged communities, across the country.
We’re still a few months away from the end of hurricane and fire seasons, but the federal government might have trouble helping with disaster. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said this week its disaster fund would run out of money by late August.
Stat of the Week
That’s how much a yacht vandalized by climate activists in Ibiza this weekend is worth. Activists posted a video on Twitter showing them spray-painting the boat, reportedly owned by a Walmart heiress, and holding a sign reading, “You Consume, Others Suffer.”
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
The fossil fuel industry is enlisting whale lovers in the fight against offshore wind, The Guardian reports:
In the classroom, Roberts and his students have been studying how such rhetoric can stop renewable energy projects in their tracks—despite experts who say recent whale deaths have no connection to wind power. That night at the town hall, Roberts also spotted Elizabeth Knight, who founded Green Oceans earlier this year, another anti-wind organization in Rhode Island. Roberts said he felt compassion for Knight.
“She thinks a train wreck is coming,” said Roberts, referring to Knight’s fears of how wind power will push right whales to extinction. “And when you see that, you want to do all you can.”
But he is concerned that Knight and Chalke are falling into a trap laid out by rightwing interests that are sowing doubt to fuel public discontent over renewable energy projects.
This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.