Our Burning Planet


Fake supporters welcome climate change denialist to Africa Energy Week in Cape Town

Fake supporters welcome climate change denialist to Africa Energy Week in Cape Town
Supporters of the African Energy Week outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre on 17 October 2023. None of the supporters appeard to know what was happening at the CTICC or why they were there. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

American fossil fuel advocate Alex Epstein on Tuesday spoke at Africa Energy Week, held in Cape Town, where he was greeted by a crowd of ‘supporters’ who had no idea who he was.

In what is shaping up to be the warmest year on record, the last thing you expect to come across is climate change denialism. Yet, this week, a US fossil fuel advocate came all the way to Cape Town to share that Africa needs rapid fossil fuel growth and to claim, “Fossil-fuelled development isn’t causing a climate crisis, it’s making humanity safer from climate.”

Alex Epstein shared this message while speaking at the start of the Africa Energy Week (AEW) on Tuesday, 17 October. AEW is an annual event organised by the African Energy Chamber at which African energy leaders and governments come together at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) to discuss the future of the continent’s energy industry.

Epstein is a commentator and the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and Fossil Future.

energy week epstein

Alex Epstein, an American fossil fuel advocate and philosopher, speaking at the Africa Energy Week (AEW) on Tuesday, 17 October 2023 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC). (Photo: Kristin Engel)

He arrived at the CTICC to signs stating “Welcome Alex Epstein”, “Gas is good for Africa” and “End Loadshedding” in a demonstration by more than 100 residents from Khayelitsha, Langa and Gugulethu — none of whom appeared to know who Epstein was, what was happening at the CTICC, or why they were there.

Speaking to Daily Maverick while holding a “Welcome Alex Epstein” placard, Shaun Swaartbooi from Gugulethu admitted that he did not know who Epstein was and that he did not know why he was there. This was echoed by others at the demonstration.

The demonstrators arrived on buses early on Tuesday morning with their signs and left at about 11am. Bulumko Gana was referred to as the organiser by members of the group, but when questioned he said he was not the organiser and that he had been asked to gather young people from his area.

Gana said the organiser was in fact Ndingu Malandela, who when questioned also denied organising the demonstration and was instructed to “please block anything from the media and pass on the message”.

The demonstrators denied they had been paid.

‘Climate criminals’

energy week extinction rebellion

Extinction Rebellion climate activists protest at the African Energy Week outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre on 17 October 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The demonstration took place alongside a protest action by Extinction Rebellion (XR) Cape Town, whose members were dressed as “climate criminals” — representing governments, oil, gas and coal industries that were “stealing the future”.

Supporting XR was Stephen Horn, country director of the Clean Creatives campaign, who said that Tuesday’s “astroturfing” (hiring a crowd to support industry interests) was further proof of the dirty tactics of the oil industry as it pursued profits over much cleaner, more sustainable development pathways in line with the global scientific consensus on climate change.

“Now, more than ever, the case is being made to South African agencies and corporate South Africa that it’s time to pick a side; you cannot claim to care about the climate while also continuing to work for those willing to stoop to such low tactics in order to continue wrecking the planet,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Activists say ‘no more soft approach’ to climate change, need more from Standard Bank

On the sidelines of the event on Tuesday, Epstein said that he had nothing to do with the demonstration supporting him: “I love them [the demonstrators], but I don’t know anything beyond that.”

He said he did not know whether his “supporters” had been paid and that he “for sure did not pay them”.

XR Cape Town and Horn said that while they were protesting, they saw buses of pro-fossil fuel demonstrators arrive. “They told us they’d been paid R200 to come protest ‘to end load shedding’ but beyond that weren’t told more,” XR said in a tweet.

Verner Ayukegba, the senior vice-president of the African Energy Chamber, said: “We welcome everyone to the debate for helping Africa obtain energy security. All we ask is that everyone be respectful and keep the interest of all Africans at heart. We must end energy poverty by 2030 and give access to 600 million people who have no access to energy at the moment.”

Asked whether it had paid demonstrators to attend the event, the African Energy Chamber said, “Unfortunately there is no further response from the Chamber.”

What was Epstein’s message?

According to Epstein, Africans need fossil fuels to prosper because every prosperous country has developed using fossil fuels and “even prosperous countries can’t replace it with solar and wind energy”. He argued that “fossil-fuelled development isn’t causing a climate crisis, it’s making humanity much safer from climate”.

When confronted with scientific evidence like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which contradict his narrative and advocacy for further fossil fuel expansion, Epstein attempted to discredit the science and claimed it was being distorted by the UN.

“They take some legitimate science and distort it to be extremely catastrophic, and then they ignore all the benefits we get from fossil fuels.”

‘A classic case of denialism’

This is a classic case of climate change denialism, according to Professor Francois Engelbrecht, a climatologist at Wits University’s Global Change Institute and an IPCC report contributor, as well as Dr Christopher Trisos, a coordinating lead author on the IPCC’s sixth assessment report. 

Climate change denialism remains by far a minority view rejected by science and by the 197 countries that have endorsed the Paris Agreement — almost every nation on Earth, including the world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide.  

Engelbrecht and Trisos, in interviews with Daily Maverick, said in no uncertain terms that climate change was widespread, rapid, intensifying and unprecedented.

Engelbrecht said that giving a climate change denier like Epstein such a prominent position at AEW was an insult to the African countries that strongly advocated for global warming to be restricted to below 1.5°C, particularly as Africa already suffers disproportionately from climate change.

“The group of countries that negotiate together as Africa has, in fact, been the most prominent voice in the commissioning of the IPCC’s special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. It was Africa and the small island states that realised that their countries are the most vulnerable to the future impact of climate change,” Engelbrecht said.

Trisos said, “It’s unfortunate that the African Energy Chamber has given a platform for misinformation that endangers the life and livelihoods of millions and millions of Africans. If this misinformation and narrative are followed, it only stands to benefit some African elites in the fossil fuels business, but at the cost of millions of people vulnerable to climate change.”

africa energy week

African Energy Week supporters outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre on 17 October 2023 — with climate activist props. None of the supporters appeared to know what was happening at the CTICC or why they were there. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Human-induced climate change continues to cause widespread losses and damage to people and ecosystems around the world. Southern Africa alone has experienced a worrisome trend of worsening disasters in recent years such as droughts, flooding and fires which have caused many deaths.

Yet during his speech at AEW, Epstein claimed that the rate of climate disaster deaths had gone down by a factor of 98% in the past 100 years. 

Engelbrecht responded that it is misinformation to say that the rate of climate disasters has gone down, and it directly contradicts the findings of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, which states that an increase in the occurrence of extreme weather events has been detected in every inhabited part of the world. 

Engelbrecht said that in the past four years, southern Africa had, for the first time, experienced two tropical cyclones, each of which killed more than 1,000 people.

Read more in Daily Maverick: While thousands of Africans still suffer from Cyclone Freddy’s devastation, researchers aim to improve early warning systems

“The science is clear that these systems have become more intense across the world and also in the southwest Indian Ocean. They’re also causing more rainfall than in the past, so they have absolutely become more devastating, more intense and caused immense human disaster and tragedy,” he said.

Another clear example is heatwaves, which have become unprecedented in terms of intensity and duration in the past 20 years. 

“Heatwaves have killed tens of thousands of people, not only in the developing world, [but also in the] most developed areas such as the European Mediterranean,” Engelbrecht said.

Misleading claims

During his speech at AEW, Epstein said: “If you look at what’s happening, don’t just look at rhetoric or anecdotes … but if you look at how many people are dying overall, from climate-related disasters like floods and storms and heat and cold, that’s not something that’s getting worse, that’s something getting much better.

“Why? Because whatever warming impact we’ve had on climate is trivial, compared to our ability to neutralise climate danger to what I call the master climate. If you have a lot of energy to power irrigation systems, and to power crop transport, and to heat and to cool and to build sturdy infrastructure and forewarning systems, you’re going to be incredibly safe from climate.

“Climate change doesn’t matter compared to climate mastery. The way you get climate mastery is by having cheap energy and the only way to get cheap energy on a large scale right now and for the foreseeable future is fossil fuels.”

However, Trisos and Engelbrecht maintain that this is misleading and that the science is clear. They added that IPCC scientists volunteer their time and receive no payment for their work to ensure it is unbiased. 

“They look at tens and thousands of research publications and then they come up with a census position from those research. The consensus position is that climate change is established, it’s getting more dangerous the more fossil fuels we burn, and we are running out of time to stop the worst impacts,” Trisos said.

“In an African context, we are a society that is highly exposed and vulnerable to climate disasters. Most African people work in agriculture, and most agriculture is fed by rainfall.  That’s already a clear example of how highly exposed we are to climate disasters, and we know that future climate change is going to make disasters like the Cape Town drought more frequent and more intense.”  

He said it was crucial to limit global warming and climate change because the economic industries important to Africa were at high risk from climate change and burning more fossil fuels. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Samuel Ginsberg says:

    Let’s get Epstein and Greta together for a bit of mud wrestling. I’d pay to see that.

  • Ben Harper says:

    You honestly think any of the protesters at this summit for any cause know what they’re protesting about? Rent-a-crowd is a thriving business in SA with the high unemployment numbers. Take a few vagrants and roadside jobseekers, offer them a couple of bucks and a streetwise 2 and hey presto – instant crowd of protesters

  • Craig King says:

    Good to see the cash flowing into Big Protest® stays strong despite the IPCC stating quite clearly in AR6 that there are no statistical trends in the data for increasing frequency or intensity of rain, drought, sea level rise, hurricanes. The big message Alex sends is that cheap, ubiquitous and easy to use energy is the sine qua non for economic development. At the moment this is provided by fossil fuels, nuclear and where geographically possible hydro. There is no evidence of a climate catastrophe at all but the NGOs and activists need one to justify their existence.

  • peter selwaski says:

    That so-called 97% of scientists agree on global is debunked on co2coalitionDOTorg

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