Mastering Drought

From Alex Epstein, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas–Not Less (Penguin, 2022), pp. 297–300.

How significant an ability will continuing fossil fuel use give us to master future dangers from drought?

According to our knowledge system, not very much. Our knowledge system portrays drought as a worse danger than ever, already overwhelming our meager “adaptation” abilities.

But the data show that human beings in the empowered world are safer from drought than any human beings have ever been. And even those in the unempowered world enjoy unprecedented safety from drought.

Worldwide, including the empowered and unempowered world, drought-related deaths, once the leading form of climate-disaster death, have gone down by an incredible 99 percent in the last century—and reporting gaps in the data indicate that this might still be an underestimate.[1]


Because climate is naturally far more dangerous drought-wise than we are taught—and our fossil-fueled climate mastery abilities are incomparably more significant than we are taught, overwhelming massive natural drought danger as well as any man-made drought danger so far.

Contrary to the portrayal of the “natural” global climate system as a delicate nurturer with stable, sufficient rainfall, virtually every climate has dynamic and often deficient rainfall, causing droughts that unempowered people struggle and sometimes totally fail to cope with.[2]

Consider the type of drought danger that once afflicted the unempowered. From 1876 to 1878, for example, a crippling drought affected parts of thirteen provinces in China and was so bad that entire lakes and rivers dried up. Somewhere between nine and thirteen million people died. According to one observer, “Victims knife human corpses, dig out dead bodies for sustenance, even have meals exchanged corpses of their own children and even kill live persons as food for survival so that 40 to 50 percent of the population has died of starvation.”[3]


Nothing like this is imaginable today in the empowered or even the unempowered world. Why?

Because the empowered world uses fossil-fueled machine labor to master naturally massive drought danger for itself and also to dramatically help the unempowered world.

The number one way in which we use fossil-fueled machine labor to master drought is through irrigation.

Historically the phenomenon of insufficient water was—and in much of the unempowered world still is—one of the deadliest threats. Without enough water, crops die and people starve.

Enter irrigation systems.

Irrigated lands average more than three times the crop yields of rain-fed areas. Sometimes irrigation can rely on gravity to move water, but when it can’t, irrigation takes a lot of energy—usually fossil fuel energy—to move the water.[4]

Irrigation systems utilize electricity-based (usually fossil fuel-dominated) or diesel-based machines to increase the amount and reliability of water going to crops.

And irrigation systems are produced by myriad fossil fuel powered machines, such as mining equipment, steel furnaces, and assembly machines.

By powering irrigation machines and the machines that produce irrigation infrastructure, fossil fuels enable the empowered world to be unnaturally hospitable to crops even when nature is at its harshest.

Another use of fossil-fueled machines to counter drought, one that has been particularly beneficial to the unempowered world, is drought-relief transportation.

Today, if there is a giant crop failure in a poor part of Africa or Asia, we can use our fossil-fueled transportation system to move crops from the places in the world with the most food production to those that are stricken by drought.

For example, in 2017, the U.S. provided nearly $170 million in aid to Ethiopia and Kenya to help with drought relief. Much of that money was used to bring large amounts of food to a remote part of eastern Ethiopia with little infrastructure—which required heavy-duty, fossil-fueled transport to reach.[5]

If fossil fuel use continues and expands, drought mastery will continue and expand.

Drought mastery is so powerful that it’s extremely hard to imagine climate impacts from rising CO2 levels that could overwhelm the drought-protection abilities of an empowered world.

This is even more the case because continuing and expanding fossil fuel use can and will drive improvements in the ultimate drought-fighting technique: desalination.

Desalination technology takes seawater and transforms it into water that is drinkable and/or usable for agriculture.

For example, the Sorek desalination plant in Israel uses a filtering technology called reverse osmosis, which filters the salt out of the seawater with a membrane. The facility is producing 10 percent of the country’s drinking water consumption and about 20 percent of its domestic water consumption.[6]


We must keep in mind the enormous power of fossil-fueled drought mastery, which is widely ignored or denied, as we consider any negative drought-related impacts of rising CO2 levels going forward. When we hear about “catastrophic” drought going forward, it is very likely another instance of climate mastery denial.

[1] Indur M. Goklany, Wealth and Safety: The Amazing Decline in Deaths from Extreme Weather in an Era of Global Warming, 1900–2010 (Los Angeles: Reason Foundation, 2011), 3,; Indur M. Goklany, Policy Analysis: Humanity Unbound: Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, December 20, 2012), 3,

[2] Goklany, Wealth and Safety.

[3] Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, “Pictures to Draw Tears from Iron,” MIT Visualizing Cultures, accessed August 31, 2021,; and De’er Zhang and Youye Liang, “A Long Lasting and Extensive Drought Event over China in 1876–1878,” Advances in Climate Change Research 1, no. 2 (November 2010): 91–99, 10.3724/SP.J.1248.2010.00091.

[4] Goklany, Policy Analysis: Humanity Unbound.

[5] “U.S. Expands Food, Health Aid to Ethiopia, Kenya Amid Crisis,” Reuters, August 3, 2017,

[6] “Sorek Desalination Plant,” Water Technology, accessed August 31, 2021,