The moral case for fossil fuels
Is it good that Pennsylvania generates 61 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels? I'd wager that most of you would say no. So would many of the politicians and bureaucrats directing America's energy policy.
Earlier this month, President Obama announced that the United States and China have reached an agreement to limit both countries' carbon dioxide emissions, which come primarily from fossil fuels. Such efforts have broad support from the general public.
But I've spent the better part of my life researching fossil fuels — both their pros and their cons — and I've come to an inescapable conclusion: Fossil fuels are morally praiseworthy — and our lives would be better if we ramped up their use.
Take a step back and look at fossil fuels in the scope of human history. Oil, coal and natural gas played little to no role in mankind's cultural or economic development until the late 1700s and early 1800s. Only then did humanity recognize fossil fuels' potential to generate power. That power was used to create the technological and economic advances that took us from no indoor plumbing to landing on the moon in less than 200 years.
The trend is striking: Increased fossil fuel use correlates with every positive metric of human well-being — from life expectancy to income to nourishment to clean water access to safety.
The last few decades demonstrate this trend most clearly. Fossil fuel usage has been steadily growing across the world. Developing countries like China and India have driven that growth. They lifted billions of people out of poverty — an unprecedented feat in human history.
Fossil fuels also have helped improve access to clean water. According to World Bank data, access to clean water increased from 76 percent of world population in 1990 to 89 percent in 2012. Technological advances in pollution reduction were actually enabled by cheap, fossil fuel-generated energy.
Put another way, fossil fuels powered the innovation that ultimately limits their own environmental drawbacks.
We're also safer than at any point in history. Climate-related deaths are down 98 percent over the last 80 years. Thank sturdy homes, heating, air-conditioning, mass irrigation, drought-relief convoys and advance warning systems — all made possible by fossil fuel-generated energy.
All human progress depends on innovation, which depends on energy. Affordable and abundant energy is thus the cornerstone of human progress. And fossil fuels are the most affordable and abundant — alternative energy sources are either too expensive, too difficult to access or simply inefficient.
Fossil fuels thus have a profound moral importance. They allow us to improve human well-being and make the world a better place. For this reason, fossil fuels are likely to power the innovation that ultimately addresses climate change itself.
But that won't happen if America and other rich, industrialized nations continue their crusade against cheap and affordable energy. Curbing fossil fuel use will only deny the developing world the opportunities that led to our own wealth and health — and it will also prevent us from building on the progress that has made the 21st century the best period in human history to be alive.
Alex Epstein is president of the Center of Industrial Progress and author of the new book “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.”