Here’s a question for Nevadans to ponder: Is it good that your state generates 86 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. This was on full display earlier this month when President Barack Obama announced that the United States and China have reached an agreement to limit both countries’ carbon dioxide emissions, which primarily come from fossil fuels. Such efforts have broad support from the public — one recent poll shows that 51 percent of voters want to reduce fossil fuel usage, while 22 percent want to increase their use.
But the 22 percent are on to something. I’ve spent the better part of my life researching fossil fuels — both their pros and cons — and I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: Fossil fuels are morally praiseworthy — and our lives would be better if we ramp up their use.
To understand why, we have to take a step back and look at fossil fuels in the scope of human history. The energy sources that fall into this category — 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, in turn, 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 past few decades demonstrate this trend most clearly. Fossil fuel usage has been steadily growing around the world — in America, it has risen by 25 percent since the 1970s.
Developing countries such as China and India have driven that growth more than other countries, using fossil fuels to power their economies. At the same time, they lifted billions of people out of poverty — an unprecedented feat in human history.
Fossil fuels have also helped improve the world’s 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.This seems counterintuitive at first glance, but technological advances in pollution reduction were actually enabled by cheap, fossil fuel-generated energy.
Put another way, fossil fuels powered the innovation that limits their own environmental drawbacks.
We’re also safer than at any point in history thanks to oil, coal and natural gas. Climate-related deaths are down 98 percent over the past 80 years. Last year saw a record low of 21,122 such deaths worldwide, compared with a high of 3.7 million in 1931, when world population was less than a third of its current size. Thank sturdy homes, heating, air-conditioning, mass-irrigation, drought-relief convoys and advance warning systems — all made possible by fossil fuel-generated energy.
That is the most important point of all: 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 of all — 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. No matter how praiseworthy it seems, 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. He is the author of the new book, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.”