The Freedom to Use Fossil Fuels

Published April 14, 2021

The Biden Administration seems intent on renewing the war against fossil fuels to combat global warming.  Before going down this path, I hope Americans will consider Alex Epstein’s argument in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

          A moral argument requires a standard of value and Mr. Epstein’s is human life.  As he explains, “I think that our fossil fuel use so far has been a moral choice because it has enabled billions of people to live longer and more fulfilling lives.”

          Many environmentalists do not share this standard.  Mr. Epstein describes their standard as minimizing human impact on the environment.  Environmentalist Bill McKibben desires a world where, “Human happiness would be of secondary importance.”  David Graber hopes, “Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”

          Human life and well-being is a holistic standard embracing all people, not just an elite.  It means far more than enriching oil and gas companies and demands considering benefits and costs, including pollution.

          The Industrial Revolution unleashed what economist Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment, the enormous increase in standards of living and life expectancy of the past 250 years.  Energy has powered the Industrial Revolution’s tractors, steamships, factories, and railroads.

          Fossil fuels specifically give humans low cost energy, which is crucial.  A tractor allows us to save time planting compared with working by hand.  But we are not better off if obtaining fuel takes all the time saved.  Fossil fuels also provide the energy to build machines and buildings.

          Electric power grids and natural gas systems also improve the quality of life.  Previously people burned coal, wood, or animal dung in their homes, creating indoor air pollution and smog.  Energy allows modern, sanitary water and sewer systems to deliver safe water to and remove dangerous waste from homes.

Energy makes our planet more livable.  Mr. Epstein notes that nature, “attacks us with bacteria-filled water, excessive heat, lack of rainfall, too much rainfall, powerful storms, decay, disease-carrying insects and animals, and a large assortment of predators.”  Technology protects us from nature’s hazards.

          Hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia still lack electricity, clean water, and sanitation.  Modern medicine also requires energy.  A lack of affordable energy kills 3 to 4 million people each year.

          Mr. Epstein puts a human face on these statistics.  He observed the impact on medicine of unreliable electricity visiting Africa: “A full-term infant was born weighing only 3.5 pounds.  In the U.S. the solution would have been obvious and effective: incubation.  But without reliable electricity … [t]his seemingly simple solution was not available to this newborn girl, and she perished needlessly.”

          Pollution harms human life and well-being and should be avoided if possible.  Mr. Epstein suggests viewing pollution is as a by-product.  We use fossil fuels to power factories and cars and then recognize that this causes air pollution.

What do we do?  Use human ingenuity to reduce the by-products.  Inventing and installing pollution control technology on cars and factories yields prosperity and environmental quality.

          Global warming represents a similar by-product, although the harm is speculative and occurs primarily in the future.  Banning fossil fuels is not the only way to address global warming.  Alternatively, we could continue to use fossil fuels to make the world wealthier than today.  With continued economic growth, world GDP per capita could easily increase by a factor of four by 2100. Even if global warming reduced world GDP by 25% in 2100 (a rather extreme estimate), the world would still be three times richer than today.

The economic freedom and empowerment, including the freedom to use fossil fuels, has produced modern prosperity.  Using more of this energy could soon extend this prosperity to billions more.  If we care about human life, climate policy must acknowledge the enormous human value of fossil fuels.

[Originally posted on Alabama Today]