Policy Brief: The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels

Published May 30, 2018

On May 25, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, presiding in the case The People of the State of California v. BP PLC et al., issued an order to legal counsel of both parties that they “shall submit 10-page supplemental briefs on the extent to which adjudication of plaintiffs’ federal common law nuisance claims would require the undersigned judge to consider the utility of defendants’ alleged conduct.”[1] The “alleged conduct” is the production and sale of fossil fuels known by the defendants to contribute to global warming, which in turn is alleged to harm the defendants by causing sea level rise and therefore a greater risk of flooding. The “utility” is the social benefit created by the use of those same fossil fuels.

During court proceedings on the day before he issued his order, Judge Alsup apparently commented, “We need to weigh in the large benefits that have flowed from the use of fossil fuels. There have been huge benefits.”[2]

After a brief introductory comment about the scientific debate over the causes and consequences of climate change, this Policy Brief documents five benefits from the historic and still ongoing use of fossil fuels. Four direct benefits are:

  • Fossil fuels are lifting billions of people out of poverty, reducing all the negative effects of poverty on human health.

  • Fossil fuels are vastly improving human well-being and safety by powering labor-saving and life-protecting technologies, such as air conditioning, modern medicine, and cars and trucks. 

  • Fossil fuels are dramatically increasing the quantity of food humans produce and improve the reliability of the food supply, directly benefiting human health. 

  • Fossil-fuel emissions are contributing to a “Greening of the Earth,” benefiting all the plants and wildlife on the planet.

A fifth benefit could be added only if fossil fuels are in fact responsible for a significant part of the global warming recorded during the second half of the twentieth century. That benefit would be: 

  • Fossil fuels should be credited with saving lives by reducing deaths due to extreme cold weather. Weather is also less extreme in a warmer world, resulting in fewer injuries and deaths due to extreme weather.

Most of the text in this Policy Brief will appear in an upcoming volume in the Climate Change Reconsidered series, which is produced by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), an international body of scientists and policy experts brought together to fact-check the work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It appears here with permission of the publisher and lead authors. The four volumes in the series already in print are available online at www.climatechangereconsidered.org.


[1] Case 3:17-cv-06011-WHA Document 259, http://blogs2.law.columbia.edu/climate-change-litigation/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/case-documents/2018/20180525_docket-317-cv-06011_order-1.pdf.

[2] Nicholas Iovino, “Judge Skeptical of Cities’ Climate Change Suits,” Courthouse News Service, May 24, 2018.