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As several cities continue their suit against oil companies, The People of the State of California v. BP, Judge William Alsup has boiled the case down to its pivotal question. In March he ordered the legal counsels of both parties to help him weigh “the large benefits that have flowed from the use of fossil fuels” against the possibility that such fuels may be causing global warming.
We sent the judge, and posted online, a 24-page document that answers his question. The benefits of oil, coal and gas are rarely acknowledged by environmental activists, who seek to regulate and tax these fuel sources out of existence. But an honest accounting shows that fossil fuels produce enormous social value that far outweighs their costs.
First, fossil fuels are lifting billions of people out of poverty, and in turn improving health. “The most fundamental attribute of modern society is simply this,” writes historian Vaclav Smil in his 2003 book on energy: “Ours is a high energy civilization based largely on combustion of fossil fuels.”
Fossil fuels, and coal in particular, provided the energy that powered the Industrial Revolution. Today, coal plants still produce most of the electricity that powers high-tech manufacturing equipment and charges mobile computing devices.
The alternative energy sources environmental activists favor are generally more expensive. Energy economists Thomas Stacey and George Taylor calculate that wind power costs nearly three times as much as existing coal generation and 2.3 times as much as combined-cycle gas. There is a negative correlation between energy prices and economic activity. A 2014 survey of economic literature by Roger Bezdek calculates that a 10% increase in U.S. electricity prices would eliminate approximately 1.3% of gross domestic product.
Cheap energy from fossil fuels also improves human well-being by powering labor-saving and life-protecting technologies, such as air-conditioning, modern medicine, and cars and trucks. Environmental activists often claim that prosperity speeds the depletion of resources and destruction of nature, but the opposite is true. As Ronald Bailey writes in “The End of Doom”: “It is in rich democratic capitalist countries that the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women’s rights respected.”
Fossil fuels have increased the quantity of food humans produce and improved the reliability of the food supply. The availability of cheap energy revolutionized agriculture throughout the world, making it possible for an ever-smaller proportion of the labor force to raise food sufficient to feed a growing global population without devastating nature or polluting air or water.
Fossil-fuel emissions create additional benefits, contributing to the greening of the Earth. A 2017 study published in Nature magazine found that the global mass of land plants grew 31% during the 20th century. African deserts are blooming thanks to fossil fuels.
Finally, if fossil fuels are responsible for a significant part of the warming recorded during the second half of the 20th century, then they should also be credited with reducing deaths due to cold weather. Medical researchers William Richard Keatinge and Gavin Donaldson assessed this effect in a 2004 study. “Since heat-related deaths are generally much fewer than cold-related deaths, the overall effect of global warming on health can be expected to be a beneficial one.”
They estimate the predicted temperature rise in Britain over the next 50 years will reduce cold-related deaths by 10 times the number of increased heat-related deaths. Other research shows climate change has exerted only a minimal influence on recent trends in vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and diseases spread by ticks.
Altogether, fossil fuels have produced huge benefits for mankind, many of which continue today. But advocates of alternative energy sources usually manage to omit or diminish many of these benefits when calculating fossil fuels’ “social cost.”
Thankfully, President Trump and congressional Republicans understand that the costs of fossil fuels must be weighed against their substantial benefits. They have decided wisely not to carry on the “war on fossil fuels” waged by the Obama administration, congressional Democrats and their Golden State allies.