Whether dealing with a new industrial project or product, or a government regulation or program, it is common if not required to perform a cost-benefit analysis, also called a benefit-cost ratio analysis. Everyone also does this knowingly or unknowingly in our personal lives just about every day. Should we drive or fly somewhere? Should we buy a new refrigerator or get the old one repaired? Should we vacation near or far from home?
However, when it comes to decisions over which we do not have direct control, we tend to create opinions without a detailed analysis. An obvious example is the question about whether we should try to wean ourselves off the fossil fuels that currently power the nation. That the average person finds it difficult to do a sensible cost-benefit analysis is not surprising. Practically all most people hear about fossil fuels from mainstream media, government and special interest groups⏤is their supposed cost, but not their very real and important benefits.
Leading the list of alleged problems is that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from using these fuels will heat the atmosphere over the next century and create disastrous consequences for humans and the environment. Most people recognize that the weather bureau cannot accurately predict our weather a week in advance. Yet, the United Nations expect us to take seriously their forecasts for the year 2100. Regardless, many scientists do not believe humanity’s CO2 emissions have a measurable impact on the planet’s weather and, ultimately, climate. Yet the public tend to form their opinions, not based on any educated analysis of the information available to those who care to do a bit of research, but instead based on the emotion generated by misleading media stories about such things as dying polar bears, a species which has actually quintupled in population in the last half century.
In fact, even experts find it challenging to conduct a proper a cost-benefit analysis on climate change and fossil fuels. In 2011, writing for the Dublin, Ireland Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI Working Paper No. 392), M. Ceronsky and associates concluded that
“the complexity of climate science and economics makes conducting any of these cost-benefit analysis a difficult and perhaps even an impossible challenge.”
Martin Weitzman, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, went even further in a 2015 paper in Review of Environmental Economics and Policy when he said:
“the economics of climate change is a problem from hell…trying to do a benefit-cost analysis of climate change policies bends and stretches the capability or our standard economist’s toolkit, up to and perhaps beyond the breaking point.”
What we can do, however, is better appreciate the many hidden benefits of fossil fuels, advantages that few people ever consider. For example, prominent conservative essayist Burt Prelutsky gave an excellent list of things that fossil fuels create outside of their automobiles gasoline tank. In addition to the 19.4 gallons of gasoline distilled from each 42-gallon barrel of oil are 22.6 gallons of liquid from which we produce all the plastic that goes into our cars, computers and toys and till recently plastic straws now outlawed in California. The asphalt that creates our roadways are petroleum products, as is synthetic rubber, much of our fertilizers, pesticides, detergents, furniture, ball point pens, motorcycle helmets, skis, epoxy paints, electrical tape, fishing rods, soft contact lenses, fan belts, artificial limbs and even hearing aids. A more complete list of some of the thousands of petroleum-based products may be seen here. This video puts the situation into proper perspective.
The public should ask themselves—do you want climate change extremists eliminating so many important products from your life? Would it even be possible? We think not, so stop sitting quietly when climate activists promote ridiculous and dangerous ‘decarbonization’ schemes.
But wait, there is more.
Fossil fuels made it possible to replace horses as the primary means of transportation. This saved millions of acres of land previously dedicated to growing feed for horses, allowing a dramatic expansion of our nation’s forests. Increased atmospheric CO2 has further advanced forest growth.
Electricity is clearly one of the greatest inventions in human history. 80% of all electricity in the world is produced from burning fossil fuels. No alternative energy can be relied on for continuous power.
Fossil fuels revolutionized society by making transportation faster and less expensive, and safer for everyone. The increase in product mobility has been a boon for everyone. There are no areas of life not improved by it.
Activists maintain we should just use electric cars. That makes no sense. We do not have the infrastructure to provide the electricity to charge millions of vehicles and will never have the available land to build solar and wind farms to replace the fossil fuel power plants.
“What has fossil fuels done for us recently? They are the foundation of our current economy. They created (and sustained) the modern world. They permit the current high quality of life we all enjoy. Over the past two centuries life expectancy has more than doubled, populations increased eightfold, real incomes have increased worldwide more than eleven-fold.”
America without fossil fuels would be a nation with the standard of living of the 19th century. So, if you think life was great in 1860—a time without electricity, airline travel, internal combustion engines, refrigeration, air conditioning, cell phones, Internet and computers—then, yes, stop using fossil fuels. But don’t impose your standards on the rest of us.
Parts of this article were based on the fifth volume in the Climate Change Reconsidered series, Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels, produced by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC).
Photo Description: Horse-drawn buggies, carts, wagons, and streetcars move down Spring Street, Los Angeles in this circa 1884 view. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.