Opinion: Fossil fuel-free is a misguided pipe dream

Jay Lehr and Tom Harris
In this Aug. 23, 2018 photo, American Electric Power’s John Amos coal-fired plant in Winfield, W.Va., is seen from the town of Poca across the Kanawha River. President Donald Trump picked West Virginia where he announced rolling back pollution rules for coal-fired power plants. But he didn’t mention that the northern two-thirds of West Virginia, with the neighboring part of Pennsylvania, would be hit hardest.

Climate-change activists give the impression that we could transition to a fossil fuel-free world in the near future. Putting aside the virtual impossibility of rapid transition from the source of 85 percent of global primary energy, we need to ask: Do we really want to do this?

The average person's struggle to do a sensible cost-benefit analysis is understandable. All we hear about fossil fuels from mainstream media, government and special interest groups is the 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 disaster. Most people recognize that the weather bureau cannot accurately predict our weather a week in advance. Yet, we are supposed to take seriously forecasts for the year 2100.

The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) report thousands of studies from peer-reviewed scientific journals that demonstrate that emissions of CO2 from human activities are not known to cause dangerous climate change. Yet the emotional public is misled by stories of dying polar bears, a species which has actually quintupled in population in the last half century.

Regardless, even experts find it challenging to conduct a proper a cost-benefit analysis on climate change and fossil fuels.

Martin Weitzman, professor of economics at Harvard University, wrote in a 2015 paper in Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, that, "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.”

In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. The Trump administration announced on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, that it has rolled back a landmark Obama-era effort targeting coal-fired power plants and their climate-damaging pollution.

We can, however, appreciate the many hidden benefits of fossil fuels, advantages that few people ever consider.

For example, fossils fuels don't just provide gasoline. They are also essential in the production of plastic, asphalt, synthetic rubber, 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.

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 and will soon make it possible to grow plants in regions currently too dry to do so.

Eighty percent of all electricity in the world is produced from burning fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels revolutionized society by making transportation fast, efficient and safe. The increase in product mobility has been a boon; there are no areas of life it has not improved.

Michiganians drive an average of 14,121 miles per year. The average vehicle fuel economy for 2017 model-year vehicles was 24.9 miles per gallon.
Do the math, and Governor Whitmer's proposed 45-cent surcharge would add up to $255 per year.

Speaking at the America First Energy Conference in Houston in November 2017, Roger H. Bezdek, of Management Information Services, Inc., summed up:

“What have 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.”

If you think life was great in 1860 — a time without electricity, airline travel, widespread 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.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., is senior policy analyst with the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC). He will be receiving the Dauntless Purveyor of Climate Truth Award from The Heartland Institute at ICCC-13. Tom Harris is ICSC executive director and a policy adviser to The Heartland Institute.