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Another Voice: The use of fossil fuels improves our well-being

By Alex Epstein

Here’s a question for New Yorkers to ponder: Is it good that your state generates 49 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels?

I’d wager that most of you would say no. So would many of the politicians and bureaucrats directing America’s energy policy. This was on full display earlier this month, when President Obama announced that the United States and China have reached an agreement to limit both countries’ carbon dioxide emissions, which primarily come from fossil fuels. Such efforts have broad support from the general public – one recent poll shows that 51 percent of voters want to reduce fossil fuel usage, while only 22 percent want to increase their use.

But the 22 percent are on to something. I’ve spent the better part of my life researching fossil fuels, and I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: Fossil fuels are morally praiseworthy, and our lives would be better if we ramp up their use.

To understand why, we have to take a step back and look at fossil fuels in the scope of human history. The energy sources that fall into this category – oil, coal and natural gas – began playing a role in mankind’s development in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Humanity recognized fossil fuels’ potential to generate power. That power, in turn, was used to create the technological and economic advances that took us from no indoor plumbing to landing on the moon in less than 200 years.

The trend is striking: Increased fossil fuel use correlates with every positive metric of human well-being, from life expectancy to income to nourishment to clean water access to safety.

Fossil fuel usage has been steadily growing across the world. Developing countries like China and India have driven that growth more than any other countries, using fossil fuels to power their economies. At the same time, they lifted billions of people out of poverty.

Fossil fuels have also helped improve the world’s access to clean water. According to World Bank data, access to clean water increased from 76 percent of world population in 1990 to 89 percent in 2012.

We’re also safer than at any point in history. Thank sturdy homes, heating, air conditioning, mass irrigation, drought-relief convoys and advance warning systems – all made possible by fossil fuel-generated energy.

That is the most important point of all: All human progress depends on innovation, which depends on energy. Affordable and abundant energy is thus the cornerstone of human progress. And fossil fuels are the most affordable and abundant of all.

Fossil fuels thus have a profound moral importance. They allow us to improve human well-being and make the world a better place.

Alex Epstein is president of the Center of Industrial Progress and author of the book, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.”