Keep burning those fossil fuels

Mankind’s use of coal, oil and gas is a very wonderful thing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics Science & Tech World

Fossil fuel. No two words evoke greater disgust in the 21st century. Newsreaders utter these dread words with naked disdain. Green campaigners speak of fossil fuels in the same fearful, besmirching tones that medieval Christians would have used when speaking of Beelzebub. Google these two F-words and you’ll be treated to photo after photo of black, choking factories. ‘Keep it in the ground!’, environmentalists cry, convinced that humanity’s digging for coal, oil and gas, and our burning of these long dormant fuels to create energy, has propelled our planet into a hellscape of pollution. The Extinction Rebellion death cult marches behind banners declaring ‘Fossil fuels = death’. These dug-up fossils are ‘fuelling the apocalypse’, academics claim.

The relentless demonisation of fossil fuels reaches to the very top of political life. The great and the good have spent the past fortnight at COP26 wondering out loud when fossil fuels might be phased out. The draft text of the COP26 agreement contains, in CNN’s words, ‘unprecedented language around fossil fuels’. It calls for an acceleration of ‘the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels’. Of course even these fossil-bashing promises are not enough for the eco-doomsters who dominate so much of political and media discussion today, who are convinced that humanity’s exposure of the evil black sludge of oil and coal has been an unmitigated disaster for the planet. They want a drastic reduction in fossil-fuel use now. ‘We need urgent, deep cuts in emissions this decade’, says Caroline Lucas of the UK Green Party.

The feverish loathing of fossil fuels unites people from across the political spectrum. One-time climate sceptic Boris Johnson is these days indistinguishable from environmentalism’s prophetess of doom, Greta Thunberg. Both used their platforms at or around COP26 to demonise Britain’s Industrial Revolution, which of course was powered by the burning of coal. That started the clock ticking on ‘doomsday’, Boris madly claimed. Capitalists and anti-capitalists alike bristle at fossil fuels. BP once rebranded itself Beyond Petroleum. Two descendants of the Rockefeller and Getty capitalist dynasties wrote a piece for the Guardian on the eve of COP26 titled: ‘Fossil fuels made our families rich. Now we want this industry to end.’ Talk about raising the drawbridge! Meanwhile, self-styled anti-capitalists beat the streets to demand an end to the oil industry and the closure of coalmines, sounding more Thatcherite than Trotskyist.

Everywhere one turns, fossil fuels are getting a bad rap. They’re the source of all our woes, apparently. We must keep them buried, in Earth’s guts, forever. There’s only one problem with this rash, hyperbolic onslaught on fossil fuels: everything about it is wrong. Far from destroying life on Earth, our discovery and exploitation of these fuels improved it enormously. If it wasn’t for humankind’s liberation of the ancient sunlight trapped in coal, or our burning of the petroleum that accrued from chemical reactions in the seas of the prehistoric era, modernity as we know it simply would not exist. Fossil fuels gifted us the wealth, comfort and liberties we in the West enjoy, and they’re doing the same right now for emerging countries like China, India and Brazil. We need to utterly flip the script on fossil fuels. They shouldn’t be demonised; they should be celebrated for helping to radically improve human existence.

The first thing to note about the demand that we ‘keep fossil fuels in the ground’ is just how staggeringly obtuse and callous it is. Fossil fuels supply the vast majority of the world’s energy. The vast bulk of all the heat, electricity and fuel humankind needs in order to ward off the cold, create light, produce food, make and power machines, transport goods and essentials, power hospitals and generally protect itself from the vagaries and diseases of nature comes from the coal, oil and gas we are encouraged to loathe. According to the 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy, no less than 84 per cent of global energy comes from fossil fuels. Oil supplies 33 per cent of world energy, coal supplies 27 per cent, and gas supplies 24 per cent. There is something genuinely bizarre, if not outright perverse, about a world in which we are educated in schools and instructed by the political class to feel fear and hatred for the fuels that underpin almost every facet of our lives. Fuels that energise production, consumption, travel, health. What next – a global crusade against the evils of water? Air?

It is worth considering how borderline psychotic the demand for Net Zero is in a world in which 84 per cent of our energy comes from fossil fuels. The ‘deep and urgent’ reduction in fossil-fuel use that greens dream of would, if it ever came to fruition, be a calamity for humankind. It would do far more to bring about the parched, impoverished conditions of their apocalyptic fantasies than carbon emissions ever could. As Alex Epstein, author of the brilliant book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, puts it: ‘Environmentalists’ climate proposals would result in exactly the kind of apocalyptic scenario they claim climate change is causing.’ Climate change is a problem, but a ‘middling one’, as Bjorn Lomborg describes it. It threatens nothing as horrendous as a sudden reduction in fossil-fuel use would. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground would stall growth in emerging countries, plunge millions back into the poverty they’ve only recently been liberated from (courtesy of the burning of fossil fuels), and set a precedent in which the protection of nature from carbon emissions would be accorded more importance than the liberation of human beings from drudgery. Progressives should fear the ideology of Net Zero far more than the burning of coal and oil.

Listening to the neo-aristocrats of the Western environmentalist movement, you could be forgiven for thinking fossil fuels nurtured a hellish dystopia. In truth, these fuels made life better than it has ever been in human history. The coal-fuelled Industrial Revolution dragged humankind from the old era into a brand new one – one in which life expectancy leapt up, health vastly improved, new discoveries were made, cities sprung up, workers’ rights were secured, and democracy was born. And one in which climatic events have less impact on human beings than they did in the past. As Epstein points out, the more fossil fuels humanity has burnt, the fewer ‘climate-related deaths’ there have been. Over the past century CO2 emissions have risen inexorably, but climate-related deaths – that is, deaths from storms, floods, droughts and wildfires – have fallen spectacularly, from around half a million each year to just 14,000 in 2020.

In short, burning fossil fuels has helped to protect us from climatic events and ‘weather of mass destruction’. How can this be? How is it that the burning of fossil fuels, which we are constantly told is causing climatic catastrophe and untold human suffering, has coincided with the lowest risk ever of dying from a disastrous weather event? Because contrary to the fossilphobia of Western greens, contrary to the anti-production, anti-consumption prejudices of the eco-elites, humanity’s increased use of oil, gas and coal over the past couple of centuries has not been some crazed, greedy, destructive endeavour. It is not just about driving SUVs, taking cheap flights, and eating as many hamburgers as we can (though there’s nothing wrong with any of that). Rather, it is a process that has birthed a world of machines that assist in the protection of humankind from the hunger, sicknesses and climatic tragedies that stalked our species prior to the modern era. The truth is that we would be facing far worse environmental conditions and living conditions if we hadn’t used as much fossil fuel as we have.

And we don’t have to go all the way back to our own Industrial Revolutions to see the benefits of these fuels. Just look at China and India today. Sniffy Westerners, wallowing in the gains and comforts of the industrialisation their own nations underwent two centuries ago, look at China and India as bleak, black carbon nightmares. Think again. Globally, fossil-fuel use has risen enormously since 1980. Between 1980 and 2012 worldwide use of fossil fuels rose by 80 per cent. And much of this was down to the rise of China, India and other countries as emerging industrial powers. These nations continue to account for much of the growth in fossil-fuel consumption. The 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy notes that China had been responsible for a full three-quarters of the growth of energy consumption in the previous year, followed by India and Indonesia. China is also a leading player in the growing demand for oil. What has been the impact of all this fossil-fuel use in these countries? Disaster? Far from it.

In China and India, just as in Western countries in the past, the huge hike in fossil-fuel consumption has coincided with a massive growth in life expectancy. Not coincided, in fact – caused. As Epstein points out, fossil-fuel use really started to take off in China and India in 1970, and then rose enormously from 1990 onwards in China in particular. And in this same period, life expectancy in China went from under 65 in 1970 to around 75 in 2010 (it’s now closer to 77), and from around 50 to 65 in India in the same period (it’s now almost 70 in India). Income has also risen exponentially in China and India. All of these things are intimately related. Fossil fuels powered growth and industry, leading to more jobs and higher wages, leading to longer, healthier lives. If we kept fossil fuels ‘in the ground’, as noisy green doom-mongers insist we must, life in China and India would be a great deal harder and more unpleasant than it currently is.

But won’t we run out of fossil fuels? They’re finite, after all, and eventually all this fuel will dry up, right? This is another favoured argument of the eco-doom lobby, though, notably, it’s one we hear less of these days in comparison with the past. Which isn’t surprising, because this dystopic vision of humanity running out of fuel was built on highly questionable science. Peak Oil, Peak Coal, Peak Gas – around 20 years ago these millenarian fears were widespread in polite society. Yet as Michael Lynch of the Energy Policy Research Foundation says, ‘the entire concerns about peak oil were based on misinformation or junk science’. In 2013, the World Energy Council reported an ‘abundance’ of energy resources. ‘There is a greater abundance of energy resources in the world today than at any other time’, the council said.

So fossil fuels aren’t running out, their use has brought about fewer climate-related deaths, and they have helped to power a radical transformation in the life expectancy, living standards, health and knowledge of humankind. Then why do we hate them? How have they become the most raged-against things on Earth? Burning them emits carbon, of course. But here’s the thing – the very world that fossil fuels have helped to create is one in which we have more and more resources to devote to alleviating the impact of carbon emissions and solving the problems of pollution. The richer a country becomes, the more it can afford to focus on cleaning up its natural environment as well as lifting its populace out of poverty. Fossil-fuel consumption did not create a world of filth and disaster; it created the conditions in which we have far greater leeway to master our own living conditions and the environment.

The hostility to fossil fuels seems increasingly to be driven by misanthropy rather than reason; by an elitist feeling of revulsion for the gains of modernity rather than by a rational assessment of the undoubted problems humankind still faces. To my mind, our unlocking of the long-hidden wonders of fossil fuels, and our use of this furious energy to make the world anew, has been the most important thing humanity has done thus far. Consider coal, the most feared fossil fuel. Coal stores the surging heat of the Carboniferous period of about 300million years ago. It was about a thousand years ago that people first started to tap into these black, glistening containers of ancient heat, using it to heat homes, which meant less forestland had to be cut down and more croplands could be created. Later came the Industrial Revolution, when the heat of long-gone eras was unlocked to the end of motoring machines, factories, trains and unprecedented movements of things and people. It should be a source of pride for our species, taught in schools across the world, that we developed the means and the capacity to transform the deathly heat of the Carboniferous period into the fuel of the modern era; that we marshalled the ancient past to invent a brand new future. But it isn’t. Instead we’re meant to view coal as a filthy thing, and our burning of it as a sin against Mother Nature. The modern rage against fossil fuels is at root an irrational turn against modernity itself, and against the human endeavour that made it possible.

As Epstein has argued, the entire debate about energy in the 21st century is the wrong way around. ‘How can we reduce fossil-fuel use?’, campaigners and politicians ask, when what they should be asking is this: ‘How can we create such an abundance of energy that every human being will enjoy comfort, health and happiness?’ We need a human-centred view of the future, a human-centred morality, not the pre-modern, nature-worshipping fears and hysteria of contemporary environmentalism. Of course we could go beyond fossil fuels at some point, but only if we get serious about nuclear, about unlocking the awesome power of uranium. Until then, fossil-fuel consumption should not be demonised and it certainly should not be halted. And it should also not be merely tolerated, viewed as an unfortunate necessity in a world that needs energy. No, it should be encouraged, it should be cheered, and it should be celebrated as the modern wonder that it is.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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