Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

A valentine for fossil fuels

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Romantics may look forward to sharing their love this weekend, but as far as the organizers of Global Divestment Day are concerned, Valentine’s Day is for breaking up.

Environmental activists have designated February 13 and 14 for collective action “to sever our ties with the fossil fuel industry whose plans will destroy the planet as we know it.” To intensify hostility toward oil, coal, and natural gas companies — which the divestment movement’s godfather, climate militant Bill McKibben, labels “Public Enemy Number One” — the Fossil Free campaign urges individuals to stop doing business with banks or pension funds that invest in fossil fuels, and encourages college students on college campuses to put pressure on administrators to rid their endowment funds of holdings in traditional energy corporations.

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“Fossil fuel investments are a risk for investors and the planet,” the activists claim, so it is imperative to “loosen the grip that coal, oil, and gas companies have on our government and financial markets.” The fact that fossil-fuel stocks have generally performed well for funds investing in them is beside the point. “If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s also wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

Wreck the planet?

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What sort of wreckage is it that has divestment advocates up in arms? Increases in deadly floods and droughts? Rising levels of air pollution? Fewer sources of clean drinking water? Catastrophic depletion of nonrenewable energy sources? Less forest cover and more deserts?

If the use of carbon-based fuels were indeed causing such havoc, who could blame passionate environmentalists for declaring war on the industry that produces those fuels? But if their outrage over the “wreckage” of the planet is sincere, it’s hard not to wonder, in the spirit of former Congressman Barney Frank, on what planet they spend most of their time.

Here on Planet Earth, the booming use of petroleum, coal, and natural gas has fueled an almost inconceivable amount of good. All human technologies generate costs as well as benefits, but the gains from the use of fossil fuels have been extraordinary. The energy derived from fossil fuels, economist Robert Bradley Jr. wrote last spring in Forbes, has “liberated mankind from wretched poverty; fueled millions of high-productivity jobs in nearly every business sector; been a feedstock for medicines that have saved countless lives; and led to the development of fertilizers that have greatly increased crop yields to feed the hungry.” Far from wrecking the planet, the harnessing of carbon-based energy makes it safer and more livable.

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The rise of fossil fuels has led to dramatic gains in human progress — whether that progress is measured in terms of life expectancy, income, education, health, sanitation, transportation, or leisure. Nearly everything that is comfortable and convenient about modern civilization depends on the ready availability of energy, and nearly 90 percent of our energy comes from oil, gas, and coal. Pro-divestment activists know better than to push people to give up electricity, air travel, computers, or central heating — all of which would vanish without the fossil fuel industry. Instead they demonize the industry, reasoning that it will be easier to turn Big Oil into a pariah than to convince the public to abandon its cars and smartphones.

Such “fossil-free” zealotry is justified in the name of climate change and its hazards. Yet as Alex Epstein documents in a dazzling new book, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” never have human beings been as protected from climate-related danger as they are right now. “As CO2 emissions rise, climate-related deaths plunge,” Epstein writes. Diving deep into the data, he illuminates the strong correlation between the expanding reliance on fossil fuels and the diminishing threat to human lives from climate disaster.

To cite just one of the book’s many examples, drought — historically the foremost climate-related killer — has ceased to be a major cause of death. Worldwide, the death toll from drought “has gone down by 99.98 percent in the last 80 years for many energy-related reasons,” notes Epstein. Not the least of those reasons are oil-powered drought-relief convoys and the huge increase in global food supplies thanks to “fossil fuel-based agriculture and irrigation systems.” Deaths from floods, storms, wildfires, temperature extremes? All down sharply, even as carbon-based energy use has soared.

It is much the same for all those other ways in which the use of coal, oil, and gas is supposedly “wrecking” the planet. Air and water quality are strikingly improved. The amount of forest cover and other greenery is burgeoning. Proven fossil-fuel reserves have never been greater.

Ours is a much safer, richer, cleaner, healthier planet than it would ever have been without fossil fuels. Break up with the industry that makes our energy so abundant? Sending a valentine would make more sense.

Related:

Opinion: Harvard must divest from fossil fuels

Jeff Jacoby: No, 2014 wasn’t the ‘warmest year in history’

Joshua Green: The pointless fight over Keystone

Advice for Charlie Baker: The environment

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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