[This is part 1 in a series of excerpts of the book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein]
If our ability to act to improve our lives depends on energy, we have an epic challenge.
There are 7 billion people in the world, but 1.3 billion have no electricity.7 Over 3 billion are classified as not having “adequate electricity”—a threshold that is far less than we enjoy and take for granted.8 For everyone to have as much access to energy as the average American, the world’s energy production would have to quadruple.9 And we Americans would benefit greatly from even more cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.
So where are we going to get it from?
Nineteenth-century coal technology is justifiably illegal today. The hazardous smoke that would be generated is now preventable by far more advanced, cleaner coal-burning technologies. But in the 1800s, it was and should have been perfectly legal to burn coal this way—because the alternative was death by cold or starvation or wretched poverty.
By the same token, the degree of risk we would theoretically be willing to accept from fossil fuels will depend in large part on what the alternatives are. Let’s say—and I am completely making this up— we could prove that burning fossil fuels will cause ten times more hurricanes for the next fifty years. Should the government take action? Well, if there is a technology that is more affordable and can scale to produce cheaper, more plentiful, reliable energy for 7 billion people, then quite possibly. But if there is no equal or superior alternative, then any government action against fossil fuels, let alone the 50–95 percent bans over the next several decades that have been proposed, is a guaranteed early death sentence for billions— we would be willing to accept ten times more hurricanes if we had to. Energy is that important.
To get a sense of where things stand today and where they stood in the past, when “renewables” were predicted to be the future, let’s look at how much energy use comes from what sources.
Source: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook
Note the difference. Solar and wind produce a combined 1 percent of the energy we use, whereas fossil fuel energy—coal, oil, and natural gas—produces 86 percent, more than five times all other sources combined. That 86 percent is only 7 percent less than 1980’s 93 percent. But the total is what matters most—note that our total fossil fuel use is now far, far greater. Other sources of energy, particularly nuclear and hydro, have been supplements, not replacements for fossil fuels.