By H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.
In his brilliant book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein wrote: “Climate is no longer a major cause of death, thanks in large part to fossil fuels. … Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are ‘fighting’ climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous. The popular climate discussion … looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels. In fact, the truth is … we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe.”
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria highlight the crucial role of fossil fuels to humankind’s reaction to the whims of nature. In a piece in Patriot Post, conservative columnist Caroline Camden Lewis points out no industry is doing more to help the hurricane- and deluge-stricken areas to recover than the fossil-fuel industry.
Fossil fuels are powering helicopters; boats of the “Cajun coast guard” and of the U.S. Coast Guard, military, and police; and the utility vehicles sent to restore electricity. They also powered the vehicles that evacuated people from the flood zone; the semi-trailer trucks that delivered water, food, blankets, and other relief supplies; and the ambulances that rescued those hurt during the storm or those who needed transport from medical facilities and nursing homes.
The entire armada sent by the Navy, Marines, and Air Force that is already in, or soon will arrive in Puerto Rico, is powered by fossil fuels. The same is true of the diesel generators that are being delivered to provide much-needed power to the island’s people.
When the power lines went down in Florida and Texas, back-up generators, powered by diesel, natural gas, or liquid propane, provided the electricity to apartment buildings, hospitals, nursing homes, and countless shelters. Gasoline-powered chainsaws “cut apart the fallen trees blocking the roads and diesel-powered trucks to haul away the debris. Utility companies used diesel-powered cranes to attach the wires,” Lewis reminds us.
Not only was the food and water provided to evacuees delivered by fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, the food was also grown using diesel and gasoline-powered equipment. Furthermore, all this food was grown using pesticides and fertilizers, which require fossil fuels as vital components in their manufacturing process.
One must not overlook the plastics in cell phones, computers, and communications equipment that keeps people connected and informed during natural disasters. All these essential devices are, in part, manufactured using oil and/or natural gas. Meanwhile, the silica necessary for microchips, the core of these technologies, was mined by diesel-powered mining equipment.
Fossil fuels were also front and center before and during the hurricanes, reducing the number of people ultimately harmed by them.
Fossil fuels were integral to the construction of modern building materials and infrastructure that, as badly as they were damaged, certainly stood up to the storms better than the wood and plank homes and rutted wagon trails which would have been demolished only a century ago. Fossil fuels powered the advanced warning systems that gave people time to evacuate or take shelter—including the weather planes that literally flew through the storms—and the 24/7 communications systems that allowed meteorologists to report on the storms’ progress.
With early warning, many people fled prior to the storms’ arrival, using fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. Trying to flee in electric vehicles in most locations would have been futile. Even fully charged electric vehicles have too short a range to deliver most people completely out of the path of destruction. And after the storms, electric vehicles have been as useless as the electric power necessary to recharge their batteries—unless you charge them using a diesel-powered generator.
Even the foolish or obstinate likely wouldn’t argue fossil fuels cause hurricanes, but, despite lacking any credible evidence, they might argue the hurricanes wouldn’t have been as powerful were it not for our use of fossil fuels. A simple look at the history of the number of people killed due to bad weather before the widespread use of fossil fuels is proof that such claims are not based in fact. In the present, more people are killed and damage is more extensive in countries without access to reliable fossil-fuel-powered electricity and transportation and the technologies they make possible.
Even if it were proven the use of fossil fuels modestly increases hurricane wind speeds, a dubious supposition, the benefits of using those fossil fuels to track, warn, flee, and respond to natural disasters far outweigh the harm caused by a few more miles per hour of wind during a hurricane.
Anyone who denies these basic facts is ignorant, lying to themselves, or evil.
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.