Why the Paris climate accords matter to Alaska

Starting Nov. 30, Alaskans may want to keep a watchful eye on what world leaders say and do in Paris. The heads of 190 countries, including President Obama, are meeting for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.

Their goal is to reach an international agreement that will stall — or even reverse — human progress.

That's not how they see it, of course. Their stated objective is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which will require dramatically restricting fossil fuel usage. But the reality is that restricting fossil fuels, which provide 74 percent of Alaska's electricity, means abandoning the energy source that helped make the 21st century the best time in human history to be alive — not just in America but around the world. Fossil fuels helped shape most of the technological and economic advances we enjoy today. Oil, coal and natural gas played little role in mankind's development until the late 1700s. After we began to harness their potential, we went from no indoor plumbing to landing on the moon in less than 200 years.

The energy industry, the industry that powers every other industry, is fundamental to that progress. And the fossil fuel industry produces 85 percent of the world's energy — for the simple reason that no other industry can come close in terms of affordability, availability and reliability. The developing world, from China to India, has used fossil fuels to raise its standards of living for precisely this reason.

And the United States is no exception: According to the World Bank, we get 83 percent of our power from fossil fuels, permitting almost all Americans, rich or poor, to have electricity.

This energy enables limitless productivity and innovation. We also use oil and gas to make countless products, including clothing, cellular phones and lifesaving medical technology such as artificial heart valves, to name but a few of millions of examples. Even the protestors likely to urge leaders in Paris to ban fossil fuels altogether will themselves be carrying dozens of items made of the materials they condemn.

The advancement made possible by cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from fossil fuels extends to every realm of life, including our health and our environment. The more energy we have at our disposal, the more time and machine power we have to fight nature's many dangers and afflictions.


Data from the World Bank show a strong correlation between increased use of fossil fuels and decreased rates of malnutrition, youth mortality and death by disease. Less than 80 percent of the world population had access to clean water in the 1990s, but thanks to in part to fossil fuels, which help us purify and transport drinking water, that number has now grown to almost 90 percent according to UN data.

Our environment is also far better. While we are taught that we lived in harmony with nature pre-fossil fuels, we actually lived and died at nature's mercy — including the naturally merciless climate. Since major fossil fuel use began, according to the Reason Foundation, the rate of deaths from extreme weather events fell 90 percent, and the death rate fell 98 percent overall. Thank air-conditioning, heating, sturdy infrastructure and disaster-relief tools — all of them powered by or made with fossil fuels.

Despite this evidence, many of the world leaders taking part in the Paris conference will promise to cut their nation's fossil fuel usage. Many are even citing a "moral obligation" to do so. Yet if they succeed, they will deny countless people the comfortable life and continued progress that Alaskans take for granted.

How is it moral to deny billions of people a better life? World leaders, President Obama included, should be looking for ways to advance human flourishing—not handicap it. These days it's customary to condemn fossil fuels or call them a necessary evil at best. But for those who value human life, it's only fair to say that fossil fuels are a necessary good.

Alex Epstein is the president and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress and author of the book "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels," published by Portfolio/Penguin in 2014.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.