Are Cheap Fossil Fuels Really a Such a Boon to the World’s Poor?

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How can we make life better for the world’s poor? Environmentalists often tell us that one way would be to slow climate change by cutting fossil fuel use. They warn that the poorest people in the poorest countries are likely to bear the brunt of rising sea levels, droughts, and storms. Carbon taxes or other policies that would raise the prices of fossil fuels would help by reducing demand for coal and oil, spurring investment in green alternatives.

Skeptical environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg seems to think otherwise. Writing recently in The New York Times, he argues that people who care about the world’s poor should work to lower the price of fossil fuels, not raise them. He points out that 3.5 million people around the world die from indoor air pollution caused when they burn wood, dung, and other traditional fuels in open fires or leaky stoves to cook and heat their homes — more than die from outdoor air pollution. “There’s no question that burning fossil fuels is leading to a warmer climate and that addressing this problem is important,” he writes, “but doing so is a question of timing and priority. For many parts of the world, fossil fuels are still vital and will be for the next few decades, because they are the only means to lift people out of the smoke and darkness of energy poverty.”

Is Lomborg right? Although we should not dismiss the problem of indoor air pollution lightly, I think that much of what he says fails to stand up to scrutiny.

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