Why Don’t We Just Ban Fossil Fuels?

Imagine there were no law against arson and we were trying to figure out a way to stop it. One way would be to require people to pay for the right to burn down buildings. Another would be to issue a strictly limited number of tradable arson-permission certificates, which would-be arsonists could trade among themselves. We could spend money making buildings more fireproof. Or we could invent new flammable objects that would satisfy arsonists’ desire to burn things down but whose combustion would cause less societal harm.

There would be lots of creative ferment around the various approaches until someone said: “People. People. Let’s just make arson illegal.” Suddenly that would seem very obvious.

Burning fossil fuels isn’t the same as burning houses. Unlike arson, the combustion of oil, natural gas, coal and other fossil fuels provides real benefits — running our cars, heating and cooling our homes and so on.

But it’s also overheating the planet disastrously. So why don’t we just say, “No — can’t do that anymore”?

An overnight ban on fossil fuels is effectively impossible, of course. Other sources of energy such as solar panels, wind turbines and nuclear plants aren’t nearly able to fill the gap today. The economy, starved for energy, would come to a halt.

But a ban or severe restriction isn’t entirely crazy, either, if it’s phased in as part of a long-term plan to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to zero. Why not? We’ve banned things before.

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