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Ditching fossil fuels is the most important thing we can do to combat climate change, but it can feel like wandering through a labyrinth to try to do so. In this episode of Crash Course Climate and Energy, we'll explore why it's so hard for us to break up with fossil fuels and the ways governments and fuel companies affect our relationship with them.

Introduction: Ditching Fossil Fuels 00:00
Why Fossil Fuels Are Everywhere 1:00
Fossil Fuel Subsidies 2:20
Fossil Fuels & The Economy 5:40
Cuba's Special Period 6:54
Fossil Fuels' Global Impacts 8:29
Fuel Companies & Misinformation 9:18
Review & Credits 12:20


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CC Kids:
Climate scientists agree that we need to seriously reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we’re going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

And one of the best ways to do that is to ditch fossil fuels as our main source of energy. The good news?

Many countries have already set targets to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and much of the technology to do that already exists. To use an American football analogy: We have the ball. Now, we just have to run it to the end zone.

The difficulty is, fossil fuels are so embedded in our lives that the path to a greener future is full of economic, political, and social challenges — like tons of opposing players trying to stop us in our tracks. So if we want to make it through, we’re gonna have to strap on our helmets and tackle those obstacles head-on. Hi hi!

I’m M Jackson, and this is Crash Course Climate and Energy. [THEME MUSIC] Fossil fuels are a huge part of our lives, for three main reasons.

One: They pack a lot of energy into a small space. For instance, a liter of gasoline contains about as much energy as three to four sticks of dynamite. And unlike a handful of dynamite, the energy in gasoline can be released gradually, rather than all at once in a big explosion. That makes it an ideal fuel source for engines, generators, power plants — equipment that needs to run consistently.

The second reason fossil fuels are everywhere? They’re versatile. Sure, they can be used to heat your school, keep the lights on, or power a cargo ship, but they can also be used in less obvious ways — like to make fertilizer, to provide heat to make cement and steel, or even to make synthetic fabrics and plastic.

As a society, we’ve really taken that versatility and run with it, incorporating fossil fuels into virtually every industry. Ultimately, though, the thing that makes fossil fuels so useful — which is the third, uniting factor here — is that they’re cheap. Fossil fuels are cheap partly because they’ve been widely available and abundant underground and because we’ve built a lot of infrastructure around them.

But they’re also cheap because for the last two centuries, governments have put a huge amount of effort and action into making them cheap. Often, that takes the form of subsidies, which are kind of like coupons. Direct subsidies are incentives offered to fossil fuel producers and consumers, to drive the prices down.

At the production end, this can take the form of tax breaks offered to oil companies, and cheaper and more flexible leases for companies that want to mine or drill on federal lands. On the consumption side of things, some governments find ways to cut prices for consumers like you and me. For example, until 2015, the United Arab Emirates effectively made a nationwide discount on gas, so when their citizens fuelled up, their gas was cheaper than market value.

In a time when it’s in our best interests to move away from fossil fuels, it may be surprising that these subsidies are still alive and well across the world. But not too surprising. We all have a hard time saying no to a discount.

And when those discounts involve the raw materials that drive the economy — and for now, much of our daily lives — saying “no” is even harder than turning down a “buy one, get one free” coupon on science T-shirts. Ooh! Even when you already have a closet full of them like I do.

Between 2017 and 2019, the International Energy Agency estimated that together, the countries that hold most of the fossil fuel supplies gave more than 550 billion dollars of direct subsidies each year. But direct subsidies aren’t the only way that the price of fossil fuels is kept low. Imagine you spent 100 dollars on your bike, but whenever you rode it, you smashed through your neighbors’ gardens, causing them to have to buy new plants and spend money and time printing “don’t bike in my garden” signs.

If you add up all the money your neighbors had to spend, suddenly your bike is costing a lot more than 100 dollars. It’s just not costing /you/ that extra money. This is what is called a negative externality.

It describes costs that are passed on to someone other than the producer or consumer. In other words, they’re externalized. When fossil fuels are burned — whether to fuel a tractor, produce building materials, or power a city — it has serious impacts on human health and the environment.

For instance, the air pollution around fossil-fuel power plants results in higher rates of asthma, cancer, and heart disease for the people who live nearby. Treating the affected people costs money that wouldn’t have to be spent if the power plants weren’t there in the first place. In the U.

S. alone, the healthcare costs related to fossil fuel-generated energy are estimated to be up to 886 billion dollars per year. On a broader scale, the greenhouse gases emitted when we burn fossil fuels are also causing the planet to get warmer, ice to melt, and sea levels to rise. As a result, more homes are being damaged by floods and storm surges, and land and water supplies are damaged by intruding saltwater.

By some estimates, rising sea levels are expected to cost the world 14 trillion dollars a year by 2100. Because fossil fuel companies aren’t held accountable for this type of impact, some scholars consider these costs to be indirect subsidies. And when you combine the indirect subsidies with the direct ones the fossil fuel industry receives from governments, the overall cost of subsidies goes through the roof.

So, why are governments still working so hard to support fossil fuels? Well, for at least the last two centuries, energy usage and economic growth have gone hand in hand. As countries develop their economies, they have a stronger need for reliable energy and electricity.

And, the more energy they can get, the wealthier they typically become. And everyone wants to be rich, right? Keeping these fuels cheap has consistently boosted countries’ economies and, for the most part, improved standards of living locally.

That doesn’t mean things have to be this way. If countries transitioned to other ways of getting energy, like solar or hydroelectric power, they could help their economies and their people without all the baggage that comes with fossil fuels. But the key word here is “transition.” If governments ditched fossil fuel subsidies all at once, the price of things like gas would skyrocket.

Right now, without alternatives, many people would stop being able to pay their bills, or fill their tanks. And if a country suddenly had to go cold turkey on fossil fuels without other ways to get energy? History has shown us that that doesn’t go well.

Here comes the Thought Bubble. During the Cold War, Cuba was a strategic ally for the Soviet Union, and the Soviet government provided a lot of trade and economic support in return for their allegiance. But after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Cuba’s economy was left high and dry.

This led to a time of crisis for Cuba, known as the Special Period. Practically overnight, the country was cut off from up to 80% of its international trade, including, critically, its energy supplies. From there, the effects rippled out to practically every corner of daily life.

Without reliable electricity, long blackouts became common, leaving the population without electric fans to defend against the tropical heat, and cutting power to refrigerators. Petroleum imports fell by 50%, and without cars or buses, Cubans had to walk or cycle everywhere. Without the fossil fuels to power them, domestic industry and agriculture effectively ground to a halt.

Cuba wasn’t making enough food or other products to sell to other countries. They weren’t even making enough to sustain their own country. In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, food was rationed, and Cubans consumed a third fewer calories than was typical.

Hunger and malnutrition became the norm, with people losing an average of more than 5 kilograms each. It was a dark time for Cuba, that lasted more than a decade, resulting largely from the sudden loss of their fossil fuels. And these challenges only lessened when another country, Venezuela, began trading with Cuba for oil in 2000.

Thanks, Thought Bubble. One takeaway from Cuba’s Special Period is that relying on imported fossil fuels for energy makes a country vulnerable to what’s going on in the rest of the world. And that’s still true today.

For instance, Russia has historically been the largest exporter of oil in the world, and its natural gas fuels most of Europe. So, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, and. Russia’s fossil fuel exports dropped, oil and natural gas prices around the globe rose to their highest levels in a decade.

To try and protect themselves and their people from scenarios like what happened in Cuba and Ukraine, many governments keep discounting their own domestic fossil fuel supply so energy stays cheap and they aren’t as vulnerable to international conflict. Unfortunately, though, not every decision in favor of fossil fuels is based on a government’s concern for its people. Political parties often receive funding from the fossil fuel industry, which puts pressure on them to act in ways that benefit those corporations.

And the rabbit hole goes even deeper than that. Some fuel corporations like Exxon Mobil, Shell, and British Petroleum, have participated in — and even coordinated around — misinformation campaigns. These corporations conducted their own internal research as early as the 1970s and ‘80s and independently verified the link between fossil fuels and climate change.

Exxon Mobil even concluded way back in 1982 that fossil fuel use would need to be reduced in order to minimize catastrophic and irreversible climate change. But for a business that only makes money when humanity uses fossil fuels, this research was terrible news. The writing was on the wall: to protect the planet and everyone on it, companies like Exxon Mobil would have to lose a lot of cash.

And that wouldn’t go over well with the board or shareholders. So, Exxon Mobil decided to do something about it ...but instead of addressing the problem, they worked to sow seeds of doubt about the true causes and impacts of climate change. Their overall message was that, sure, the climate is changing.

But it’s not that bad, and we can’t really be sure humans are responsible…right? In other words, they put out a message of uncertainty. A memo leaked from a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute in 1998 stated that, quote, “Informing students and teachers about uncertainties in climate science will begin to erect a barrier against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future.” Those Kyoto measures they’re referring to — that’s the reduction in emissions that international organizations were trying to enact at the time.

So it’s clear that the American Petroleum Institute was trying to stop the world from moving away from fossil fuels. And even decades later, the industry is still doing what it can to stop further regulation. For instance, oil and gas companies have created misleading materials that were sent to students and teachers, which aim to undermine what the global scientific community has learned about climate change.

And the fossil fuel industry has also directly funded scientists to publish articles or speak to the media about unverified and intentionally misleading research in opposition to the United Nations’s climate conclusions. Thankfully, many individuals and groups are working hard to fight all kinds of misinformation, all the time. In a way, you’re gearing up to fight the good fight right now, by watching this series of Crash Course and getting curious about the different chapters in this big climate story.

Fossil fuels are embedded in nearly everything we do — from our drive to the specialty mac 'n' cheese store, to our noodle cooking, to the production of the shirt we spilled cheese on. And I could keep going for hours on just cheese-related connections. The good news?

We’re not stuck in the status quo. Government-funded agencies and international groups are working harder than ever to bridge the gap between their research and public views on climate change. With more widespread awareness comes more calls to action, which can result in changing government policy, investment in research and technology for climate solutions, and clearer paths forward.

What do those paths look like? We’ll talk possibilities in the next episode. Special thanks to Les Aker, our quarterback for this episode.

We can always count on you for a touchdown basket? Pass? Or to support us on Patreon.

Crash Course Climate and Energy is produced by Complexly with support provided by Breakthrough Energy and Gates Ventures. This episode was filmed at the Castle Geraghty Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone, forever, you can join our community on Patreon.