August 16, 2023

A Beginner's Guide to Fossil Fuels and the Climate Crisis

Pipeline cutting through landscape, with oil overlay

Understanding the climate crisis can seem daunting at times, so we’re taking it back to basics with an educational deep dive on fossil fuels: the leading driver of the crisis.   


We’re calling on President Biden to declare a climate emergency and move away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy future. Read on to learn more and please join us in telling President Biden to take executive action now.


First things first: what even are fossil fuels?   

Fossil fuels come from decayed plants and animals from millions of years ago. Through pressure and heat, this ancient carbon-rich material has become what we know today as coal, oil, and fracked “natural” gas.  


For nearly 200 years, humans have been burning fossil fuels to power our lives – our vehicles, our homes, and our communities – but this has come at a cost. Drilling, mining, and burning fossil fuels has polluted our air, sickened communities, and dangerously warmed the planet – becoming the leading cause of the climate crisis.   


What the Fossil Fuel Industry Knew, and When They Knew It 

It may seem that concern about climate change is a relatively recent phenomenon. But the oil giant Exxon has known about climate change since 1977 -- 12 years before it first became a public issue. Climate researchers from Exxon raised alarms about how burning fossil fuels leads to a warming climate. But executives intentionally buried the research.*    


Ever since, fossil fuel companies have banded together to launch massive misinformation campaigns. These marketing campaigns were meant to sow doubt about the causes of climate change, just like when the tobacco industry skewed perception about the health risks of smoking. Remember when calculating our carbon footprint was all the rage? This actually began as a fossil-fuel backed propaganda tool. In the early 2000s, oil and gas giant BP successfully popularized a tool for individuals to calculate the carbon emissions of their everyday actions – effectively shifting the focus away from the fossil fuel industry’s role in causing climate change and tricking everyday people into blaming themselves.  


But it’s not just the environment that’s hurting. 

Nearly half of the U.S. population lives in counties that have unhealthful levels of air pollution from fossil fuels – causing asthma, cancer, and shortened lifespans.* One in five premature deaths worldwide are caused by the burning of fossil fuels every year.* This is before counting the deaths caused by the impacts of climate change – extreme heat, storms, fires, droughts, floods, etc. Communities of color are harmed the most. Too often fossil fuel sites are built in communities of color or low-income neighborhoods – this is a form of environmental racism. Black Americans are 3x more likely to die from asthma than white Americans. This is why we can’t have climate justice without racial justice.    



So if our climate and health is so impacted, why aren’t we seeing government action? 

One answer is that the fossil fuel industry and other corporations have a MASSIVE impact on our political system. They’re able to donate hundreds of millions of dollars each year to candidates, Political Action Committees (PACs), and Super PACs -- and it’s getting worse. In 2010, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision began allowing unlimited political donations from corporations, like the fossil fuel industry, to Super PACs to support campaigns and candidates. Such donations make politicians beholden to an industry and its profits rather than the people who elect them. That's why some issues that most Americans support, like assault weapons bans and clean energy funding, face huge political challenges. In the 2022 election cycle alone, oil and gas companies gave $29.7 million to Congressional candidates.*

We must hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. The industry’s despicable actions underscore the need for holding the fossil fuel industry accountable through government action. We need elected officials at all levels of government who will stand up to corporate greed and misinformation -- and take bold climate actions.   


So – what can you do today? 

A clean energy future = a healthier future for all. If we’re striving for a healthier future, we must end the production of fossil fuels. Together we can save lives through cleaning our air, protecting our communities, and avoiding the worst of climate change.  


Together, we call on our government officials at every level – national, state, and local -- to:  

  • Stop approvals of new fossil fuel projects (pipelines, power plants, and more)  

  • Join local efforts to shut down or stop the expansion of coal and gas power plants, and support clean energy development.  

  • End fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters  

  • Support national efforts to stop destructive pipelines like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, proposed to cross through parts of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.  

  • Invest in clean, renewable energy to power every aspect of our lives. 

  • Petition your school board or city council to buy electric school buses to replace dirty diesel buses.  


*Data from  

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