Fossil fuel pollution is killing people in the US and abroad
That’s the chilling conclusion reached by a new peer-reviewed study from Harvard University and University College London. Researchers found that more than 8.7 million people around the world died from exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions in 2018.
The findings bring new understanding and urgency to the immediate global health threat caused by climate change and our world’s continued reliance on high-polluting fossil fuels.
For the Biden administration and policymakers worldwide, it must be a wakeup call. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels isn’t just about protecting future generations from looming threats and projections — it’s about saving lives right now. Our actions — both domestic and internationally — must reflect that urgency.
The death toll from fossil fuels is more than twice what previous research indicated. The study’s authors say the startlingly higher measurements stemmed from more advanced ways of calculating particulate matter using 3D models. It offers a more accurate and tragic look into the devastating impact fossil fuels have on our populations and our planet.
The study reveals a crisis that is truly global in scope. Eastern North America, Europe and Southeast Asia had the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution. The idea that climate change is only a problem in the developing world or recently industrialized nations is false. Yet the citizens of these countries suffer the effects of this pollution at a greater rate. Nearly two-thirds of the deaths occurred in China and India. In the U.S., more than 13 percent of deaths in people older than 14 are attributable to pollution from fossil fuels.
Domestically and abroad, we know that these deaths and poorer health outcomes disproportionately affect low-income populations and communities of color. President Biden’s commitment to addressing climate change through the lens of environmental justice will be critical. His proposed Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Department of Justice (DOJ) is a good first step, but it must come with a renewed effort to hold polluters accountable and reverse the impact they’ve had in our most vulnerable communities. Biden’s proposed Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool is another meaningful step in giving these communities the resources they need to make informed choices about the health and safety of their families.
It’s just one area where Biden has significant work to do in repairing our nation’s climate change in the wake of the Trump administration. Given the complete lack of national leadership over the last four years, some states have stepped up to continue to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. Programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative have given states a blueprint for reducing pollution through a cap-and-trade program. These regional measures are crucial advances but should be far surpassed by an ambitious federal effort that could save and improve millions of lives.
If there is one silver lining from the recent study, it is that such efforts to reduce fossil fuel pollution can have a profound impact. Over the last decade, China has taken tangible policy steps toward reducing its fossil fuel emissions. Between 2012 and 2018, fossil fuel pollution there dropped by half. Researchers estimate that reduction saved 2.4 million lives worldwide.
Those numbers show what’s at stake and just how much these policies matter. The United States must rejoin the international conversation around climate change. Global initiatives like the Paris Agreement are not empty gestures to be scoffed at. They’re essential commitments that are saving lives right now.
As Biden determines the priorities for his administration, his actions on climate change must match his promises on the campaign trail. And he must act with the urgency as if millions of lives depend on it — because they do.
Joseph O. Minott, Esq, is the executive director and chief counsel for Clean Air Council.