Global heating and fossil fuel burning are the world’s greatest health challenges

woman in a mask on a polluted street with cars
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The salient hope for international cooperation to keep the goal of global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius alive already seems forlorn, but we must seek to drive home to governments the fundamental implication of this aim — to keep humanity alive.

The commitments given at the recent UN COP26 climate summit did not go far enough to address the looming dangers of temperature rise and the vital, drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions before 2030 is problematic.

The proposed commitments are now being questioned within each nation’s political system and many obstructions are emerging. New fossil fuel developments are being sanctioned that will compromise greenhouse emission reduction. The common denominator in these regrettable actions is an unwillingness of governments and society to consider sacrifices to ensure the future of their children and grandchildren.

The key to effective action is methane reduction from gas and oil production because it has a higher heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide, but it does so for only a few decades whereas carbon dioxide acts over centuries. 

Cause for concern lies within four English-speaking democracies, the U.S. and U.K., which offered leadership at COP26, as well as in Canada and particularly in Australia — which did not agree to the pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. 

Yet, President Biden’s campaign commitment for “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters” and “modifying royalties to account for climate costs”  has not eventuated due to the complexities and political opposition. Additionally, the massive sale of offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico is of concern as is the continuing rise in the export of oil and gas. 

Criticism can be leveled at the U.K. for the Cambo and other North Sea oil developments, while Canada continues to increase production from tar sands in perhaps the most environmentally destructive fossil fuel project in the world.

The government of Australia and others will find encouragement in these events and foresee their many proposed oil and gas developments as free from U.S. criticism and sanction.

To date, the response to criticism of the Australian government has been: We will decide what is done within our borders. Australia’s posturing seems to be without considering harm to others.  All nations must develop a collective drive to arrest climate change with free and open dialogue and the U.S. has the maturity to do this.

In this context, it was perhaps unhelpful for the internationally respected U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry to call out a handful of countries that need to “step up” on climate change without mention of his own country’s difficulties.  

We must urgently seek additional ways of delivering messages through which public, media and governments understand the gravity of the situation. 

Human health is the crucial consideration.

At COP26, the World Health Organization delivered a Health Programme for transformational change to protect the health of people and the planet.

Over 200 health journals urged world leaders to tackle “catastrophic harm” and more than 100 medical delegates attended to explain this message. There were also 500 delegates from the fossil fuel industries who outnumbered those in any national delegation.   

In retrospect, the fossil fuel lobby made the running with claims for greening their products with unproven technological advances and with their spurious case for gas in the transition to renewable energy.

Indeed, the commercial display of the Australian gas industry at COP26 was confluent with that of the Australian government and advertised vast proposed gas development that has been commenced since the Glasgow meeting with government subsidies.

The deliberations at COP26 failed to adequately confront the fossil fuel industries and their associated governments with the preventable deaths caused by air pollution and from climate change itself.

Many psychological studies have shown that executives of large companies are much more likely to have psychopathic personality tendencies than other community members. Often, they appear to be ruthless, persuasive, narcissistic and unable to feel guilt, perfectly created to make money.

As noted in the book Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis by psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe, fossil fuel industry “officials had embraced a strategy that downplays the reality and seriousness of climate change, normalizes fossil fuel lock-in, and individualizes responsibility.” Weintrobe explained that the human brain is divided between the caring and uncaring parts. Some CEOs of large companies appear able to suppress the caring brain.

These attributes extend to many elected officials and some leaders who cannot see the inappropriateness of receiving money from fossil fuel companies and perpetrating decisions that favor the interests of these companies. In my view, as well as many who understand the climate and health harm of fossil fuels, they carry personal responsibility for a prodigious number of deaths.

Research from Harvard and a group of U.K. universities indicates that 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution (particulates and noxious gases), amounting to 18 percent of total global deaths and continuing to increase.

It is possible to calculate the deaths caused by each coal fired station from public health and air quality data. In Australia, the coal-fired power stations have been exempted from legal pollution limits for almost a decade. The stations emit toxic nitrogen oxide pollution at almost twice the rate otherwise permitted under laws that currently allow more pollution than in other Western countries. Attempts to expand coal are being contested legally on the basis that deaths from another five years of pollution will cost $50 million to $100 million AUD and illness from asthma, heart disease, dementia, diabetes as well as low birth weight will cost more.

The mindset in governments that support such fossil fuel expansion can only be explained by Weintrobe at a time when funding and clean energy technology are available to replace coal power.

This is applicable to all fossil fuel projects — whether in the state Virginia or Delhi, India and elected officials should be asked to justify their continuation in the face of the deaths they arguably have caused and continue to allow. The public must know the human cost of this malfeasance and it is vital that the media reports death and illnesses with the evidence.

It is clear, 8 million deaths occur every year from the air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. These fuels are also the main cause of global heating and a rapidly rising number of deaths in countries around the world from the worsening of extreme weather events, tornados, floods, wildfires and heatwaves. 

And let us expand the COP26 slogan to: Keep 1.5 degrees Celsius and humanity alive.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Tags Climate change Coal COP26 David Shearman Energy Fossil fuels Joe Biden John Kerry oil Public health Renewable energy WHO

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