The Cost of Fossil Fuels
Huebner, Albert L., The Humanist
In his article "An Economy for the Earth" in the May/June 2002 issue of the Humanist, Lester Brown makes the important point that a "deteriorating environment will eventually hurt the economy," stressing the need for an environmentally sustainable economy. He's correct that the need is great, yet his use of eventually underscores a fundamental. problem. So long as the argument for transforming society away from fossil fuels is based on concerns over future climate change instead of on warnings of immediate damage to the economy, there will be little action taken.
It's indisputable that signs of global climate change are everywhere, but President George W. Bush rejects any serious attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it would "harm the U.S. economy," which has clearly been the stronger argument with the public. One piece of evidence that supports this is the energy bill that Congress let die in November 2002. Neither the administration nor Congress made an earnest attempt to begin weaning the United States away from the burning of fossil fuel; the new Congress will lean even more toward a fossil-fuel based energy economy. Another fact is that even before the Sustainable Development Summit formally began in September 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa, the United States was leading the way in rejecting the consideration of energy and the environment. The Bush administration wasted an opportunity to contemplate the use of benign and sustainable energy, dealing a major blow to the purpose of the summit. Energy analysts stressed that sustainable development isn't possible without sustainable energy.
Casting the issue as "future climate change" versus "immediate economic damage" guarantees the victory of the latter position. However, by examining the hidden assumptions that underpin the prevailing economic model, it becomes possible to see that these positions fail to adequately include the social and individual costs of burning fossil fuels. These hidden assumptions have to be revealed because a completely different picture emerges when the cost-analysis is done scientifically and humanely.
A large and growing number of investigations demonstrate that the costs of burning fossil fuels are enormous and are imposed not in the future but right now. One groundbreaking international study was the subject of two important articles: "Hidden Health Benefits of Greenhouse Gas Mitigation" published in Science, volume 293, in August 2001, and "Assessing the Health Benefits of Urban Air Pollution Reductions Associated with Climate Change Mitigation (2000-2020)" published in Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 109, in June 2001. This international team of leading health scientists--after reviewing more than 1,000 studies--concludes that patterns of "fossil fuel use ... are already sickening or killing millions throughout the world" in both developed and developing countries. Global air pollution, for example, causes nearly 700,000 deaths annually as well as many more cases of acute and chronic illnesses, restricting the activity of millions of people a day and resulting in loss of work.
The research team investigated the potential local health benefits from reducing air pollution in four cities--Mexico City, Mexico; Santiago, Chile; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and New York City--for which a broad range of data was available to provide a more robust assessment. (It's noteworthy that in response to their severe air pollution, Mexico City and Sao Paulo have restricted people from using their personal vehicles on certain days of the week based on the last digit of their license plates.) The scientists estimate that the adoption of readily available technologies to lessen fossil fuel emissions--applied over the next two decades in these four cities alone--would avoid approximately 64,000 premature deaths, 65,000 chronic bronchitis cases, and 37 million days of work loss or other restricted activity. …