Fossil fuels kill more people than Covid. Why are we so blind to the harms of oil and gas?

Rebecca Solnit
A climate activist holds banner in front of the NYC office of JPMorgan Chase bank's new headquarters during an ‘Occupy Park Avenue’ protest on 29 October 2022 in New York City. Photograph: Ron Adar/Rex/Shutterstock

Feb. 28, 2023

Were we able to perceive afresh the sheer scale of fossil fuel impact we might be horrified, but because this is an old problem too many don’t see it as a problem

If fossil fuel use and impact had suddenly appeared overnight, their catastrophic poisonousness and destructiveness would be obvious. But they have so incrementally become part of everyday life nearly everywhere on Earth that those impacts are largely accepted or ignored (that they’ve also corroded our politics helps this lack of alarm). This has real consequences for the climate crisis. Were we able to perceive afresh the sheer scale of fossil fuel impact we might be horrified. But because this is an old problem too many don’t see it as a problem.

Human beings are good at regarding new and unfamiliar phenomena as dangerous or unacceptable. But long-term phenomena become acceptable merely because of our capacity to adjust. Violence against women (the leading form of violence worldwide) and slower forms of environmental destruction have been going on so long that they’re easy to overlook and hard to get people to regard as a crisis. We saw this with Covid-19, where in the first months most people were fearful and eager to do what it took to avoid contracting or spreading the disease, and then grew increasingly casual about the risks and apparently oblivious to the impacts (the WHO charts almost 7 million deaths in little over three years).

To normalize is to turn something into the status quo, into something no longer seen as a problem, and this in turn undermines the impetus to pursue a solution. The very term crisis often implies a turning point or a decisive moment; these are problems with no turning point in sight, a long succession of indecisive moments as the damage mounts. Often what activists need to do is turn the status quo back into a crisis, as US Civil Rights Movement organizers so ably did in the 1960s by making racial inequality, exclusion and violence more dramatically visible and more unacceptable, as well as insisting that the world could be different, that change was possible.

The fossil fuel industry through airborne particulate matter alone annually kills far more people every year than Covid-19 has in three years. Recent studies conclude that nearly 9 million people a year die from inhaling these particulates produced by burning fossil fuel. It’s only one of the many ways fossil fuel is deadly, from black lung among coal miners and cancer and respiratory problems among those near refineries to fatalities from climate-driven catastrophes such as wildfire, extreme heat and floods.

The way we befouled our water, air and land, allowed manufacturers to introduce dangerous materials – lead, PCBs, PFAs (sometimes called “forever chemicals”), dioxin, high-level radioactive waste, microplastics, pesticides and herbicides – may seem to later generations shocking, stupid and amoral. Often the deployment of these substances offered short-term and specific advantages while leaving long-term and widespread damage; often the few benefited and the many paid. But all this was normalized.

One consequence of these habits of mind is the hostile reaction to the impact of renewables. Renewables require mining; the total amount of mining they require is far less than the fossil-fuel mining that goes on all around us and has for a long time. As a scientific paper put it in 2021: “The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy systems involves enormous decreases in materials, mining, and political risk. Since renewable systems need no fuel, they depend on trade only for the acquisition of materials and components during construction. Once the system is operating, no trade is required to sustain it. Therefore renewable energy production is not exposed to the political risks that plague fossil fuel production.” That is, you don’t have to cozy up to Russia or Saudi Arabia to keep going.

The climate movement has spent decades trying to stop one kind of extraction; I wish I could say that we could end the age of extraction altogether, but the billions of people on Earth cannot all revert to a pre-industrial state. With renewables the materials need to be extracted once and then are used for many years and are thereafter, in many cases, recyclable; with fossil fuel we burn it up as we go, so constant new interjections of coal, oil or gas are needed. They literally go up in smoke.

Battery technology is rapidly advancing, and much research on making batteries from more readily available materials than lithium is under way. Just last week came the announcement that “Volkswagen’s joint venture with JAC in China has produced the first electric car powered by the nascent sodium-ion battery technology.” So while it is urgent to pursue existing means for electrifying everything, it also seems clear that we are early in a technological revolution likely to provide new and better ways of doing what needs to be done. Or as Greta Thunberg once put it: “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.”

Obviously it matters where materials are extracted. Endangered species, significant habitat, local communities and indigenous sovereignty should be respected. They are not respected by fossil fuel extraction – just think of the gigantic festering expanse of Alberta’s tar sands, which have hugely impacted wildlife and encroached on traditional lands of several First Nations groups. As Inside Climate News put it: “Oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil and the Canadian giant Suncor have transformed Alberta’s tar sands – also called oil sands – into one of the world’s largest industrial developments. They have built sprawling waste ponds that leach heavy metals into groundwater, and processing plants that spew nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the air, sending a sour stench for miles.” To consider another example, a report in Bloomberg News stated last fall, “A roughly Taiwan-sized area of Alaska’s Arctic will be auctioned for oil and gas development …”

Astroturf organizations backed by conservatives and fossil-fuel interests have pushed false claims about health threats and organized locals against both wind turbines and solar installations. But the space they take up can be far less than that occupied by fossil fuel, and many turbines and solar panels coexist with agriculture. (Studies shows that sheep and solar panels can be mutually beneficial; elsewhere farmers adding turbines to their farms reap good income.) Bloomberg News recently published a piece mismeasuring the scale of renewables versus fossils: “A 200-megawatt wind farm, for instance, might require spreading turbines over 13 sq miles (36 sq km). A natural-gas power plant with that same generating capacity could fit onto a single city block.” But the wind farm is actually generating the energy it uses, and quite possibly coexisting with other land uses, while the gas plant depends on ceaseless mining for methane elsewhere that may permanently damage and poison the land. The way we have long operated was always destructive, and it’s now a crisis larger than any in human history. Change needs to come, swiftly, and though practical change is crucial, so are changes in imagination, perception and values. The two go together, and they always have.

[Top photo: A climate activist holds banner in front of the NYC office of JPMorgan Chase bank's new headquarters during an ‘Occupy Park Avenue’ protest on 29 October 2022 in New York City. Photograph: Ron Adar/Rex/Shutterstock]