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Big Oil is addicted, but it's killing the rest of us
A shocking new summary of fossil fuel's assault on public health
Yesterday afternoon, the British medical journal The Lancet published a vast and remarkable assessment of the health impacts of climate change. (Produced in Britain, the Lancet is among the world’s most venerable journals—it’s where Joseph Lister published his plan for antiseptic surgery in 1867.) Assembled by a team of more than a hundred researchers, the report found that
Because of the rapidly increasing temperatures, vulnerable populations (adults older than 65 years, and children younger than one year of age) were exposed to 3.7 billion more heatwave days in 2021 than annually in 1986–2005, and heat-related deaths increased by 68% between 2000–04 and 2017–21
and also that
the number of months suitable for malaria transmission increased by 31.3% in the highland areas of the Americas and 13.8% in the highland areas of Africa from 1951–60 to 2012–21, and the likelihood of dengue transmission rose by 12% in the same period. The coexistence of dengue outbreaks with the COVID-19 pandemic led to aggravated pressure on health systems, misdiagnosis, and difficulties in management of both diseases in many regions of South America, Asia, and Africa.
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and also that
Heat exposure led to 470 billion potential labour hours lost globally in 2021, with potential income losses equivalent to 0.72% of the global economic output, increasing to 5.6% of the GDP in low Human Development Index (HDI) countries, where workers are most vulnerable to the effects of financial fluctuations . Meanwhile, extreme weather events caused damage worth US$253 billion in 2021, particularly burdening people in low HDI countries in which almost none of the losses were insured.
and also that
Through multiple and interconnected pathways, every dimension of food security is being affected by climate change, aggravating the impacts of other coexisting crises. The higher temperatures threaten crop yields directly, with the growth seasons of maize on average 9 days shorter in 2020, and the growth seasons of winter wheat and spring wheat 6 days shorter than for 1981–2010 globally. The threat to crop yields adds to the rising impact of extreme weather on supply chains, socioeconomic pressures, and the risk of infectious disease transmission, undermining food availability, access, stability, and utilisation. New analysis suggests that extreme heat was associated with 98 million more people reporting moderate to severe food insecurity in 2020 than annually in 1981–2010, in 103 countries analysed
I’ve rarely read a more comprehensive, or more devastating report on the effect of global warming. And its authors are pulling no punches. As one told the Associated Press, what we’re looking at is a clear case of “fossil fuel addiction.” Marina Romanello, executive director of the research effort, said “We’re seeing a persistent addiction to fossil fuels that is not only amplifying the health impacts of climate change, but which is also now at this point compounding with other concurrent crises that we’re globally facing, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, energy crisis and food crisis that were triggered after the war in Ukraine.”
She is right. My only quibble is that when one says “fossil fuel addiction,” it might summon up an image of the wrong culprit. Humans aren’t addicted to fossil fuels—we’re just as happy getting our power from solar panels or wind turbines. Happier, even. And since these are now the cheapest sources of power in the world there’s no reason we shouldn’t have them.
Except that the fossil fuel industry has spent decades blocking the way—a massive three-decade campaign of deceit, denial and disinformation; an ongoing lobbying effort against renewables that the industry boasts will get even more powerful if the GOP wins the midterms; endless support for rightwing lawmakers to make sure that lobbying will work.
I think the question I get asked the most may be: why do these vast oil companies not simply convert to energy companies? Why don’t Exxon and Chevron decide to own the renewable future, instead of investing at most a few percent of their research budgets on clean tech?
And the answer is, if you think about it, sadly logical. You can make some money putting solar panels on people’s roofs—there will be solar billionaires. But you can’t make Exxon money, because once the panel is up there, the sun delivers the energy for free every day when it rises above the horizon. From Exxon’s point of view, this is the stupidest business model ever: they made their fortune by selling you more energy, every week for your entire life. They are hooked.
As the Lancet makes clear,
oil and gas companies are registering record profits, while their production strategies continue to undermine people’s lives and wellbeing. An analysis of the production strategies of 15 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, as of February 2022, revealed they exceed their share of emissions consistent with 1·5°C of global heating by 37% in 2030 and 103% in 2040, continuing to undermine efforts to deliver a lowcarbon, healthy, liveable future.
This profit—soaring this year thanks to one man, Vladimir Putin—keeps tempting the banks and financial institutions to send more money their way, so they can expand their infrastructure and lock in their dominance decades longer.
It’s Big Oil’s that’s addicted to fossil fuel profits—but the side effects are killing the planet.
In other news from the world of climate and energy:
+Nifty essay from Aileen Getty explaining why she funds activist groups like Just Stop Oil, responsible for splashing soup on the glass that covered a Van Gogh:
My hope is that we, as a society, can wake up to accept these actions from brave climate activists for what they are – an alarm that jolts us out of the status quo and focuses us on the real emergency at hand: we are killing life on this planet. Nonviolent, civil resistance works. Many of the rights we hold dear were won by previous generations of young people standing up and saying enough. Should we not use those same tactics to redirect our anger and energy toward preserving life – our own and those around us?
+Just in time for the “African COP,” a season of terrible flooding in Nigeria has killed more than 600 people and displaced 1.4 million. As a UN relief official said, “Climate change is real, as we are yet again discovering in Nigeria.” Meanwhile in Pakistan, the ground is so flooded they’ve run out places to bury the dead.
+It’s going to be an expensive winter, thanks to Vladimir Putin, but not so much for people with heat pumps.
+From the inimitable Kathleen Dean Moore and Sueellen Campbell, a truly remarkable quiz that helps you figure out just where you could fit in to the climate fight.
+Plugging refrigerant leaks is a massively important way to slow down warming, a new study finds.
Simple measures such as plugging leaks of chemical refrigerants from existing air conditioners and refrigerators could curb greenhouse gas emissions equal to 91 billion tons of carbon dioxide by the end of the century, according to a report published Thursday by a trio of environmental organizations. That’s equal to nearly three years’ worth of carbon dioxide emissions from all fossil-fueled power plants in the world today.
+Noam Chomsky on the UN negotiating process:
[At Glasgow last year] the most exciting, eliciting much euphoria, was the commitment of the great private financial institutions to devote up to $130 trillion to such noble projects as wiring Africa for solar power. The market to the rescue! — with a small footnote, as political economist Adam Tooze was unkind enough to add. The giants of finance will gladly make their lavish contribution to the Global Green New Deal if the International Monetary Fund and World Bank “derisk” the loans by absorbing losses and “there is a carbon price that gives clean energy a competitive advantage.”
(If you want more sense of what he’s talking about when it comes to derisking, here’s an interview I did with US climate envoy John Kerry on the subject this week for the New Yorker.)
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