Discover more from The Crucial Years
Fossil Fuel Kills, Asians in particular
New data that shocked even me
When we talk about “humanity,” we are, statistically, mostly talking about Asia—just under 60% of our sisters and brothers live there. But they don’t live anywhere near as long as they should.
New data last week from University of Chicago researchers showed that across South Asia, air pollution—mostly from burning fossil fuels—is robbing people of five years of life on average. Five years! If you live in Delhi, the most polluted big city on the planet, that number is an unimaginable 11.9 years. If you would have lived to 70, you died at 58. Thank about that. Across the region, “particulate pollution levels are currently more than 50 percent higher than at the start of the century and now overshadow” other health risks. Every breath that people take is killing them, every hour of every day.
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But those other health risks are also rising fast, spurred on by the climate disasters that also come with burning fossil fuel. A remarkable report in today’s Washington Post (which has been doing a lot of remarkable climate coverage lately) was headlined Climate-linked ills threaten humanity, and for a while was the lead story in the paper. It looked at Pakistan, home to last year’s record-breaking flood and a series of devastating heatwaves, and found almost unimaginable levels of misery. Here’s the big picture:
Pakistan is the epicenter of a new global wave of disease and death linked to climate change, according to a Washington Post analysis of climate data, leading scientific studies, interviews with experts and reporting from some of the places bearing the brunt of Earth’s heating. This examination of climate-fueled illnesses — tied to hotter temperatures, and swifter passage of pathogens and toxins — shows how countries across the globe are ill-prepared for the insidious, intensifying risks to almost every facet of human health.
And here’s what it looks like on the ground:
On a recent 109-degree day, babies wailed and adults vomited into buckets in the crowded heat stroke ward of Syed Abdullah Shah Institute of Medical Sciences, a 350-bed government medical center in central Sindh. With just seven beds for heat stroke victims, patients’ parents and relatives crowded together on the mattresses. Nurses in green scrubs attached bags of intravenous hydration fluids to the arms of even the tiniest patients as fans whirled and two air conditioners dripped and chugged.
The number of heat stroke patients coming to the hospital in summer has increased around 20 percent a year in the last five years, according to M. Moinuddin Siddiqui, the hospital’s medical director, at a time when Pakistan experienced three of its five hottest years on record.
So, bottom line: when you burn fossil fuel you produce particulates which lodge in lungs and kill you (one death in five on the planet comes from breathing the byproducts of fossil fuel combustion), and when you burn fossil fuel you produce carbon, which lodges in the atmosphere, driving heatwaves and floods that kill you.
If fossil fuel was the only way we had to power our lives, I suppose you could tot up its advantages and decide that, on balance, it was still worth burning. Or not. But fossil fuel is not the only way we have to power our lives. India has 300 clear and sunny days a year on average, enough to produce 5,000 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year. Which is, um, more than they need—solar farms on a small percentage of “low-conflcit wastelands” in the country could provide four times its power requirements. According to a recent World Bank study, utilizing just 0.071 percent of Pakistan'’s area for solar PV would meet the country’s current electricity demand. No, none of this comes for free—you have to mine lithium and cobalt. But the damage from those activities doesn’t begin to compare in scale to the toll that fossil fuel is exacting every hour from billions of human bodies.
By any measurable moral calculation, focusing the planet’s efforts and finances on rapidly converting Asia (and Africa and South America) to renewable energy would provide the largest imaginable payoff, both in the short-term and the long, and for both the people who live there, and for the smallish percentage of humans who don’t. But that would mean standing up to the fossil fuel industry—including in America, where that industry is eager to export more, not less, fossil fuel to Asia.
Carbon dioxide molecules are invisible, and particulates are too small to be seen with the naked eye. But they will break our bodies, and our civilizations, unless we break the power of the fossil fuel industry. That is the choice.
America set us on the hydrocarbon path. Asia, with help from the whole world, could be the place that got us off.
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In other energy and climate news:
+It’s not just Asia, of course. The Washington Post also has a crackerjack piece of data reporting on how the ever-higher temperatures are affecting life in the Mediterranean.
“The number of days of high or extreme fire danger in southern Europe is already at levels we thought we wouldn’t see until 2050,” said Jesus San Miguel, a senior researcher at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. “Because of climate change, we are going much faster than we thought.”
Wildfires — some record size — have been turning virgin forests into preternatural moonscapes and trigging mass evacuations of developed areas. Fires are threatening cultural heritage, too, in a part of the world known as much for the ruins of ancient civilization as the joys of the modern vacation.
+Native Hawaiian Keolu Fox has an essay in Science magazine insisting that the horrible fires in Lahaina, Maui could be the springboard for reimagining the politics and economy of the islands
About 70% of Hawai‘i’s economy has come to rely on mass tourism. Restructuring this industry alone will require a strong vision. Visiting Hawai‘i should be an experience that deepens one’s understanding of the delicate balance of island ecosystems and the role people play in safeguarding them. An ecotourism approach directed at educating visitors about conservation and the natural environment of the islands would help build respect for nature and its vulnerabilities. This kind of tourism can be seen in highly threatened locales, including Bhutan and the Galápagos.
+Joshua Partlow has a fine account of this summer’s flooding in Juneau; it centers on the way that glacial melt can accumulate in lakes, which eventually—and catastrophically—overflow. These kinds of tragedies are happening in glacial areas around the world, but having one in the middle of the capital of an American state focused attention:
Some 15 million people worldwide live under the threat of sudden flooding from glaciers, according to a study published this year in the journal Nature Communications. As the climate warms, glaciers everywhere are retreating and meltwater lakes have grown in size and number, intensifying this threat.
Since the Mendenhall Glacier began shrinking in the mid-1700s, it has retreated more than three miles, including some 800 feet between August 2021 and August 2022. The rate of retreat depends on various factors, but scientists say the rapid loss is due in part to human-caused global warming in recent decades.
+The state of California officially endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty, good news for the ongoing effort. Here’s how Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, responded:
"This decision of the State of California is a commitment to take down the single biggest contributor to the climate crisis: the fossil fuel industry. California joins the millions of voices across Turtle Island and Mother Earth calling on Biden to follow in the footsteps of our Pacific Island brothers and sisters from the small Island states and negotiate a mandate for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. As the state with the highest population of Indigenous Peoples in the country, it is important to pass legislation that would put a halt to the devastation and destruction of the compounding effects of climate change caused by fossil fuels."
Meanwhile in California, as Grist points out, a single legislator has managed to hold up fossil fuel divestment plans for the world’s fifth largest economy for another year. (An oil and gas PAC spent more than a hundred thousand dollars on her last campaign…)_
+ The ongoing fight to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline—the object of Joe Manchin’s extortion earlier this year—may hinge in part on how much the pipe itself has deteriorated, according to Bill Kitchen.
+America was blessed with huge amounts of groundwater—and like many of our blessings, we’ve decided to use it up fast. Here’s a canny account from the Times.
Groundwater loss is hurting breadbasket states like Kansas, where the major aquifer beneath 2.6 million acres of land can no longer support industrial-scale agriculture. Corn yields have plummeted. If that decline were to spread, it could threaten America’s status as a food superpower.
Fifteen hundred miles to the east, in New York State, overpumping is threatening drinking-water wells on Long Island, birthplace of the modern American suburb and home to working class towns as well as the Hamptons and their beachfront mansions.
Around Phoenix, one of America’s fastest growing cities, the crisis is severe enough that the state has said there’s not enough groundwater in parts of the county to build new houses that rely on aquifers.
In other areas, including parts of Utah, California and Texas, so much water is being pumped up that it is causing roads to buckle, foundations to crack and fissures to open in the earth. And around the country, rivers that relied on groundwater have become streams or trickles or memories.
“There is no way to get that back,” Don Cline, the associate director for water resources at the United States Geological Survey, said of disappearing groundwater. “There’s almost no way to convey how important it is.”
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