Climate Change: A crime against humanity (11/02)

The year 2001 was the second warmest on record, the ten warmest years having occurred since the late 1980s. The first six months of 2002 indicate that it may be hotter than 2001. In the face of this evidence of global warming, leaders of many developed countries have either argued against any reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions — the chief cause of human-induced warming, or for reductions that are relatively small and not very useful. Although the US is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, President Bush rejected intervention to reduce emissions because it would "harm the US economy."

The conflict over curbing emissions from fossil fuel combustion, the major source of greenhouse gases, then reduces to scientists’ claims of major climate change sometime in the future versus traditional economists’ claims of immediate economic damage. But defining the issue this way stacks the deck. The bias is removed by examining the hidden assumptions underpinning the prevailing economic model, which fails to adequately measure the social costs. When the cost-analysis is done honestly, a completely different picture emerges.

A growing number of investigations demonstrate that those social costs are enormous, and are imposed not in the future, but right now. In a groundbreaking investigation published last year, an international team of respected health scientists reviewed more than 1,000 studies and concluded 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 avoidable deaths annually, as well as much larger numbers of acute and chronic illnesses and millions of person-days of restricted activity and work loss.

Since this landmark investigation, other researchers have reported study after study confirming adverse health effects from fossil fuel combustion. One of the largest followed some 500,000 adults in more than 100 cities across the US for 16 years. These investigators found that combustion-related fine particles from cars, trucks, and coal-fired power plants and factories increased the risk of dying from lung cancer, heart attack, and respiratory failure. The death rate increases in proportion to the density of the particles. Another study, focusing specifically on Los Angeles County, estimated 3500 deaths each year from fine particles, which also trigger over 200,000 asthma attacks and cost the county’s economy nearly two million days lost to sickness. There’s even been a preliminary report linking air pollution across the country to diabetes.

While no doubt economists could put a "price" on some of this damage to health, it’s impossible to place a number on much of it. What’s the cost of years of avoidable severe asthma, not to mention premature death? By any reasonable measure, the burden to human health is so immense — and the immediate benefit of reducing the burning of fossil fuels is so great — that, even without considering global warming, a strong case can be made for reducing fossil fuel combustion. (In the interest of fairness, I should note that, given the separation in the US between economic growth and human well being, damaged health actually raises the GDP by increasing expenses for medical care.)     

The health burden of fossil fuels, whether easily calculated or not, may be the largest immediate cost omitted from the balance sheet. But other substantial expenses are ignored as well. Policing the Persian Gulf alone to protect "our" oil costs $30 to $60 billion a year, yet it, too, doesn’t appear in the price of oil. In Perverse Subsidies, authors Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent estimate that the US subsidizes fossil fuels and nuclear power to the tune of $21 billion a year.

As the evidence keeps growing that fossil fuel combustion exacts an enormous toll, President Bush pursues his version of protecting the economy. Early this year he released his Clean Skies initiative, which would actually allow a sharp increase in pollutants for the next several years. More recently, the administration proposed easing the rules curbing air pollution from power plants, a proposal described by Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont as "a victory for outdated polluting power plants and a devastating defeat for public health."

Suppressing Solutions

The tragic cost of fossil fuels makes the case for an immediate change in energy policy along precisely the lines — although for separate reasons — advocated by those concerned about global warming; that is, higher energy-efficiency and rapidly increasing use of relatively nonpolluting renewable energy. Rejection of such measures by the oil-centered Bush Administration continues more than 20 years of failure to develop an energy plan that meets real human needs. It’s not that a program for energy with a human face is so difficult to work out; it has been worked out many times, only to be suppressed or ignored.

In 1979, the US Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) was directed to investigate the possibility of saving energy through the end of the century by applying available efficiency and alternative energy technologies. The investigation showed that it’s possible to construct a program achieving a full-employment economy, while reducing consumption of energy by nearly 25 percent, with 20 to 30 percent of this reduced demand met by renewable resources. Instead of leaping at the opportunity, the newly installed Reagan Administration gutted efficiency and renewable energy efforts at SERI, and shifted back to conventional energy policy.

Nearly a decade later an exceptional team of international energy analysts developed a plan aimed at achieving a "sustainable world." By this they meant a world in which the entire population enjoyed the material well being taken for granted in developed nations, while preserving a sound environment. The resulting blueprint achieved these goals using established technology, with less than a 10 percent increase in global use of fuels and electricity above 1980 levels. One commentator described this program as possibly "the most important single contribution thus far to the global energy debate." The strategy and goals were widely praised, then ignored in favor of business as usual by those who make energy policy.

Two years ago an expanded version of the "sustainable world" team completed another far-reaching investigation, demonstrating that a change in energy systems can transform impending instability into a sustainable future. Initiated by UN agencies and the World Energy Council, this solution is meeting the same fate in the US as its predecessor. And just before the Bush Administration took office, scientists from five US national laboratories completed studies showing that aggressive steps to encourage energy efficiency could reduce the number of new power plants required under the Bush-Cheney energy plan by hundreds. Not surprisingly, as reporter Joseph Kahn disclosed inThe New York Times, the administration "has not publicized these findings." 

Many opportunities to begin creating a new energy path geared to human needs have been suppressed by the greed of powerful vested interests. In light of the enormous damage done to human health by half a century of the current energy path, that suppression can now be properly described as a crime against many people throughout the world.      

Albert Huebner teaches at California State University, Northridge.