Smokestacks blech pollutants into the air
Smokestacks belch pollutants into the air (image courtesy: Unsplash)

Ringing the alarm bell on fossil fuels

According to the United Nations, fossil fuels (primarily coal, oil, and natural gas) are the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions. Climate change and humankind are increasingly interdependent; one affects the other. Human activity since the early 1800s has at least in part contributed to the current state of our climate. Strong evidence now substantiates the claim that climate–driven by fossil fuels, in particular, impacts our health and well-being in both overt and subtle ways. This dynamic was evocatively captured in a quote taken from the version of a famous 1854 speech by Chief Seattle, the chief of the Suquamish Indians:

“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” 

The Science is Clear

Accumulated data and scientific analysis demonstrate that the use of fossil fuels has resulted in hotter temperatures, more severe storms, increased drought, a warming and rising ocean, extinction of species, poverty, displacement, and increased health risk. This is indisputable, if you believe in the underlying science. Arguably, climate change is now the single biggest health threat facing humanity. In an impassioned speech to the UN Climate Ambition Summit in September 2023, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom said, “This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis. This climate crisis persists. It’s not complicated. It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil. It’s the burning of gas. It’s the burning of coal. And we need to call that out.” Fossil fuels are impacting the health and well-being of every human on this planet in very clear and somewhat more subtle ways.

How fossil fuels affect our health

One obvious danger to our health is the increased pollution of the air we breathe caused by our use of fossil fuels for energy – electric power generation, transportation, cooking, heating, and other activities. Burning fossil fuels releases hundreds of toxic pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM), black carbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), mercury, lead, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide into the air we breathe.

The fine particulate matter, smaller than 2.5 microns – 30 times smaller than a human hair – lodge deep in our lungs and even get into our blood stream. The World Health Organization (WHO)  reported in 2018 that “9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, and an estimated 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia.” 90% of these deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. 

Air pollution impact & climate change

Air pollution due to burning fossil fuels was responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide in 2018 and has likely increased in the past five years. These air-pollution-related health conditions lead to increased absenteeism in schools and at work. Toxic chemicals in the air are dangerous; inhaled pollutants have also been linked to developmental delays, reduced IQ, cognitive deficits, and autism spectrum disorder in children, and to higher rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in adults.

Fossil fuels affect health and well-being in large areas of the world in other indirect ways, such as diminishing food security, increasing lack of clean drinking water and secure shelter, and higher risks of infectious disease outbreaks, extreme heat, drought, and floods. Large population groups are already being driven to flee, migrating away from their homes to escape danger, calamity, and death. WHO estimates an additional 250,000 deaths annually between 2030 and 2050 due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.

Fossil-fuel-driven climate change also undermines social determinants for good health. In many communities, people are finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living and access health care and social support.  The most vulnerable – marginalized communities, low-income families, the displaced, older people, women and children, and those already coping with underlying health issues – are disproportionately affected.

What can we do?

First, we can reduce our personal fossil-fuel footprints. To the extent we are able to, we should switch to renewable-energy solutions for our electric power and transportation and switch from gas to electric stoves for cooking. Let’s walk or use public transportation where feasible. We know that what we eat affects our health; but have you considered that how the food you eat is produced affects the environment?  We can take action by following a plant-based diet, consuming foods that generally use less energy, land, and water, and have lower greenhouse-gas emissions than animal-based foods. It’s also better for our health!

At a societal level, we could encourage community health solutions such as the Climate Health Equity for Community Clinics Program, and the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative. We could support and promote the global movement for environmentally responsible health care.

Are you looking for more ideas?  Check out these suggestions: 25+ Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint, How to Act on Climate Change, and Act for Our Common Future.

This is not someone else’s problem; it’s our problem – yours and mine!  As Aaron Bernstein, the co-director of Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment puts it, “Climate action is one of our greatest opportunities to improve health and equity.” 

Let’s leave a better world for our grandchildren!

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...