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All bad all the time

09 Mar 2022 | OP ED Watch

This just in: a fairly new paper in Environmental Research finds that fossil fuels are bad. Grant cheque please. Oh. You want more. OK. It concludes that “The effects of CO2-driven climate change on human health and welfare are complex, ranging from greater incidence of extreme weather events, more frequent storm-surge flooding, and increased risk of crop failure (Duffy et al., 2019).” Sure, whatever. Oh, there’s more. “One consequence of increasing reliance on fossil fuel as an energy source that has thus far received comparatively little attention is the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with the greenhouse gas CO2.” Particularly the so-called “fine particulate matter” or PM2.5, that is, particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less. Actually conventional air pollutants have received a lot of attention since the early 1970s which is why they have fallen so much. But rest assured, they’re bad too. “We estimate a global total of 10.2 (95% CI: −47.1 to 17.0) million premature deaths annually attributable to the fossil-fuel component of PM2.5”. Just in case there’s no climate emergency.

The claimed lethal effects of PM2.5 are actually a matter of considerable dispute. The United States Environmental Protection Agency infamously issued a ruling that there was no safe level of exposure to such particulates, which is obviously nonsense. (And then tested them on human beings anyway, which is worse.) The Canadian government says they are scary but you can’t get rid of them so quit smoking and use your stove fan. And of course it is true that, in a perfect world, you’d avoid getting fine dust in your lungs.

It can’t be good for you, but if what you want above all else is PM2.5-free air there are vast lands in the north where you can have as much as you like. But very few people choose to live there because they also want all the amenities of life created by the economic activity that generates, as a side-effect, some air pollution. A balanced approach would require that, even if you took an extreme position on the deadliness-of-PM2.5 issue, you also subtract the deaths and illnesses prevented because of the contribution of fossil fuels to keeping us warm and growing food especially since, as has been noted repeatedly, cold kills far more people than heat including in places you wouldn’t think of as being cold. It is precisely that weighing of competing factors that leads the vast majority of people around the world to cluster in cities even though cleaner air is only a few miles away.

It would also be rational to note that as nations advance economically, they are better able to take measures to control the byproducts and side effects of beneficial activities. Tritely, the stinging, choking smogs that once blanketed Western cities, most famously London and Los Angeles, are long gone, whereas in China the facemask isn’t just about COVID. But if someone is burning a fuel that is potentially quite clean, and not taking appropriate measures to clean the exhaust, it’s not really the fuel that’s to blame.

Unless of course you wanted it to be.

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