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The cost of fossil fuels.

In his article "An Economy for the Earth" in the May/June 2002 issue of the Humanist, Lester Brown makes the important point that a "deteriorating environment will eventually hurt the economy," stressing the need for an environmentally sustainable economy. He's correct that the need is great, yet his use of eventually underscores a fundamental. problem. So long as the argument for transforming society away from fossil fuels is based on concerns over future climate change instead of on warnings of immediate damage to the economy, there will be little action taken.

It's indisputable that signs of global climate change are everywhere, but President George W. Bush rejects any serious attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it would "harm the U.S. economy," which has clearly been the stronger argument with the public. One piece of evidence that supports this is the energy bill that Congress let die in November 2002. Neither the administration nor Congress made an earnest attempt to begin weaning the United States away from the burning of fossil fuel; the new Congress will lean even more toward a fossil-fuel based energy economy. Another fact is that even before the Sustainable Development Summit formally began in September 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa, the United States was leading the way in rejecting the consideration of energy and the environment. The Bush administration wasted an opportunity to contemplate the use of benign and sustainable energy, dealing a major blow to the purpose of the summit. Energy analysts stressed that sustainable development isn't possible without sustainable energy.

Casting the issue as "future climate change" versus "immediate economic damage" guarantees the victory of the latter position. However, by examining the hidden assumptions that underpin the prevailing economic model, it becomes possible to see that these positions fail to adequately include the social and individual costs of burning fossil fuels. These hidden assumptions have to be revealed because a completely different picture emerges when the cost-analysis is done scientifically and humanely.

A large and growing number of investigations demonstrate that the costs of burning fossil fuels are enormous and are imposed not in the future but right now. One groundbreaking international study was the subject of two important articles: "Hidden Health Benefits of Greenhouse Gas Mitigation" published in Science, volume 293, in August 2001, and "Assessing the Health Benefits of Urban Air Pollution Reductions Associated with Climate Change Mitigation (2000-2020)" published in Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 109, in June 2001. This international team of leading health scientists--after reviewing more than 1,000 studies--concludes 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 deaths annually as well as many more cases of acute and chronic illnesses, restricting the activity of millions of people a day and resulting in loss of work.

The research team investigated the potential local health benefits from reducing air pollution in four cities--Mexico City, Mexico; Santiago, Chile; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and New York City--for which a broad range of data was available to provide a more robust assessment. (It's noteworthy that in response to their severe air pollution, Mexico City and Sao Paulo have restricted people from using their personal vehicles on certain days of the week based on the last digit of their license plates.) The scientists estimate that the adoption of readily available technologies to lessen fossil fuel emissions--applied over the next two decades in these four cities alone--would avoid approximately 64,000 premature deaths, 65,000 chronic bronchitis cases, and 37 million days of work loss or other restricted activity. The team believes that their results underestimate the problem. For example, they don't include synergistic effects between various air pollutants, known synergies between air pollutants and allergens, and effects tied to cancer and other diseases.

In addition to this study conducted on a global scale and in four specific cities, there have been several national assessments. A study published in the prestigious British journal Lancet and cited in Earth Policy News on September 17, 2002, concluded that air pollution in Austria, France, and Switzerland is responsible for more than 40,000 deaths annually in those three countries. About half of the deaths could be traced to pollution from vehicle emissions, while some of the rest are attributed to power plants and other sources of combustion.

A number of studies in the United States dating back to the 1980s indicate that more deaths from heart and lung disease occur on days with high concentrations of small particles in the air from combustion; however some scientists question the reliability of the results. Leading investigators of these fine-particle effects launched a comprehensive study published in the March 6, 2002, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study monitored about 500,000 adults in more than 100 cities across the United States for sixteen years. The results of this report state: combustion-related small particles from cars, trucks, and coal-fired power plants and factories increase the risk of individuals dying from lung cancer, heart attack, and respiratory failure; and the death rate increases in proportion to the density of particles. A study published in the Daily News on March 6, 2002, focusing specifically in Los Angeles County in California, estimates that 3,500 deaths each year relate to the inhalation of fine particles, which also trigger over 200,000 asthma attacks annually in the county and deprive its economy of nearly two million work days lost to sickness.

What's the cost of all this sickness and death? Economists have made some attempts to put an approximate price on air pollution, although not all pollution is caused by fossil fuels. For example, according to the World Bank, cited in the September 17, 2002, Earth Policy News release, the social costs of dust and lead in Bangkok, Thailand; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Manila, Phillipines were almost 10 percent of the average income in the early 1990s. And in the more highly developed Canadian province of Ontario, air pollution costs were at least $1 billion annually for hospital admissions, emergency room visits, and worker absenteeism. But what exactly is the cost of years of avoidable severe asthma, much less premature death? By any reasonable measure, the burden to human health is so immense, and the immediate benefit of reduction in burning fossil fuels so great, that it's easy to make a compelling argument for decreasing their use, without even considering global warming.

The health damage that results from the combustion of fossil fuels is surely the greatest cost omitted from honest accounting; however other large expenses are ignored as well. Among the most dramatic, if not the most costly in cold cash, are the huge oil spills that periodically grab the headlines. In November 2002 the Liberian-owned, Russian chartered tanker Prestige sank off the northwest coast of Spain, spilling about 5,000 tons of thick fuel oil as it broke up, which added to another 5,000 tons leaked earlier. It will take months before more than 1,000 local fishers in this highly productive fishery and tens of thousands of related laborers get back to work. Shellfish harvesters will lose two or three years of production. The region--one of the biologically richest--harbors some species of fish and sea birds found nowhere else. But after a huge spill in 1992 and another when the Greek-managed tanker Erika, sailing under a Bahamas flag, broke up in 1999, the region was dubbed "the Coast of Death."

There's no easy way to put a price on the Prestige disaster: the loss to fishing industry workers, the cost of Spanish soldiers and sailors who cleaned up the coastline and tar-soaked fauna, the price of emergency crews that laid miles of floating barriers, and certainly the "value" of birds and fish killed and beaches ruined. Ironically the most accurate cost estimate is probably that of the lost fuel itself, valued at $10 million. What is certain is that soon another ship of the 10,000-strong oil shipping fleet--half of them especially dangerous single-hull tankers like the Prestige and the Erika--will trigger a new disaster. (It's revealing that even if the Prestige eventually releases all the rest of its 77,000 tons of fuel oil, it would still rank only fourteenth among major tanker spills.)

Far more costly than these losses from accidental spills are the expenditures, made consciously, to feed the fossil-fuel addiction. According to D. Losman's article "Economic Security: A National Security Folly?" published by the Cato Institute on August 1, 2001, the United States spends $30 billion to $60 billion a year and deploys thousands of military personnel in securing Persian Gulf oil. This is much more than we directly pay for the oil, yet the price doesn't appear at the pump. More generally a 1999 study by the International Center for Technology Assessment, which assimilated much of these hidden costs, concluded that a taxpayer in the United States pays $15.14 for a gallon of gas whether or not that taxpayer uses gas.

The administration's response to this staggering toll--human and financial--of fossil fuel combustion is beyond comprehension. Early in 2002 Bush released his Clear Skies initiative which, despite some benefits in the remote future, would actually allow a substantial increase in pollutants in the short term. According to a February 18, 2002, Los Angeles Times editorial, "The plan could let emissions levels in 2020 be 43 percent higher than 1990 levels." Shortly thereafter the Environmental Protection Agency's chief enforcement officer, Eric Schaeffer, garnered national attention when he resigned after twelve years of service, protesting that the administration was intent on weakening air pollution controls. In mid-2002 the administration took another step in the same direction, proposing to relax rules that require industries to strengthen pollution controls when they expand old, dirty power plants. Senator Jim Jeffords (Democrat; Vermont) described this proposal as "a victory for outdated polluting power plants and a devastating defeat for public health."

The enormous and tragic costs of fossil fuel combustion make a clear case for the United States immediately changing its energy policy along precisely the lines--although for quite different reasons--that have been advocated by environmentalists concerned about global warming: higher energy efficiency and a rapid increase in the use of renewable and relatively nonpolluting energy. The rejection of this transition by the Bush administration and by a majority of Congress, as confirmed by recent energy legislation efforts, continues more than twenty years of failure in implementing an energy policy that meets human needs. It's not that a program based on energy with a human face is so difficult to create, because it has been produced with greater refinement over the years; however, it has been ignored and suppressed.

In 1979 the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) investigated the possibilities for saving energy through the turn of the century by applying available, efficiency-improving methods and alternative technology and explored how to use this information to aid in the formation of federal energy policy. This comprehensive study showed that it was possible to construct a program that achieved a full-employment economy while reducing national consumption of energy by nearly 25 percent (with 20 to 30 percent of this reduced demand supplied by renewable sources). However, by then President Ronald Reagan was in office and intent on shifting policy away from efficiency and renewables back to conventional fuels.

At later congressional hearings the two principal authors of the SERI study testified that they were subjected to maneuvers designed to keep the study from being published. They encountered protracted in-house reviews by the Department of Energy, direct instructions to withhold information from the public, and threats to their jobs if these instructions weren't followed. Consistent with the shift back, the director of SERI was asked to leave while transfers, extensive layoffs, and sharp reductions in SERFs budgets gutted efficiency and renewable energy programs.

About a decade later in 1988 a team of expert energy analysts from varied regions investigated the formulation of an energy policy that could lead to a "sustainable world." By this the investigators meant a world in which the entire population enjoyed the material well-being taken for granted in the industrial nations. They sought an energy system that would minimize environmental degradation and reduce tensions between nations. Not surprisingly, the energy scenario reached these goals (as did the SERI study) by resting on available efficiency-improving technologies and expanding the use of renewables. The blueprint that resulted from this study achieved these goals with less than a 10 percent increase in global use of fuels and electricity above 1980 levels. One commentator described this investigation as possibly "the most important single contribution thus far to the global energy debate." The strategy and its goals were widely praised, then ignored in favor of business--and energy use--as usual.

In 2001 an expanded version of the "sustainable world" team released a report entitled World Energy Assessment that has been characterized as the "most comprehensive and far-reaching single volume on energy policy ever published." This assessment, initiated jointly by the United Nations Development Programme, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and the World Energy Council, was incorporated into the 2002 Sustainable Development Summit. Although the investigators acknowledged that overcoming the economic and political problems will take time--which they warn is running out--they demonstrated that a change in energy systems can transform the disastrous failure of current development policy and its impending instability into a safer future. When the powerful nations that dominated the agenda of the summit ruled out consideration of energy, they squandered time that most people in the world don't have and condemned many of those people to disease and premature death.

Back in the United States the suppression of information about a more benign energy path continues. Just before Bush took office, scientists from five of the national laboratories completed studies that could have had immediate applicability. These analysts showed that aggressive steps to promote energy efficiency could reduce hundreds of new power plants required under the administration's energy plan. Not surprisingly, as reporter Joseph Kahn disclosed in the New York Times, the administration "has not publicized these findings."

The fossil-fuel-based energy path that the industrial nations have trod for so long isn't the boon that its advocates--especially in the United States--currently claim. Even in purely financial terms, its cost to the economy outweighs its benefit when a full accounting is performed. Worse yet, in light of what we now know, the disease and death it causes can--without exaggeration--be called criminal.

Staying on the present path means that we'll continue the devastating impact on health while accepting the growing environmental disaster of a kind unprecedented in human history. There's a grim synergy here: global warming will increase disease. "It's not only going to be a warmer world, it's going to be a sicker world," says Andrew Dobson, an epidemiologist at Princeton University and coauthor of a recent study from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. An acceptable new path requires a humanistic energy program informed by science rather than greed, which serves human needs nationally and internationally. The comprehensive program worked out by the "sustainable world" team, for example, is directed precisely at meeting those objectives.

It is regrettable that the team's original analysis back in the late 1980s--completed before the full extent of the harm done by fossil fuels became known--was ignored. It is tragic that the later analysis--released when the damage was widely known and when the failure of development in poor countries had reached extreme crisis--was never even considered at the Johannesburg summit. With that opportunity lost, it is all the more important to expose the grave failures of the old energy path and to make the case for a transition to energy that embraces humanity.

Albert L. Huebner has taught physics for more than twenty years at California State University at Northridge and was appointed contributing writer for Toward Freedom in 1995.
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Author:Huebner, Albert L.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Words:2662
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