The air pollution produced by fossil fuels kills almost as many people globally each year as tobacco use—a fact that jurisdictions ramping up their fight against climate change should share widely with both public health officials and the public as a whole, write policy experts Lourdes Sanchez and Nina Renshaw.
Tobacco packaging the world over now carries a clear warning that the commodity within is a killer, responsible for the deaths of “as many as eight million people a year around the globe,” Sanchez and Renshaw write for Stat, the Boston Globe’s health news website. Another seven million die each year from the cardiovascular diseases and cancers caused by breathing in the toxic pollutants produced when fossil fuels are burned.
However, citing a review they recently conducted for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Sanchez and Renshaw observe that while the “widespread public discussion about the effects of fossil fuel combustion and emissions on climate change” is unsurprising and entirely appropriate, “the dearth of talk about the health effects of burning fossil fuels doesn’t make sense.”
Even the Paris climate agreement, they add, “never once mentions fossil fuels; instead, it focuses on greenhouse emissions without naming their root causes.”
While “information about the hazardous health effects of air pollution from fossil fuels has not been widely disseminated to the public, and normally isn’t high on public health agendas,” the World Health Organization last year “recognized air pollution as a major health risk factor, alongside tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity,” the two authors note. That finding coincides with “the urgent need to step up the pace” on climate action, with health information and awareness as one of the drivers.
Although “the battle against tobacco use is far from over,” they write, “mindsets have changed,” so that “many of us can’t imagine going back to the days of smoky restaurants, offices, and airplanes.” That public health success points to the opportunity to accelerate climate action by taking a page from the anti-tobacco playbook and “raising awareness of the negative health effects, both locally and globally, of the combustion of fossil fuels.”