€70 Billion A Year In EU Health Damage Caused By Vehicle Emissions — reminded me of the following article, which is a piece I wrote in 2016 to try to more directly communicate the issue to people. Initially, the title was “This Stealth Terrorist Killed ~53,000 Americans Last Year.”
Humans are interesting. We often don’t do long-term planning all that well, and that includes planning for a year out, for 5 years out, and for our eventual time of death.
We are frightened like little kittens about things that might affect us immediately — bees, unfriendly dogs, a fast-approaching car, etc. We are frightened of extremely unlikely but direct harms — being in a plane crash, being attacked by terrorists, being mugged on a dark street. But we largely ignore real threats that are much more likely to cause us harm — like air pollution from our cars and our neighbors’ cars.
A World Health Organization (WHO) study a few years ago found that there are 7 million premature deaths a year from outdoor air pollution. There are many, many more people who don’t die young from such pollution but who do suffer in one way or another from it. In dollar terms (pretending that we can quantify these things), “air pollution from road transport costs OECD countries approximately $1 trillion a year in negative health effects (cancer, premature death, asthma, heart attacks, etc.).”
In the USA, an MIT study found that there are 200,000 premature deaths a year coming from air pollution. Road transportation accounts for 53,000 of those new additions to the graveyard and crematorium. Electricity generation from coal and natural gas power plants accounted for 52,000 a year.
→ Related: Economic Benefits Of Electric Vehicles
Due in part to all of the driving that takes place in California and its large population, the total number of premature deaths a year in the Golden State was estimated to be 21,000, “mostly attributed to road transportation and to commercial and residential emissions from heating and cooking.”
These are real deaths. These are real people. Yet we treat them like abstract numbers, strangers we’ll never know or become. Few people decide this is enough to make them take action, to make them change things in their lives. If terrorists rolled in from Uzbekistan and murdered 53,000 Americans a year, the population would be up in arms. There would be nonstop outcry and media coverage. Donald Trump, Republicans, Democrats, and Rastafarians would be plowing forward with grand plans to quickly and strongly defeat the terrorists.
If another 52,000 Americans a year were being murdered by another group of terrorists — the “PPP Clan of South Africa*,” for example — the country would be in a state of insane turmoil, angst, imbalance, and war.
Alas, it’s just us. We’re the only ones killing ourselves. No terrorists or gang members. Just the continuous hunt of 105,000+ Americans a year from our decisions to burn stuff. If you’re not living in the United States, the story isn’t much different — find the stats for your country. These attacks dwarf anything any other humans are directly doing to the population.
Yes, once upon a time, imagining alternatives to pollution was challenging. Today? You have to be mighty picky to ignore, oppose, and reject cleantech offerings. There are transportation options for a wide variety of classes, driving needs, styling preferences, brand allegiances, etc. There are good rooftop solar options in many markets, community solar systems if rooftop doesn’t work, green energy procurement options from utilities, and even a nationwide renewable energy option from Arcadia Power.
But people decide they are more or less fine with the pollution coming out of their tailpipes. They are okay with their electricity sources, even though they probably don’t even know what those are. Heating with natural gas? Well, that’s just they way things go.
If terrorists were killing 53,000 Americans a year and we had easy solutions to stop that, you know we would. It would be a different world in
2018 2020. Unfortunately, these are stealth terrorists, and the country is sleeping like Rip van Winkle.
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→ Related: Investigating The Air Pollution Crisis (State of Pollution Series) and our State of Pollution series.
*Power Plant Polluters Clan
A version of this article was originally published in 2017 on CleanTechnica.