Harvard Study: Fossil Fuel Pollution Responsible for 1 in 5 Deaths Annually. Is It Fair To Say That ExxonMobil Has Murdered Millions Of People With Its Product’s Air Pollution?

A new study from Harvard that looks specifically at PM2.5 from fossil fuels, which found that in 2018, fossil fuel pollution caused more than 8 million early deaths — approximately one in five deaths that year.

For decades, polluters and their apologists have conducted a concerted campaign to discredit and destroy science they knew showed how burning fossil fuels is a public health threat. (There’s even a pithy hashtag!) Then, in the 1990s, when the EPA considered regulating second-hand smoke, the tobacco industry devised a plan to substantially restrict the science EPA could consider when evaluating the public health damage done by pollution — but their plan didn’t really gain significant traction within the federal government until the election of Donald Trump. 

Cue the 2016 election: Former tobacco lawyer turned fossil fuel defender Steve Milloy was on an EPA transition team, and laid out his long-smoldering plan to censor science showing that soot kills people. For example, the recently repealed science “transparency” rule (a.k.a. the secret science rule, a.k.a. censoring science) was designed to prohibit the EPA from basing regulations on the results of Havard’s Six Cities study, which showed the severe negative health impacts of PM2.5 pollution (super-fine soot from smoke) way back in the ’90s, kicking off decades of research and pushback from the industry.

Now there’s a new study from Harvard that looks specifically at PM2.5 from fossil fuels, which found that in 2018, fossil fuel pollution caused more than 8 million early deaths — approximately one in five deaths that year. And that’s actually after the number fell from 2012 levels, when the study suggests there were 10.2 million excess deaths from PM2.5 pollution emitted by burning fossil fuels. 

Milloy’s already tweeted about how this is fraud and to buy his book to learn more, but the odds are good that the organized denial machinery behind the now-defunct censoring science rule is going to spring into action and attempt to discredit this new study in a slightly more sophisticated way than Milloy’s flat-out denial. 

Because it’s not going to be long before people start to internalize the, quite frankly mind-blowing, fact that fossil fuel pollution was associated with 10 million deaths in a single year, and that there are not that many companies that sold those fossil fuels in the first place. 

In fact, the Carbon Majors report in 2017 found that 71% of fossil fuel pollution comes from just 100 companies, and more than half of the emissions since 1988 came from just 25 fossil fuel producers. ExxonMobil, for example, was the 5th biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015, responsible for 1.98% of total global emissions in that time period. 

That may not sound huge, but what’s 2% of 10 million? Obviously this is just a rough estimate, but 200,000 lives cut short by a single company’s product in a single year is pretty startling. 

So you can be pretty sure ExxonMobil is going to do everything in its formidable power to make sure people aren’t combining these notions and getting the crazy idea that the company’s pollution killed 200,000 people in 2012 alone. After all, if people felt that the company’s profits for that year ($44.9 billion in 2012, just shy of breaking its own world record for highest corporate profit) required the sacrifice of 200,000 lives, some people, especially folks who lost a loved one to a respiratory illness that year, might feel entitled to some sort of restitution for that loss. Not to mention the people who didn’t die but were still buried under a mountain of medical debt. Many people might start saying those things. 

Now, to be clear, the new Harvard study is about PM2.5 pollution, and the Carbon Majors report is about greenhouse gas emissions generally from fossil fuels, not PM2.5 specifically. But the Harvard study specifically distinguishes between other sources of PM2.5, and those from fossil fuels — that’s part of what makes it unique. 

Of course, it would probably take considerably more rigorous math than the calculator-app demonstration above to establish any of this with any real certainty or seriousness. And of course, we’re not alleging that ExxonMobil murders hundreds of thousands of people every year, and that its billions of dollars in profits have put millions of people into an early grave. And of course, we definitely can’t imagine a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit that drags hypothetical fossil fuel companies through years of discovery about what they knew or didn’t know about the impacts of their products.

Fossil Fuels Kill Nearly 9 Million Annually, More Than Twice Previous Estimate, Study Finds

The public health implications of the Paris Agreement: a modelling study
The Lancet Planetary Health
New research finds that adopting policies that are consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement – and also prioritise health – could save 6.4m lives due to better diet, 1.6m lives due to cleaner air and 2.1m lives due to increased exercise every year by 2040. The research considers nine countries that together contain 50% of the world’s population and produce 70% of its emissions. It then compares two future scenarios – both see countries adopt policies that are consistent with the Paris Agreement and sustainable development goals, but the second scenario also places health at the centre of policy decisions. The researchers find that all countries benefit the most from improvements in diet as a result of health-related policies.

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