Fossil Fuel and the Breadth of Human Mortality 

Mill, West Linn, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

After reading a recent update on the consequences of firing up the fossil fuels, and thus turning the atmosphere into a furnace, a longtime correspondent told me, “I look at my grandchild, age 5, and think about her early death.”

The rest of the story is that grandparents are also getting their lives cut short by heat following on the heels of fossil fuel combustion. Already, new extremes of heat are cutting short the lives of old and young alike.

A first takeaway is that it’s time to give up the pretense that it’s only the young under sentence of death

Given the possibility that we will persist in our dependency on fossil fuels, the risk of lives being cut short will persist into the future. The question is how many will have to die.

Authors of an August 2023 article in the journal Energies point out that “several studies” indicate the existence of a “thousand-ton rule.” To the extent this rule holds true, we kill one person with every next ton of CO2 released with our combustion of fossil fuels.

The authors see the killing as “comparable with involuntary or negligent manslaughter.”

This scenario adds interest to an earlier study in the February 2019 issue of Nature Climate Change. That team found that “a typical super-rich household of two people produces a carbon footprint of 129.3 tons CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses per year.”

They add, “Calculating the emissions from 0.54% of the wealthiest of the global population, according to our estimates, results in cumulative emissions equal to 3.9 billion tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses per year.”

The discussions haven’t ended there. In its Dec. 20, 2023, issue, The Economist published an article titled, “What responsibility do individuals have to stop climate change?”

One paragraph opened by asking, “How, then, should we think about responsibility for global warming?“ The paragraph closed asking if rich Western consumers are thus conniving in murder.

The risk to life of course extends well beyond humans. In a Nov. 27, 2023, Global Change Biology article, “Reporting the biodiversity impacts of greenhouse gas emissions,” the authors focus on species committed to extinction per ton of CO2 equivalent gasses we dump to the skies.

Extinction is a worst-case scenario, but even a scenario that falls short of a worst-case can still be racked with danger and misery.

A continued permissiveness about fossil fuels will force us and others in that direction, in a worsening that will become more miserable and more dangerous for lives and life.

We already have a simple and straightforward measure of this worsening. Start with how we’ve turned up the heat since 1850. Today, we’re pretty close to 1.5C hotter than we were back then.

Looking ahead, we’re on a path to 1.6C, 1.7C, 1.8C , 1.9C, 2C and beyond, through a self-imposed course of increasing misery and danger brought on by our own combustion of coal, oil, and methane gas. The evidence is as good as it gets.

In the meantime, the science of natural climate change is also as good as it gets. The release of ocean heat during an El Nino is likely the most widely known example of a natural cycle in climate. Volcanic eruptions have also forced changes in climate, and remain capable of doing it again. All in all, the climate has changed even long before people existed, and extinctions were part of it even then.

This leaves us reckoning with two kinds of climate change instead of just one. They don’t have to kill anywhere near all of us to shake things up.