The toll of pollution: How many lives vs. how much profit?

Frequently lost in the arguments over financial costs and benefits when it comes to pollution is the cost to human health. Not only illness and respiratory problems but premature death. To put it bluntly: How many human lives should we exchange for corporate profit?

Two new studies by the World Health Organization should force us to confront these issues head on. This is no small matter — the two WHO studies estimate that polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year.

Spent shale from a Shale oil extraction process (photo by U.S. Argonne National Laboratory)

Indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene all contribute to these 1.7 million annual deaths, accounting for more than one-quarter of all deaths of children age five or younger globally. A summary notes:

“[W]hen infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

One of the two reports, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, notes that most of humanity lives in environmentally stressed areas:

“92% of the global population, including billions of children, live in areas with ambient air pollution levels that exceed WHO limits. Over three billion people are exposed to household air pollution from the use of solid fuels. Air pollution causes approximately 600,000 deaths in children under five years annually and increases the risk for respiratory infections, asthma, adverse neonatal conditions and congenital anomalies. Air pollution accounts for over 50% of the overall disease burden of pneumonia which is among the leading causes of global child mortality. Growing evidence suggests that air pollution adversely affects cognitive development in children and early exposures might induce development of chronic disease in adulthood.” [page 3]

These types of calculations on health and mortality are absent from debates on environmental regulations. And not only is the human toll missing from cost/benefit analyses, but this pollution is actually subsidized.

Trump administration’s assault on the environment

These World Health Organization reports were published in the same month that the Trump administration mounted a full-scale assault on the U.S. environment. Not only has the Trump administration proposed draconian cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and signaled its intention to rescind air-pollution rules for motor vehicles scheduled to come into force between 2022 and 2025, it has issued an executive order requiring a “review [of] existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources.”

One of the targets of this order is the Clean Power Plan, which requires a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 2030, compared to 2005 emission rates. The standard, implemented by the Obama administration, was already seen as inadequate. The increased danger raised by President Donald Trump’s order was succinctly summed up by this headline on a Weather Underground article written by Jeff Masters: “Trump’s Executive Order Threatens to Wreck Earth as a Livable Planet for Humans.”

Threats don’t get much graver than that, do they?

Given the gigantic size of the United States economy and the pollution thrown into the atmosphere, this is of serious concern to the entire world. The World Resources Institute estimates that the U.S. accounts for almost 15 percent of Earth’s current greenhouse-gas emissions, second only to China’s 20 percent. Russia and the U.S. emit more than twice the global average on a per capita basis, as does Canada, which, due to its heavy reliance on fossil fuel extraction, has the world’s largest per-person greenhouse-gas footprint.

When greenhouse-gas emissions are calculated on a cumulative basis, then the responsibility of the global North comes into sharper focus: The United States has accounted for 27 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted since 1850, and the countries of the European Union contributed another 25 percent.

Carbon dioxide is the biggest single contributor to global warming — which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had sought to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant — but methane is also a significant contributor. The EPA in 2016 issued an order requiring that owners and operators of oil and gas facilities provide data needed to help it determine how to best reduce methane and other harmful emissions. But the Trump administration has withdrawn the order to provide data.

Not everything can be reversed at the stroke a pen, however. The larger attack on the Clean Power Plan will likely take years to carry out, Dr. Masters wrote:

“The Clean Power Plan will be difficult to undo quickly. The plan was finalized by EPA in 2015, and is currently being reviewed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Under the new executive order, the Department of Justice will ask the court to suspend the case until the EPA can review and write a new version of the rule. (Before that happens, the court may still rule on the Plan as written, which will influence how the EPA can rewrite the rule.) Once the case is removed from the court, the EPA will have to legally withdraw the existing rule and propose a new rule to take its place, a process that could take years, as the new rule will have to be justified in court, and would likely be challenged in court by environmental groups.”

Hundreds of thousands of lives in the balance

Nonetheless, a fightback is essential. Lives are literally at stake, in large numbers, if regulations safeguarding air quality are reversed. The EPA estimates that 160,000 premature deaths were prevented in 2010 by the Clean Air Act, and estimates that 230,000 lives will be saved and 120,000 emergency-room visits saved in 2020 if the act is left intact. The EPA said the benefits of the act “exceeds costs by a factor of more than 30 to one.” This study, at least for the moment, hasn’t been expunged from the Internet by the Trump administration.

A separate study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that air pollution causes 200,000 early deaths each year in the United States alone. The two biggest contributors to that death toll, the MIT report found, are emissions from road transportation and power generation, which together account for just more than half the total. One of the study’s authors, MIT professor Steven Barrett, said a person who dies from an air pollution-related cause typically dies about a decade earlier than he or she otherwise might have.

The Canadian government estimates that a 10 percent reduction in particulate-matter and ozone levels would result in a net social welfare benefit for Canadians of more than $4 billion. A separate study estimates that the cost to Canadian health care from air pollution will total $250 billion by 2031 without significant reductions.

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

This exercise can be repeated around the world. A 2015 World Health Organization study estimates that indoor and outdoor air pollution costs European economies as much as €1.2 trillion annually in deaths and diseases. This includes £54 billion and 29,000 deaths per year in Britain. For Australia, the cost from air pollution was estimated at $5.8 billion in 2010, a doubling in only five years.

Globally, air pollution could lead to nine million premature deaths and US$2.6 trillion in economic damage from the costs of sick days, medical bills and reduced agricultural output by 2060, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study.

Only a drastic reduction in emissions can reverse these costs in human health and the mounting dangers of global warming.

We’ll have to go well beyond current plans

Cap-and-trade schemes, promoted by North American liberals and European social democrats, simply don’t work. The European Union system, for example, issued so many free certificates that the price of pollution is a small fraction of the target price, and attempts by environmentalists to reduce the number of certifications are consistently rebuffed. Moreover, cap-and-trade plans often allow “offsets,” whereby companies can buy emission credits from outside the program to “offset” emissions above the allowable level, allowing polluters to substitute unverifiable reductions elsewhere for real reductions locally.

Nor are renewable energy sources, as vital as they are to any rational future, a substitute for reducing energy usage. Renewable energy is not necessarily clean nor without contributions to global warming. Wind power and biomass, for example, have their own problems. The primary source of bioenergy is wood, which portends an increase in logging, counter to winning a struggle against global warming. Denmark and Britain are among the biggest users of biomass but must import wood to sustain that. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Production of rare earths are environmentally destructive; increasing their extraction means more pollution and toxic waste.

The argument here certainly isn’t that a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly as practical isn’t necessary; of course such a switch needs to be made. But if reversing pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions is the goal, then renewables are at most a partial measure.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park in August 2015, during the hottest and driest summer in Pacific Northwest history. (photo by Pete Dolack)

The Paris Climate Summit ended with a surprise decision by the world’s governments to limit the rise of the global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution average instead of the previously intended limit of 2 degrees. The difficulty here, however, is that even if every national goal were met, the Earth’s temperature would rise 2.2 to 3.4 degrees by 2100 with more to come, and the Paris summit contains no mechanism to enforce these goals.

Adding to the difficulty of reducing fossil fuel usage sufficiently to meet the Paris summit’s goals (and which would also reduce the damage to human health) is the astounding total of subsidies for them. A 2015 study that attempted to quantify the size of these subsidies on a global basis estimated them at US$5.6 trillion! That includes not only direct government subsidies through tax breaks and other programs, but damage to the environment — these are not inconsequential as the costs of air pollution and global warming transferred to society account for nearly two-thirds of that total.

“Fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) of rock to blast out natural gas alone accounts for billions of dollars of damages through contaminated water, health problems from the chemicals used in the process, air pollution, methane that contributes to global warming, disruption to agriculture and damage to roads from trucks. That the cost of those is transferred to society is another mammoth subsidy to the energy industry.

Overshooting Earth’s carrying capacity

The most recent estimate of planetary consumption is that humanity is using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths per year. By 2030, at present rates of increase, we’ll be consuming two Earths — that is, twice the capacity of our planet to sustain.

Then there is the matter of global warming. Two scientific studies issued in 2015 suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown in the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. A separate 2015 study, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable.

What is the price of making Earth uninhabitable? No amount of strip-mining the Moon or the asteroid belt will reverse mass die-offs on Earth.

Illusions that “green capitalism” will save us really must be abandoned. Beyond that capitalism requires constant growth (infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet) and discourages corporate responsibility because enterprises can offload their responsibilities onto society, every incentive is for more production. Adding to that, capitalist economics discounts the future so much that future life is seen as nearly worthless. Thus, in this type of accounting, there is no cost for future pollution.

Authors Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster put this plainly in a thoughtful May 2009 article in Monthly Review. They wrote:

“Where [orthodox economists] primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.”

As for the present day, capitalist enterprises aren’t going to guarantee jobs to workers displaced from energy-extraction industries, and if those workers don’t have any viable alternatives, it can’t be expected they will do anything other than join their bosses in fighting for their industry. Thus any rational plan to drastically shrink fossil fuel extraction has to be able to provide alternative jobs. Nor do the costs in human lives discussed above factor into capitalist economic calculations.

The drastic changes that are necessary to reverse the human and environmental tolls of pollution will come with a hefty price tag. But the cost of continuing business as usual is much higher — a price our descendants will pay if we don’t move to an economic system that values life rather than only profits.


15 comments on “The toll of pollution: How many lives vs. how much profit?

  1. Grace Weaver says:

    good for you pete! i hope you did or will talk up the people’s climate march april 29, sat, in d.c. & sistah cities!

  2. annick says:

    You just clearly described capitalism’s utter folly at its best. Thank you!

  3. Martin Hertzberg says:

    The first part of the article that discusses the real health hazards from pollutants is good, The rest if the article about the effects of so-called carbon pollution is pure nonsense,
    CO2 is not a pollutant but is an essential ingredient of the Earth’s ecosystem on which all life depends (photosynthesis). Its atmospheric concentration is controlled by natural sources and sinks and not by human emission. Its effect on weather or climate is nil.

    • I hope you are well compensated for your global warming denialism. At least 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is causing global warming, but how could that compare to a few hirelings of Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries who are well paid to say otherwise? In the deep past, before human history, there were rises and falls in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to natural causes, but these rises unfolded over many thousands of years and peaked at levels well below today’s concentration of above 400 parts per million. Here’s a basic explanation published by Skeptical Science:

      Finally, at this link is the atmospheric total of carbon dioxide for the past 800,000 years. Note that carbon dioxide concentration had never been higher than 300 ppm until the Industrial Revolution for all that time.

    • llanrog says:

      I have to agree with Martin on this issue. Computer models are destroying science and reducing everyone who questions this as a denialist. The Earth could not have survived this long without an ecosystem that could deal with all that is thrown at it. I agree with the pollution issue and air quality. A day walking around London illustrates this to a Northerner like me. Imagine the River Thames freezing over this year as it used to do there would be total mayhem.

      I am in construction and I couldn’t begin to tell you the regulation on house insulation it is madness. Houses are filled with petro-chemical insulation, and devoid of natural air movement.They are sick places to be. This is not the fault of capitalists but scientists and computer models The capitalists just profit from it.

      I must also say a good article and I am a member of the Green Party of England.

      • Greetings, Ilanrog. The Earth will survive whatever we humans throw at it. The question, however, is will humans and other species survive? Maybe humans will survive, with struggles well beyond what we deal with today, but countless species will not, and those mass extinctions will make our own survival more difficult.

        I don’t see how “scientists” and “computer models” can be blamed for a global economic system that is out of control. I tend to align here with Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there is no evil technology, only evil uses of technology. Your average scientist is not responsible for corporations destroying the environment and pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Capitalists who profit from this behavior, and are incentivized to do so, are responsible. Nor are scientists responsible for the poor construction of housing that you mention; capitalists who manufacture illness-causing products and profit from short cuts are.

  4. troutsky says:

    An insidious aspect of cost-benefit analysis is the fact that the whole discourse is “polluted”, that is the perverse logics embedded in the very language pollute our attempts to construct meaning. Trying to use the Master’s tools to tear down his house, right? As we subconsciously equate “cost” with price and (exchange) value, we fall into a totally irrational rationality. Since we know the externalities can never be reconciled or calculated in the classical economic model, we should by all rights reject those signifiers altogether. But we have no other vocabulary.

    This is why the whole argument about renewables becoming more competitive is self-defeating. it promotes the very Market logic which is killing us.

    • Liberals and social democrats argue that global warming can be reversed with almost no cost, and can even be profitable, and thus are the other side of coin of conservatives who do acknowledge that reversing global warming will come with a cost so therefore assert that there is no global warming. Both these groupings are wholly embedded within the logic of capitalism and the reduction of everything to profit/loss accounting that takes no account of anything outside immediate corporate bottom lines.

      As Fredric Jameson famously said, it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

  5. wismiss says:

    Well…where to begin? I appreciate the author’s work. I’m old enough to remember President Carter and the mockery he endured for his stance on sustainable energy and the need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. Then, in the early part of the 21st century, I knew we were in big trouble when I read an article in which citizens of the US were asked if they would be willing to change their behavior, in order to curb climate change. Only 30% were willing to change. Fast forward to today. Our oldest daughter works for a scientific consortium In Washington DC, which publishes climate related research in various scientific journals. She informed me this past Christmas that humans have 70 years left on this planet, due to anthropogenic climate change. Will I quit doing environmental advocacy? No. But there’s trouble ahead, folks. You can’t drink or eat money. Think about the fact that everything we have and are comes from the earth. The earth abundantly provides for our needs but we’re he**bent on destroying her for profit, due to an attitude of entitlement. As someone else has so aptly said, “Mother nature bats last.”

    • Greetings, wismiss. I’m old enough to remember Carter, too, and remember vividly the scorn he received for his efforts to encourage conservation. Then Reagan came along and told people what they wanted to hear. I still get a chuckle thinking of a Bloom County comic from the early 1980s that had a character so exalting in Reagan’s “morning in America” that he declared he was going to feed his cat oil because it would now become so cheap.

      When it comes to “recycle, reuse and reduce,” it’s recycling that’s popular because it’s easier than the other two. “Reduce” is the hardest of all, and until the people, institutions and governments of the global North grasp that “reduce” is mandatory for the well-being of our descendants. A frequent commenter on this blog, Alcuin, often notes that “nature bats last” — and so shall it be in the long run.

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