We can almost always tell how sick a patient may be before seeing them just by looking at their address. Every day we treat patients who are desperately ill with a number of medical conditions all with the same root cause: environmental racism. Historical discriminatory housing policies have trapped non-white and low income communities in overpolluted neighborhoods. Neighborhoods in previously redlined zones have nearly twice as many oil wells, breathe dirtier air and have much less green space.
Burning fossil fuels is the major driver of climate change, but also the leading source of air pollution. Worldwide, more than seven million people die prematurely every year from air pollution. Over 130 million people in the US, more than forty percent of our population, breathe unhealthy air. Fossil fuels put people’s health at risk at every stage of their operations from extraction to transport, to processing and finally to burning. Nearly 18 million U.S. residents live within a mile of an active oil or gas well putting them at risk of asthma and other breathing problems, cancer, poor brain development and function, dementia and much more. Living near an oil or gas well affects our children’s health even before they are born. Non-white and low income communities who already bear the burden of dirty fossil fuels are also most affected by the climate crisis.
The climate crisis is a public health crisis. It affects our food, our shelter and every organ in our body. It is much worse than COVID-19 pandemic. We can’t hide in our homes. Our forests are burning now, our neighborhoods are next. And poor people, and in particular poor people of color, are getting hit the hardest.
That is why the World Health Organization, over 1400 health professionals and over 200 health organizations are asking for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, inspired by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In fact, the climate crisis is an existential threat to our society similar to a nuclear war.
The two overriding issues of our era—the climate crisis and the danger of nuclear war—are deeply intertwined. The climate crisis is leading to greater international conflict and stockpiling nuclear weapons redirects precious resources away from equitable climate actions while increasing risk of a nuclear conflict. A nuclear war, in addition to killing billions of people and disrupting all aspects of our economy, would also cause abrupt and catastrophic climate disruption.
How are the politicians running our governments on the global stage responding to these threats? The policies our governments are implementing will lead to fossil fuel production in 2030 that is double the cap we need to maintain to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Carbon dioxide emissions in 2021 were 36.3 billion tonnes, the highest ever. They are also stockpiling nuclear weapons and will not even promise not to start a nuclear war in Ukraine.
How is our government responding? The United States continues to increase subsidies to fossil fuel operations and expands its investments in nuclear weapons reinforcing the two existential threats faced by humanity today. In turn, fossil fuel companies and military industrial complex use their profits in lobbying efforts.
The United States spends $20 billion in direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry every year despite their record net profits. As our patients suffer and our communities burn, our government is throwing another lifeline to fossil fuel companies. By massive investments in Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) and tying wind and solar development to increased oil and gas leases on federal lands, the Inflation Reduction Act leaves overburdened communities behind. Reliance on expensive unproven technology and accounting gimmicks promoted by big oil will not solve the climate crisis. CCUS is risky, poisons the air in already polluted neighborhoods and exposes rural and underprotected communities to health harms. We can’t truly address climate change if our most vulnerable don’t benefit from climate action. Even our most well intended efforts to address climate change will be undermined if health and equity is not at the center.
We have a terrifying short time frame to phase out fossil fuels to protect public health from the devastating effects of climate change and air pollution. The World Health Organization and health professionals in the US and across the world are joining scientists, Nobel Prize winners, youth, faith leaders and others on a call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to end all new fossil fuel exploration and infrastructure, phase out existing production and use of fossil fuels, and fast track a just transition. The United States government needs to listen to this plea and take action now. We need to put health and equity at the center of our climate policy.