Fossil Fuel, Health, and Inequality

Researchers at Harvard University have found a link between long-term exposure to air pollution and death from COVID-19. According to The Boston Globe, these experts compared different neighborhoods in the United States and found that those with higher concentrations of small particles in the air also had higher rates of death from the coronavirus. Statistics were used to show that pollution itself had an effect over and above that of other factors, such as socioeconomic status. However, it is well known that residents of polluted neighborhoods tend to be people of color and to have lower incomes.  

Although disparities related to COVID-19 seem especially shocking and unfair, it is not news that fossil fuel is associated with health risks, nor that those risks are borne unequally. Burning carbon-based fuel releases two types of pollutants, particles and greenhouse gases. Breathing particulate pollution had been known to cause many health problems long before COVID-19 was around. With particles, the risk is greatest for the people living closest to the source. On the other hand, greenhouse gases released anywhere affect climate everywhere, but effects on local communities differ with geography and infrastructure. With both types of pollution, it is the people with the fewest resources and the greatest social barriers that live in the most dangerous areas and pay with their health or their lives. For a great example of the connections between infrastructure, climate change, health, income, and race, read NPR’s article on urban heat islands.

The takeaways for climate policy are, again, not new, but critically important:

  1. Reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels as fast as possible, and
  2. Do so in a way that shifts more benefit and less risk to historically vulnerable groups.