Fossil fuels are killing us. They’re killing us directly through pollution and indirectly through climate change. Expanding use of coal, oil, and gas are driving this dual crisis. Unless we confront the extractivist and increasingly unconventional fossil fuel industry, reclaim the energy system for the public good, and restructure it in accordance with scientifically determined targets, the implications for human health and wellbeing are dire.
The negative health effects of fossil fuel use are well established and widely recognized. In 2012, air pollution was responsible for seven million deaths—one eighth of the global total—according to the World Health Organization. Air pollution is the world’s single largest environmental health risk.
Less obvious, but equally—or more—alarming, are the health impacts of climate change. Global warming can harm human health directly through exposure to excessive heat and extreme weather events. Climate change also has secondary health impacts; for example, disruptions to ecosystems can drive malnutrition and contribute to the spread of infectious diseases. Additionally, tertiary health impacts include the physical and mental toll of social and economic disruptions, including job loss, displacement, and even war.
The health impacts of fossil fuel use and climate change are not felt equally by all. Between countries, there is a bitter irony that those countries who have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions—that is to say the poorest countries—will bear the worst burdens. Within countries, this inequality is mirrored. Those who work outside or in un-air-conditioned facilities face greater exposure to excessive heat. Poor and working people, women, and members of vulnerable communities face greater exposure to pollution and the effects of climate change.
In this TUED Working Paper, Svati Shah and Sean Sweeney review recent research on the health impacts of fossil fuels. They provide a rich set of resources for trade unions to more effectively advocate on behalf of their members. Some unions, especially those representing health care workers, have taken up the challenge of addressing this crisis, but this is a critical issue for workers and unions in all sectors. Those who join the resistance against the expansion of fossil fuel use will find themselves in the midst of a rising global movement that is confronting fossil fuel extraction. It is time for all unions to join this fight—for the good of their members, their communities, and the planet.