Led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they are calling for massive investments in renewable energy and other measures over a decade that would greatly reduce or even end the nation’s overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels.
As experts in environmental geography, sociology, and sustainability science and policy, we wholeheartedly support this effort. And, as we explained in a recently published study, climate change is not the only reason to ditch fossil fuels.
While conducting our research, we constantly encounter new evidence that depending on fossil fuels for energy harms people and communities at every point along fossil fuel supply chains, especially where coal, oil and natural gas are extracted.
Fossil fuels require what journalist Naomi Klein calls “sacrifice zones” – places and communities damaged or even destroyed by fossil fuel drilling and mining. But we have observed that politicians and other decision-makers tend to overlook these harms and injustices and that most energy consumers – meaning most people – are generally unaware of these issues.
We see no sign that decisions about new pipelines, power plants and other fossil fuel infrastructure account fully for the harms and costs of these industries to society and the toll taken on nature from pollution and other problems attributable to burning fossil fuels.
Burning coal, oil and natural gas is particularly bad for public health. This combustion generates a lot of air pollution, contributing to 7 million premature deaths worldwide every year.
One Duke University-led study of climate scientists determined that reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C, a level that scientists believe could avert disastrous consequences from climate change, would prevent 153 million premature deaths, largely by reducing air pollution.
Some communities are harmed more than others. For instance, EPA researchers studying data collected between 2009 and 2013 found that black Americans are exposed to 1.5 times more pollutants than white people.
And thousands of coal miners have died horrible deaths from silicosis after inhaling tiny silicon particles in mines. And the communities where oil and gas is being extracted are exposed to water and air pollution that endangers their health, such as increasing the risk to certain childhood cancers.
A team of Harvard school of public health scientists estimated that 53 premature deaths per year, 570 emergency room visits, and 14,000 asthma attacks annually could be attributed to pollution from a coal power plant in Salem, Massachusetts, one of the sites we studied.
What’s more, the people living within 30 miles of the coal plant, which was replaced with a natural gas-burning power station in 2018, were between two and five times more likely to get respiratory problems and other illnesses than those living farther away do.
But what we call the “hidden injustices” tied to Salem’s coal plant didn’t stop there.