We can save 7 million lives. We have made great strides, but we have work to do. My family recently returned from the East African country of Tanzania. From the moment we arrived, we fell in love with the warm, gracious people that we met, but were struck by the lack of access to clean, safe energy. While inside a Masai family hut a small, wood fire was the only source of warmth, cooking and light. This may sound quaint to some, but in reality the indoor air pollution it creates is quite deadly.
Hence I was pleased to hear President Donald Trump highlight airborne particulate matter, (known in environmental circles as PM 2.5) which is by far the world’s most lethal pollutant killing 7 million people every year — humans just like those we bonded with in Tanzania.
What a shame that only now are most Americans even hearing about the world’s greatest environmental killer. Even worse is the anti-fossil fuel agenda poses a growing threat to the Masai receiving access to healthier fuels for cooking, heating and light. A billion people still lack access to electricity and another billion only have intermittent access. Over the last 15 years, a billion people have gained their first access to electricity — 87% from hydrocarbons and hydropower, and about 5% from solar or wind.
Each year, millions of lives can be saved with common-sense priorities focused on reducing deadly particulate matter in the air. Half of these deaths from particulate matter are caused indoors. Nearly 2.5 billion people today, or roughly one-third of the global population, cook with wood, dung or coal stoves. In addition to the nearly 4 million annual deaths from indoor air pollution, there are countless others with compromised pulmonary health due to the absence of clean cooking fuels like natural gas, liquid petroleum gas (LPG) or electricity.
Fortunately, over the last decade, hundreds of millions have made the leap forward to LPG, which is more abundant and affordable thanks to surging U.S. exports of petroleum products. Imagine the joy I witnessed as Tanzanian women were able to purchase LPG, rather than spending hours a day gathering wood.
The myopic focus on climate change is the reason that old- fashioned pollution and smog has been swept off the world stage. The deception of predicting climate catastrophe has allowed the world to forget about the millions dying every year from real pollutants — chemicals that cause physical harm to humans. Carbon dioxide and climate change are a relevant environmental issue, but decidedly not the human or environmental crisis of our time. Climate change is often exaggerated or distorted for use as a blanket justification for unrelated ends, like growing government power, divorced from human well-being.
Extreme weather is the poster child. Deaths from extreme weather have declined by over 90% during the last century, even with world population tripling. This is not because extreme weather events have plunged. Reality is that extreme weather events show no trend. This has been documented, best of all by professor Roger Pielke Jr., but it hasn’t stopped the media and politicians repeatedly and falsely claiming extreme weather events are soaring. Deaths from extreme weather are plunging because growing wealth and energy abundance has enabled far more effective preparation and response. The vast majority of deaths from particulate matter and extreme weather are concentrated among the world’s poor. The solution for them is the same as the solution was for us: increased wealth and access to energy.
Affordable, reliable energy is also critical to addressing the other major challenges of the world’s poor— such as access to clean water, education, modern medical care, and markets for their crops. The U.S. has the cleanest air of any sizable country as measured by particulate matter concentration. We achieved this through innovation, free markets and sensible regulation. The U.S. should strive to improve the environment in whatever fashion most benefits human lives. Climate change should not be exempt from this calculus. Top- down bureaucratic diktats that are sweeping energy policy in Europe, and sadly now some American states, have everywhere resulted in vast increases in the cost of energy — without budging global carbon dioxide emissions.
These surging energy prices push millions into poverty and cause tens of thousands of premature deaths annually. Human well-being is too often ignored, which is callous and wrong. If other countries adopted the same pro-energy stance as the U.S. — empowering free-market innovation to make energy even more abundant, efficient, clean, and accessible to those who need it most — the ramifications for the billions around the globe trapped in poverty would be staggering. The interests of humans, not political agendas, must come first. Let’s come together to save 7 million lives.
Chris Wright is a career energy technology entrepreneur, working on fusion, solar, and geothermal energy before playing a role in launching the shale revolution. He received an undergraduate mechanical engineering degree from MIT.