Think clean cars and renewable energy have problems?  Consider the status quo

We are finally inching toward the clean energy transition we need to avoid the apocalyptic consequences of extreme climate change.  But a recent uptick in articles about the human costs of minerals needed for EV production and the amount of land needed for wind and solar suggests we should be cautious. 

If all else were equal, a cautious approach might be warranted. But all else is not equal.

We are already suffering massive damage from the status quo — mining, drilling and burning fossil fuels.

To fairly evaluate the problems of transitioning to EVs or clean renewable power, we must measure them against the impacts of the fossil fuel-based versions we use now — reduced human health, environmental devastation, social injustice and climate change. 

Why aren’t we making this comparison? Maybe we’ve lived for so long surrounded by the deadly air and water pollution from the fossil fuel economy that it has become part of our mental wallpaper.  Though we are concerned now about the human rights impacts of lithium and cobalt mining, we’ve persistently looked away from the shockingly unequal human impacts of fossil fuels, both globally and in our own country.  Even the escalating effects of climate change are happening slowly enough and are sufficiently geographically dispersed for most people to ignore.  

This is a problem.  When we forget about or ignore the deadly and costly impacts of fossil fuels in a mental cost-benefit analysis of clean cars or renewable energy, we overestimate the costs of the transition and risk failure at a key moment in human history.

This is our “frog in the warming pot” moment and the gradually warming water around us is now almost boiling (literally).  To avoid a fatal outcome, we must transition to clean energy ASAP.  That requires evaluating the financial and human costs of the energy transition against the known impacts of fossil fuels on health, the environment, social justice and the economy. Here are just a few examples: 

Recent work shows that 535 times more mining is needed for the fossil fuel economy than for clean cars and power.  Among other impacts of previous mining, mountaintop removal mining has contaminated drinking water and degraded one of the nation’s most biodiverse regions, while thousands of abandoned uranium mines on Native American lands  sicken residents.  Who remembers those problems when talking about EVs?

– Worldwide, up to 8.7 million people die each year from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.

– 99% of the global population live in regions with dangerous levels of fine particle (PM2.5) pollution, mostly from burning fossil fuels, and the health burden of air pollution falls most heavily on people of color.

– There are at least 120,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the US leaking massive amounts of methane and toxins like arsenic, formaldehyde and benzene into the air and water (map here).  Over 14 million Americans live within one mile of an abandoned well, suffering the health impacts of these toxins that taxpayer money will have to clean up.

– Indigenous people in the US and worldwide have been displaced or sickened by fossil fuel extraction for decades. This danger continues with new oil and gas exploration.

– Climate change, caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, is the biggest environmental, health, human rights and economic disaster of all.  Not only does warming of up to 4oC threaten all of Earth’s creatures, including humans, but the impacts fall most heavily on people responsible for only a miniscule part of the problem.

-From 1992-2013, extreme heat cost the global economy up to $65 trillion.

– In the US, climate disasters have cost $2.5 trillion since 1980, most of that in the past 10 years. 

– A 2022 report concluded that climate impacts under current policies will cost $250 trillion by 2050, yet solving the problem by investing to reach net-zero will cost only 9% more.

Now, imagine for a moment the world we could have if we spend that extra 9%, mine the key minerals and install all the wind and solar we need. 

That future world will have air and water cleaner than anyone now alive has ever experienced.  People will be healthier, and so will the Earth’s other diverse creatures.  That’s the world I want for our kids. 

Considering the damage already done by fossil fuels and the perilous consequences of sticking with them, the problems of transitioning to a clean energy world seem almost inconsequential.

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