Dr. Michael Forster

Is the fossil fuel industry the greatest threat to human health?

“Breath” – at least for higher-order organisms – is synonymous with life itself.  For a human, the cessation of breathing for more than an extremely short span spells death.  So we would never want to do anything to threaten our ability to breathe, right?  Doing any such thing would be madness itself – a kind of species suicide, the ultimate “health concern,” you might say – right?

But if so, why are we rushing to open the Arctic for oil and gas exploration?  According to an AP story published in today’s Clarion-Ledger, that’s exactly what we’re hoping to do, with the military leading the way.  The basic narrative is pretty familiar: A lot of oil and gas resides in the Arctic, previously unavailable because of permanent ice.  A warming climate is melting the ice, opening the way to exploration and extraction.  We’re an oil and gas hungry civilization, so let’s go get it.  If we don’t, the Russians surely will, making us more dependent than ever on politically unreliable sources for our energy needs.

There’s a “logic” to this narrative, to be sure, but more and more it seems like the logic of Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick – our means may be rational, but the end itself is mad, a sure path to self-destruction.  Why are we hot to do more of the very thing – consuming unsustainable quantities of fossil fuels – that is causing climate change and all the disastrous consequences that come with it?  Surely the counter-narrative – reduce fossil fuel consumption by all means available, while investing heavily in alternative energy source development – is far, far more compelling.

But what does this have to do with breathing, that rather irreducible element of human health?  Yes, the planet may be warming at a discomfiting rate, but we can still breathe on a hot planet, can’t we?  Turns out, maybe not.  Even now, melting of the permafrost in parts of Russia is releasing significant quantities of methane previously trapped in ice.  Methane is a “greenhouse gas” with heat-trapping capacity roughly 25 times that of carbon dioxide.  The permafrost melting and the consequent release of methane is expected to accelerate in the next decades, parallel to the pace of fossil-fuel induced global warming.   As a result, in the view of some climate scientists, it’s possible that the human species will literally be asphyxiated.

Happy Arctic drilling.  I suggest we name the first vessel leading the way the Pequod.

Dr. Michael Forster
Dr. Michael Forster

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