To the Editor:
Global warming is the main existential threat to humanity. Each year we burn around 14,000 million tonnes of fossil fuels to heat our homes, power our cars, generate electricity and for many other purposes.1 It provides around 80% of all energy consumed globally; in many developing countries, the share of energy production from coal, oil, and natural gas continues to increase year-on-year. In 2018, global energy consumption rose by 2.9%, with China, India, and the United States responsible for more than two-thirds of this increase.
Fossil fuels have been the main driver of global technological, economic, and social development over the last 100 years. However, their use has negative impacts on our atmosphere in the form of air pollution and global warming from greenhouse gas emissions. In the next 10 to 30 years global temperatures are likely to rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrialized levels, with consequent impacts on global weather patterns resulting in risks to health, food security, water supply, and other aspects of life.2
In a recent commentary, Kogevinas and Takaro3 argue that the mining and oil production industries are responsible for this situation and that the epidemiologic community “should ban sponsorship by fossil fuel industries … and start treating these industries like the tobacco industry”. They cite three main reasons for this proposal:
- (1) These industries are major determinants of human disease and environmental damage;
- (2) The industries knew their products could make the planet uninhabitable and “intentionally buried the evidence they had”; and
- (3) The stand against the tobacco industry substantially advanced public health, and so the same will be true in the case of global warming.
None of these reasons are substantially true. Their approach fails to understand the real societal differences between tobacco and fossil fuels. Tobacco has no benefit to people, and the market for it depends largely on the addiction of users, whereas fossil fuels are an integral part of the way we live. Continued rise in fossil fuel use is currently an important contributor to health improvements in developing countries such as India and China, where per capita energy consumption is still well below the levels in developed nations. Achieving meaningful reductions in the global use of fossil fuels is proving difficult just because they are necessary for the continuation of our way of life. Demonizing big oil, by calling for professional societies and scientists to shun their financial support, is counterproductive. What is really needed is for governments, particularly in the United States, to take a stronger lead in decarbonizing society. In this respect, the United Kingdom is showing the way with the recent commitment to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.4
John W. Cherrie
Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering
Riccarton, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Institute of Occupational Medicine
Research Avenue North
Edinburgh, United Kingdom
1. BP. BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2019. 2019.68th edition. London: BP plc.
2. Masson-Delmotte V.P., Zhai H.-O., Poörtner D., Roberts J., Skea P.R., Shukla A., Pirani W., Moufouma-Okia C., Péan R., Pidcock S., Connors J.B.R., Matthews Y., Chen X., Zhou M.I., Gomis E., Lonnoy T., Maycock M., Tignor T., Waterfield; IPCC. Summary for policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. 2018. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
. Accessed 14 July 2019.
3. Kogevinas M, Takaro T. Sponsorship by big oil, like the tobacco industry, should be banned by the research community. Epidemiology. 2019;30:615–616.