Every year, 7 million people die from an airborne pollutant known as particulate matter. It’s not something that many of us think about, myself included. But on a recent trip to Tanzania I came face to face with this silent killer.
A Masai family whom we visited used a small wood fire as their only source of warmth, cooking and light for their small hut. This may sound quaint to some, but the indoor air pollution this creates is quite deadly.
Thus, I was pleased to hear President Trump talking about airborne particulate matter, which is known in environmental circles as PM 2.5. PM 2.5 is by far the world’s most lethal pollutant, killing seven million people every year, many of them just like the people 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, the anti-fossil fuel agenda now poses a growing threat to the Masai, receiving access to healthier fuels for cooking, heating, and light. A billion people still lack any access to electricity, and another billion only have intermittent access. Over the last 15 years, 1 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 commonsense environmental priorities focused on reducing deadly particulate matter in the air to below acceptable levels. Half of these deaths from particulate matter are caused indoors. Nearly 2.5 billion people today, or roughly one-third of the global population, still cook with wood, dung, or coal stoves. In addition to the nearly four 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, 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 have 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 they are certainly 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 the world population tripling. This is not because extreme weather events have plunged — in fact, extreme weather events show no trend at all. But deaths from extreme weather are plunging because growing wealth and energy abundance have enabled far more effective preparation and response to extreme weather events.
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.