What If we told you that there was a conflict greater than the Ukraine war? And the casualties and deaths were higher, at least by an order of magnitude. You would say we were joking. And if we insist that this conflict is going on right now and the deaths are 200 times greater than that of Ukraine. Of course, the press does not call it a war. They hide it, sort of sweep it under the rug. Economists have classified this situation as an ‘externality’.

This is the tragedy of air pollution by fossil fuels. Their combustion produces deadly fine particulate matter that is so small that it gets deep into our lungs and some particulates pass directly into our bloodstream. They are combustion particles, organic compounds, and even metals. This small particulate matter, PM2.5, 2.5 microns or less in diameter, causes numerous health problems. “Long-term exposures, such as those experienced by people living for many years in areas with high particle levels, have been associated with problems such as reduced lung function and the development of chronic bronchitis — and even premature death.

Short-term exposures (hours or days) can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. In people with heart disease, short-term exposures have been linked to heart attacks and arrhythmias.”1

A recent study estimated premature deaths due to fossil fuel combustion to be 10.2 million persons in 2012. Fossil fuel PM2.5 is mainly emitted in the most populated areas, and the two countries with the highest premature mortality are China with 3.91 million and India with 2.46 million. However, substantial premature deaths of 430,000 were estimated for North America and a large number, 1,450,000 for Europe. Using an alternative method, the GEMM function, resulted in a calculation of 6.7 million premature deaths in 2012 due to fossil fuel combustion. The lowest estimate among the previous studies cited is 4.2 million deaths annually.2

The global damage is terrible: between four and eight million premature deaths occur annually.

Even children may be more affected than previously suspected. Children younger than five years of age are more susceptible to the many adverse effects of fossil fuel combustion than adults. This difference is due to the children’s rapid growth, their developing brain and immature respiratory, detoxification, immune and thermoregulatory systems. Children also breathe more air than adults per pound of body weight. In 2012 the World Health Organization estimated that 169,000 deaths among children under the age of five were attributable to air pollution.

Climate change and air pollution from fossil fuels are interrelated, as carbon dioxide and particulate matter are co-emitted. Climate warming with extreme weather events, more frequent storm-surge flooding, and increased risk of crop failure comes on top of the air pollution deaths and illnesses. This makes the situation worse, particularly where the phenomena overlap, such as in urban hot islands and with heat spells.

The question is, why are the annual deaths of millions of persons so ignored and under-reported? If 20,000 people die in Ukraine (and we hope for less), that is only 0.5 percent of the lowest global estimate of annual deaths from air pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion. The only comparable event is the covid pandemic in its third year, accumulating 6 million deaths. Of course, the pandemic was not ignored, like the situation of fossil fuel air pollution.

There are undoubtedly several contributing factors to this silence. One of the most important is the media's role in our lives. Above all, media must stimulate and entertain us; it must increase audience share and make profits. The story of premature deaths is not entertaining, and considerable work is necessary on the part of a studio to make it stimulating and profitable (such as in a documentary). No one seems to have attempted to do so. It is easier and more profitable to manage a talk show or run a talent contest. Media serves as a filter for what our leaders want the public to see. Let us look at some of these elites.

Obviously, the oil, gas, and coal industries prefer silence. They have enough problems with climate change. And these industries contribute heavily to certain political campaigns to continue their influence.

The automobile industry has a unique role since its products are major fuel consumers and polluters. The sector is responsible for the historic urban design centered on the automobile. Investment in urban public transport has been kept down with a correspondingly low quality of the service. This is changing with multimode transportation but has left a heavy heritage of carbon intensity and still contributes to the high air pollution mortality in populated urban areas worldwide.

The American public has had a special relationship with the automobile: physical freedom. Maybe even before the birth of the car, we thought that if you did not like the local scene, you could ‘go West young man,’ where you could indeed find opportunity. With the birth of the automobile, one obtained speed; one had the freedom to move quickly around. You could go anywhere. One was physically free. We see this even in the freedom not to wear a mask or not to take a vaccination, even to the detriment of others. However, we were less free in our thinking, especially concerning a critical analysis of our social and economic situation. Few have had alternative experiences in other countries or read about different ways of social and economic organization. We believe in the individual, our personal selves. The consideration of the social and the community is a freedom that we must struggle to acknowledge.

As an individual, hopefully realized according to my merits and as a hard-working, self-made man, I need to be rewarded. My prize is an infinite choice of individual goods and services, helped along by artificial intelligence in the selection of products and the realization of the product itself. The individual barely needs the community; he can be satisfied by this super consumption tailored to his specific needs. To this, add internet and social media, centered around the idea of new forms of individual screen activities. However, the more one consumes, the more energy is needed, and the more one pollutes and causes climate warming. In the form of climate change and fossil fuel pollution, Mother Nature is sending us a message concerning the limits of consumption. Many among the public, and certainly Big Business, do not want to hear such a missive.

To be sustainable and avoid climate warming for future generations, we must get to a point where there is no increase in the GHG concentration in the atmosphere. Thus, our economic activity must produce no GHG gases that would increase the concentration. We must reach carbon neutrality. To do this, we have to undergo a climate transition that requires massive investments in alternative energy sources and energy efficiency. It also necessitates that our consumption is more rational and in keeping with the circular economy.

To fight climate warming is to reduce the millions of deaths from fossil fuel air pollution that many would prefer to hide. Let us double down on renewables and energy efficiency!

(Co-authored by Donata Francescato)


1 E.P.A., (2003), Particle Pollution and Your Health E.P.A. site: accessed March 29, 2022.
2 Vohra, K., Vodonos, A., Schwartz, J., Marais, E. A., Sulprizio, M.P., Mickley, L.J., (2021), Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion: Results from GEOS-Chem, Environmental Research, Volume 195, 2021, 110754, ISSN 0013-9351.