Editor’s Note: Carroll Muffett is the president of the Center for International Environmental Law, an international legal organization that focuses on the environment and human rights. Kert Davies is the executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog group that pushes to adopt better energy and environmental policies to face the climate crisis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Panic spread through Los Angeles when the city was first overrun by smog in July 1943, in the middle of World War II. With dense smog cutting visibility, irritating eyes and making it difficult to breathe outside, some locals believed they were being hit by a Japanese chemical attack.
But while those fears of attack proved misplaced, public concerns about the health effects of breathing toxic air were not. Today, air pollution is widely recognized as a leading cause of asthma, heart disease and even death. Sobering new research published in February indicates these threats are even greater than previously understood.
The groundbreaking study, published in “Environmental Research” by scientists at Harvard University and the University College London, along with researchers from the University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester, found that in 2018, almost one in five deaths worldwide could be attributed to air pollution from fossil fuel emissions, specifically fine particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5), which can be 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Because of their small size, fine particulates can penetrate deeply into the lungs, making them even more hazardous to human health than larger particles.
The health effects of these particles have been studied and known for decades, but this is the first global study to use 3-D atmospheric models to identify the impact of fossil-fuel-derived PM2.5 pollution on specific places and populations.
None of this should come as a surprise to the fossil fuel industry, which launched an internal Smoke and Fumes Committee in 1946 in response to growing calls from an increasingly concerned public to tackle LA’s smog problem. The oil companies needed a way to reshape public opinion and head off potential regulation.
They were able to deflect attention and hold off the pressure and regulation for years. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that scientists identified the booming automobile fleet as a leading culprit behind the problem, and effective regulation took another decade.
Initially formed by the Western Oil & Gas Association, then later subsumed into the American Petroleum Institute (or API) with a new national mandate, the Smoke and Fumes Committee was a pioneer in combining public relations with industry-funded science aimed at shaping and controlling the perception of air pollution and public health risks.
The Smoke and Fumes Committee’s work laid the foundation for later denial campaigns, as described in an expert testimony delivered by Carroll Muffett, co-author of this op-ed, before the Philippines Commission on Human Rights back in 2018. The campaigns, financed by coal, oil and gas interests alike, waged war on public health regulations in the face of threats the industry internally recognized as real.
If Big Oil had air pollution trouble, coal had it even worse. In a 1966 “Mining Congress Journal” article, a Peabody Coal engineer summed up the industry’s stance on impending air pollution regulations in simple, yet cynical terms, “We are, in effect, ‘buying time’. We must use that time productively to find answers to the many unsolved problems.”
The industry most worried that regulations would spread nationwide before pollution control technology was cheap to build, cutting into profits, an excuse and lobbying tactic that is still used today.
A 1971 internal document from the archives of Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary Imperial Oil shows detailed awareness of various sources of particulate air pollution (coal being much higher than oil) even as it undercuts potential regulatory remedies – like reducing levels of sulfur in petroleum fuel – by emphasizing “higher costs to the consumer.” In a statement issued to CNN, Exxon Mobil said the “allegations about the company’s climate research are inaccurate and deliberately misleading.”
The decontextualized 1971 statements, according to the company, “ignore other readily available statements that demonstrate our researchers recognized the developing nature of climate science at the time, which mirrored global understanding.”
But, even as the coal, oil and utilities industries created The Global Climate Coalition (GCC) in 1989, to fend off growing concern about climate change, they recognized that growing concern over the health impacts of fossil fuel combustion posed a distinct and serious threat to the industry’s social license and profits. An internal 1997 briefing memo, revealed through discovery in a lawsuit, reads, “The health issue is increasing in importance with the climate change issue, as well as with other environmental issues such as PM standards and ozone standards.”
Through the 1990s, the GCC pushed misinformation, attacked scientific findings that added urgency to regulating global warming and pollution, helped block policy advances and argued that any limits on the use of oil, gas and coal would hurt the United States’ economy.
Although the GCC disbanded in 2002, fossil fuel industries continued pursuing the same strategies throughout the 2000s and 2010s.
Organizations like the API launched attacks on the validity of critical public health research on health risks of PM2.5 and efforts from the US Environmental Protection Agency to respond to that research. As with climate change itself, the effects of industry denial and obstruction with respect to the health risks of PM2.5 have fallen disproportionately on poorer communities and communities of color.
This extraordinary history was documented in comments submitted to the EPA by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and eight other US senators in 2018, showing how these overt attacks on the scientific process were coupled with extensive efforts to shape science and regulatory analysis on the risk of PM2.5 and other pollutants within the EPA itself.
The industry’s campaign of denial and obstruction on the health risks PM2.5 continued unabated through – and in collaboration with – Donald Trump’s administration.
Unfortunately, many of the tactics and lines of attack created by the Smoke and Fumes Committee and perfected by the GCC are still in use today. Industry-funded efforts like Energy in Depth, a public relations campaign that FTI Consulting says is designed to, “provide that team the ability to say, do and write things that individual company employees cannot and should not,” are dedicated to attacking peer-reviewed research on the health impacts of fracking.
Energy in Depth and other industry groups like the Texas Oil and Gas Association have repeatedly attacked news reports and studies about the link between fracking exposure and an elevated risk for asthma and cancer. Industry groups have also downplayed numerous alarming peer-reviewed studies that have linked preterm birth and reduced birth weight and exposure to air pollution from flares that burn off waste from gas and oil wells.
These flares can release particulates as well as benzene, heavy metals and other chemicals. Four years ago, Energy In Depth responded to these studies by publishing a “Compendium of Studies Demonstrating the Safety and Health Benefits of Fracking,” stating “if natural gas is a boon to public health, it only follows that it would help increase life expectancy in adults and newborns.”
The report cites research, not from gas fields in Texas, but from the replacement of coal with gas for cooking and space heating in Turkey.
Decades of intransigence and denial suggests that climate polluters and their surrogates will continue working to undercut the findings of this new Harvard study and try to block any effort by Joe Biden’s administration that would meaningfully reduce related deaths.
The rising tide of climate litigation nationwide and advances in attribution science (linking damages to climate change, and linking climate change to fossil fuel producers) should serve as a warning to the industry. Two dozen US cities, counties, and states are now suing or investigating fossil fuel companies for the role their products play in driving the climate crisis, as well as the role of decadeslong industry denial efforts in compounding that crisis.
Likewise, individuals and communities harmed or threatened by climate change are bringing legal and human rights actions against fossil fuel producers in a growing number of countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France and the Philippines, over the industry’s role in the climate emergency.
Governments and investors alike are asking what fossil fuel producers knew about the climate impacts of their products, the risk those impacts pose to their business and their future, and whether those risks are being properly disclosed and addressed.
February’s groundbreaking study demonstrates that it is increasingly possible to isolate and quantify not just the climate impacts of fossil fuels, but just how many deaths are a direct result of fossil fuel pollution – not only at the global level but down to individual countries, states, and even cities.
This new science emerges against the backdrop of a decadeslong campaign of denial and obstruction by the companies that are major drivers of fossil fuel production and use. Stop us if you’ve heard this story before.