A recent study in the Cardiovascular Research journal trumpeted a staggering claim: According to new calculations, more than 3.6 million people died in 2015 as a result of air pollution from fossil fuels.
The problem? It’s blatantly untrue.
The scientists and media outlets perpetuating this 3.6 million myth aren’t the first to fall for the anti-fossil fuel movement’s statistical shell game. The same research tactics were used by the Environmental Protection Agency for years to inflate the impact of specific air pollutants and justify the agency’s regulatory overreach.
This study and others like it do not examine actual deaths. The results are not based on toxicology or medically verified causes of death. Instead, it’s based on a mathematical construct called “statistical lives” — a misleading number that doesn’t represent any actual human lives.
A statistical life is calculated by aggregating the additional life expectancy that is claimed to result from reducing ambient air pollutants (in this study, fine particulate matter, or PM2.5). However, these studies establish no direct evidence of causation. They calculate the reduction in risk by assuming a 100% causal relation between PM2.5 and cardiovascular and lung cancer deaths after correcting for smoking and obesity, ignoring the myriad other variables that affect health and life expectancy.
These “risk reduction” calculations are also based tenuously on the assumption that the human body cannot tolerate any level of PM2.5 — that our lungs have no natural immunity to these naturally occurring substances, even at low levels. It’s assuming that if PM2.5 causes life-threatening sickness among people in India, who suffer cruelly from smog so thick that it impairs the breathing even of healthy people, it will do so proportionately in the United States, where we have reduced PM2.5 so much that our concentrations are near natural levels.
No single human being has been identified in such studies as perishing at the hands of fossil fuels. In fact, many epidemiological studies dispute that a link exists at all between airborne particulate matter and death, while other studies note that a negative correlation exists in many cities.
In reality, fossil fuels have dramatically improved health, life expectancy, and quality of life the world over.
Thanks to the availability of affordable, reliable energy, people in the developed world enjoy remarkable comfort and health, economic mobility, education, individual liberty, long life expectancy, and freedom from the hard, menial labor of subsistence living. While academia wrings its hands about fake statistics, real men, women, and children in the developing world could be enjoying these same benefits.
And here in America, we’ve made these advancements in the human condition while consuming more energy and more fossil fuels, yet simultaneously cleaning the environment. In the last 40 years alone, the U.S. has reduced the top six air pollutants (including PM2.5) by 74%. This happened while increasing our fossil fuel production and use, not decreasing it, as well as dramatically growing our economy and population.
We can and should take reasonable measures to curb pollution, both for the sake of human life and environmental stewardship. But abusing statistics to demonize fossil fuels serves no one.
A debate over the use of statistical lives is occurring in the EPA right now. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee recently found that this approach “does not provide a sufficiently comprehensive, systematic assessment of the available science relevant to understanding the health impacts of exposure to [particulate matter].” In fact, it provides no really useful information about health impacts at all.
Fortunately, the Trump administration’s EPA is turning away from biased, deceptive statistics and towards actual science — which shows America is leading the world in environmental quality, and things are only looking up from here.
Energy powers the innovation that will solve the problems of tomorrow. As entrepreneurship and technological advancement continue, we’ll have fossil fuels to thank for improving lives, not ending them, across the globe.
This commentary originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on March 23, 2020.