Fossil fuels — a double-edged sword

Fossil fuels are a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, since the discovery and exploitation of fossil-era energy sources such as coal, petroleum oil and, more recently, methane, quality of life has improved dramatically.  Electricity and heating systems in the home, access to fuel for transportation and for the production of food and consumer goods, increased industrialization and many other things, all contribute to lifestyles that require less manual labor, leaving more time for education, leisure and an increasing variety of “white collar” opportunities.

On the other edge of the sword, however, there are highly detrimental aspects to the extraction and burning these fuels. The fossil fuel industry is the most lethal commercial activity in the world, with the most accidents, injuries and deaths per capita employee. Working in fossil fuels is profoundly dangerous yet the lethality does not stop there. Use of fossil fuels threatens everyone on the planet through a wide range of solid, liquid and gaseous emissions. One type of emission consists of toxic pollutants that include mercury, arsenic, cobalt, lead, cadmium, thallium, uranium, nickle and many other particulates that are released from power plants and contribute to smog, pollution and a wide array of respiratory-related diseases that are known to kill millions of people every year.

The World Health Organization has determined that the toxic emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, wood, biofuels and biowaste, which all contribute to air pollution, is responsible for the premature deaths of an estimated 7 million people a year.  As reported by this Geneva-based organization in 2014, “this finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives.”  There is almost no controversy about the existence or impacts on mankind of these emissions.

The second type of emission, widely called greenhouse gas emissions or GHGs, consist of carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Dioxide (NOx), Nitric Oxide (N2O), Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and various Hydrocarbons (HCs), among other gases, which while less directly bad for health, are rapidly accumulating within our atmosphere. Though not visible, these gases function as trillions of point sources that catch radiated infrared heat from the sun, trap it and warm the blanket of air around our planet. Most GHGs have very long life-times in the atmosphere, which means that they will continue to add more heat to the atmosphere every day for decades and/or centuries, unless they are removed. These GHGs are what are causing severe climate changes that threaten all habitats and the interweaving ecologic systems that every species, including mankind, relies upon.

The need to address greenhouse gas emissions has been highly controversial. Scientists have known since as early as 1859 that some gases block infrared radiation and thereby produce a greenhouse effect. Tyndall discovered this in 1859 and was able to speculate that changes in the concentration of the gases would bring about climate change.  By 1896, Arrhenius was able to publish his own calculations of global warming from human emissions of CO2, in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.  For the most part, these predictions were ignored.

Nevertheless, the threat of a heating planet could not be ignored forever.  Scientists working at fossil fuel companies in the early 1970s understood the science and warned management about this problem repeatedly.  Government scientists and experts provided the same warning to our political leaders starting as early as the 1960s.  Warnings increased and, by 1988, the United Nations created the UNFCCC and the IPCC to convene the world’s best scientists to independently review and assess the issue and report back to the nations of the world. The closer the IPCC came to its eventual determination, that in fact mankind’s emissions are causing catastrophic global warming, the more politicized the issue became. 

Even as the nations of the world grew to recognize the problem, the fossil fuel industry decided to fight back to protect their fossil franchises. They published psuedo-scientific reports casting doubt on the IPCC’s findings, they invested millions in attacks on scientists themselves and they endeavored to cover-up the fact that they had learned about the science from their own experts and engaged in deceptive campaigns. Those actions are now the subject of a wide array of litigation by state Attorneys General, jurisdictions and class actions.1  Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry also doubled-down and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns and on political contributions (primarily to Republicans) designed to obstuct political action to prevent climate change, fueling the polarization of the parties over this scientific issue.2  Fossil fuel’s propaganda succeeded in convincing many gullible Americans that climate change is a “hoax,” including former president Trump. Unfortunately, climate change is not a hoax and it is actually a catastrophic problem that has been allowed to get worse with each and every day, so all this has done is postpone the inevitable and make the likelihood of mankind being able to mitigate the worst effects of having our atmosphere warmed up exceptionally and tragically unlikely.

Mankind has been burning massive quantities of fossil fuels for well over a century and a half.  We know that doing so is extraordinarily damaging both to human health, environmental health, the health of our climate and life on the planet.  We have already ascertained all the facts that we need to know to recognize that continuing to burn these fuels will be lethal and we can no longer continue doing so, despite how cheap and accessible they may be.  It might have been impossible to consider ending our use of fossil fuels except for the fact that there are many alternative forms of energy that are vastly better. Technologies like nuclear energy, hydropower, wind power, geothermal power and solar power have superior health profiles, lower deathprints and can generate power without creating greenhouse gas emissions. The whole world now knows that we need to dramatically increase use of these “clean energy” sources in order to respond to the climate crisis that we face. We have the means to power our world without fossil fuels—now we just need is the political will to stand up to the fossil fuel industry (which largely persists in resisting change) and make the transition to 100% clean energy sources.

The Fossil Fuel Deathprint

Every type of human endeavor and enterprise has risks.  When we think about how to generate the energy that powers our society, looking carefully at the risks to life from the various options is an important consideration. The name given to this kind of comparison is called a “deathprint” and it involves looking at the number of fatalities that happened in the production of fuel and generation over the course of decades across a set amount of energy for each energy source. When we use this data, we learn that coal is the most deadly energy and nuclear power is among the safest type of energy generation. This data conflicts with the “myth” promulgated by the fossil fuel industry and other who oppose nuclear power to build the perception that nuclear is the most dangerous type of energy. Unfortunately, this myth persists because the media underplys oil wells exploding, gas leaks that ignite residential communities, coal train derailments, coal miners being killed and even the risks from climate change and they hype the only three serious nuclear accidents, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukishima, such that everyone can name those events but no one really knows that there were virtually no deaths caused at all.

Following the fatal Oklahoma natural gas explosion accident at an oil and gas well which killed five workers and was the deadliest drilling mishap since the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers in 2010, James Conca writing in Forbes released an updated energy deathprint that covers all known energy deaths over the last 40 years (excluding those resulting indirectly from air pollution or climate change), calculated as the number of deaths per trillion kilowatt hour (kWh). Where the averages are the same, the U.S. data is grouped in the global rate.  Where the U.S.’ pollution and safety regulations are stronger, the U.S. data is listed separately.

James Conca’s Energy Deathprint by Energy Source3

Type of Energy Region Mortalities Percent of Energy Usage
Coal China 170,000 75% of China’s electricity
Coal Global 100,000 41% of global electricity
Coal USA   10,000 32% of U.S. electricity
Oil Global/USA  36,000 33% of energy, 4% of electricity
Biofuel/Biomass Global/USA  24,000 21% of global energy, 2% of electricity
Natural Gas Global/USA    4,000 22% global electricity
Hydro Global     1,400 16% global electricity
Hydro USA            5 6% of U.S. electricity
Solar Global/USA       440 less than 1% of global electricity
Wind Global/USA        150 2% of global electricity
Nuclear Global         90 11% of global electricity
Nuclear USA           0.1 19% of U.S. electricity

Our World in Data

More recently, Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser of Our World in Data release updated analysis that reviews the deathprint of energy technologies along with their carbon footprints in an article entitled “What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?”In this article they provide the basis for their analysis very clearly and the following graphic.


  1. Think Progress, State AGs Vow To Tackle Climate Change And Fossil Fuel Industry Fraud, Samantha Page, March 29, 2016
  2. Drexel Now, Not Just the Koch Brothers: New Drexel Study Reveals Funders Behind the Climate Change Denial Effort, by Alex McKechnie, December 20, 2013
  3. Forbes, Natural Gas And The New Deathprint For Energy, James Conca, January 25, 2018
  4. Our World in Data, “What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?, Hannah Ritchie, February 10, 2020