In an April 25, 2022 Chemical and Engineering News article, Holly Jean Buck, a “development sociologist,” expresses some peculiar views about fossil fuels that go beyond climate change. It is surprising to find them purveyed in a journal not of sociology or politics but of chemistry and engineering.
For starters, Buck maintains, “achieving net-zero emissions won’t ensure that the planet is buffered from the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel extraction and use.”
Buck is a professor of environment and sustainability at the University at Buffalo. Her Ph.D. is in development sociology. She is also a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is a good reminder that, contrary to popular perception, not only climate scientists but also plenty of social scientists contribute to the IPCC’s “scientific” reports.
“Climate change isn’t the only reason for phasing out fossil fuels,” she says, which “are connected to negative impacts, including financial support of corrupt and oppressive governments, air pollution and its health effects, and environmental injustice.”
Let’s examine these claims one by one.
First, while Buck is right that zero emissions wouldn’t ensure that the planet is buffered from the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel extraction, she writes as if everything about fossil fuels were bad.
Like all too many anti-fossil fuel activists, Buck simply fails to take into account all the direct benefits of fossil fuels—the enormous amount of energy indispensable to lifting and keeping whole societies out of poverty. She also ignores the fact that fossil fuels aren’t the only energy sources that require a great deal of mining—wind and solar do, too, requiring the excavation of far more earth per unit of energy produced for the minerals essential to making wind turbines and solar panels. Fossil fuels require far less land occupation per unit of energy generated.
What’s more, she and others count carbon dioxide only as a pollutant, as if the only thing it does in the atmosphere is warm the planet. Acknowledging that it does do so but declining for our purposes here to debate how much, we can point out that all green plants depend on carbon dioxide’s presence in the atmosphere as the carbon source for photosynthesis, which in turn produces carbohydrates and oxygen. We humans depend on both—we eat those carbohydrates as various grains, and we breathe the oxygen that is vital for life. If it were possible to remove all carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, life on Earth would cease.
The oceans’ algae and the forests do a great job of buffering atmospheric carbon dioxide. As levels have increased from both the use of fossil fuels and natural processes, there has been a greening of the Earth, resulting in increased yields of grain.
NASA reported on its website in 2016, “Carbon Dioxide Fertilization Greening Earth, Study Finds.” Here’s a portion of what the authors reported in the journal Nature Climate Change:
An international team of 32 authors from 24 institutions in eight countries led the effort, which involved using satellite data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advanced Very High-Resolution Radiometer instruments to help determine the leaf area index, or amount of leaf cover, over the planet’s vegetated regions. The greening represents an increase in leaves on plants and trees equivalent in area to two times the continental United States. From a quarter to half of Earth’s vegetated lands has shown significant greening over the last 35 years largely due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change on April 25.
I’m not sure the theory that the extraction of fossil fuels leads to sub-surface warming has been proven with any degree of certainty. In “Fossil fuel extraction could be contributing to climate change by heating Earth from within,” Rizwan Nawaz and Adel Sharif claim that “heat from the earth’s interior could be contributing to rising temperatures … fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas in layers and crevices beneath the Earth’s surface act as an insulating blanket, trapping heat from the planet’s interior. As these deposits have been emptied by fossil fuel extraction, more of that heat could be reaching the surface.”
Two uses of the conditional verb could suggest that this claim is mere speculation. That the void spaces created by fossil fuel extraction are quickly replaced by groundwater makes it likely that it is so. Water’s specific heat is double that of oil and gasoline. In other words, water’s insulating properties are higher than crude oil and would be expected to increase, not decrease, the insulating properties of the fluid filling any subterranean void spaces resulting from fossil fuel extraction.
Second, Buck claims that fossil fuels help underwrite corrupt and oppressive governments.
There is some truth to this claim, which Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) address in a 2021 Time Magazine article. In “A World Without Fossil Fuels Funding Our Enemies Would Be A Safer World for America,” they wrote,
Oil and gas development has often been associated with autocracy and corruption. Governments in countries such as Russia and Iran have used oil and gas to threaten neighbors and fund terrorism. Corruption, autocracy, and terrorism are a persistent threat to nations that stand on the rule of law, and America has long been the exemplar of the rule-of-law nation. A world in which oil and gas money has less power is a world that will likely have less corruption, autocracy, and terror. That world will be a safer world for America.
The solution to this problem, however, isn’t to cease using fossil fuels but to become energy independent, as we were in 2020, before the current administration decided to waterboard the oil and gas industry. And now we’re all paying for it at the gas pump.
Third, she says fossil fuels are connected to air pollution and its health effects.
Yet according to Our World in Data’s article “Air Pollution” (first published in October 2017; last revised in January 2021), by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, death rates from all air pollution from 1990 to 2019 have declined steadily from 156.05 to 85.62 per 100,000. Yet that happened during a time when fossil fuel use increased, largely due to transportation, and when CO2 emissions increased by 24%.
How can this be? There is only one explanation: improved technology. Man has steadily developed ways to utilize fossil fuels more efficiently. As nations’ economies improve due largely to the use of fossil fuels, their ability to afford cleaner environments—made possible in part by advanced emission controls on power plants fueled by coal and natural gas and on vehicles fueled by gasoline and diesel—increases. We all want to breathe cleaner air, and we do.
Diesel Technology Forum reports:
Recent long-term trends show that air quality and economic growth go hand in hand. While it takes more energy to fuel business expansion, the wealth generated by growing economic opportunity means greater uptake in clean and efficient technologies. That is great news for air quality! When it comes to powering things that move and do work, diesel technology has been the key technology. Over decades, the diesel platform has undergone a significant transformation to near-zero emissions. The adoption of these clean diesel technologies has been a contributor to air quality improvements.
Fourth, Buck says fossil fuels lead to environmental injustice.
As we have explained, the world’s levels of air pollution and health-related deaths have dropped while fossil fuel consumption has increased. And as technology continues to improve, this trend will continue as well.
But if you really want to talk about environmental injustice, the industries involved in the production of solar panels and the lithium-cobalt batteries used in EVs have quite a bit of blood on their hands.
In “Is It Ethical to Purchase An EV Lithium Battery Powered Vehicle?” Ronald Stein, policy advisor for The Heartland Institute and co-author with Todd Royal of Clean Energy Exploitations: Helping Citizens Understand the Environmental and Humanity Abuses that Support ‘Clean Energy’, has written:
There is virtually no existing transparency of the environmental degradation and the human rights abuses occurring in developing countries with yellow, brown, and black skinned people. Both human rights abuses and environmental degradation are directly connected to the mining for the exotic minerals and metals that are required to manufacture wind turbines, solar panels, and EV batteries. … The current fossil fuel infrastructure is less invasive than mining for the exotic minerals and metals required to create the batteries needed to store ‘green energy.’ In developing countries, these mining operations exploit child labor, and are responsible for the most egregious human rights violations of vulnerable minority populations. These operations are also directly destroying the planet through environmental degradation.
“Net-zero emission goals are not enough” and “we know we have to wind down the production of fossil fuels,” as Dr. Buck maintains, are naked assertions based in neither sound science nor economic reality. But what should we expect from an author of the IPCC report with a doctorate in development sociology? It is disappointing that her views are showcased in a publication that is supposed to focus on chemistry and chemical, not social, engineering.
Image: Engin Akyurt, Public Domain