Energy, climate and the future of health by Dan Bednarz, Ph.D.

Published on 5 Jul 2007 by Energy Bulletin. Archived on 5 Jul 2007.

Energy, climate and the future of health

by Dan Bednarz, Ph.D.

Author’s Note: This working issue brief is being circulated to health departments and hospital administrators across the country. Readers are enjoined to get it in front of local public health officials and other medical professionals and administrators and ask them to join the collaboration. Comments, editions, revisions, and suggestions welcome -DB

We have only two modes—complacency and panic.”

James R. Schlesinger, the nation’s first energy secretary.


This issue brief summarizes:

  1. the public policy relationships between peak oil and climate change (AKA global warming);
  2. the population-level health threats generated or aggravated by peak oil and global warming;
  3. how these two forces of social change endanger the viability of public health and healthcare systems;
  4. and the policy implications of the above for the health of the nation that will be pursued through The Collaboration on Energy, Climate and the Future of Health, which formed at the Indianapolis/Marion County Health Department May 31, 2007.

I: Issue Overview

If our public health and health-delivering institutions are to adapt to major natural environmental changes in the 21st century they must develop a cooperative, conceptually inventive1 and integrated response to global warming and peak oil. This will require the involvement of the three levels of government and include offices of public health, hospitals and medical complexes, social services, environment, economic development, urban planning, transportation, sustainability, etc., as well as citizens, business, academia, foundations, and non-governmental healthcare providers –preventive and clinical/acute.

Despite numerous serious programmatic and fiscal challenges confronting the nation’s public health and healthcare institutions, climate change and energy scarcity are driving forces that will set the parameters for how they operate.

Although peak oil is a geological event with cultural ramifications its onset threatens the natural environment since it will lead to pressure on government to “cut red tape” and allow unrestricted mining of coal and tar sands, and perhaps “shale oil” and other hydrocarbon sources to meet energy demand. Already, “a powerful roster of Democrats and Republicans is pushing to subsidize coal as the king of alternative fuels2.” Such efforts to prolong the fossil fuel era may be unsustainable for lack of fossil fuels to adequately replace oil. Accordingly, the consequences of peak oil, which are impossible to quantitatively estimate, appear certain to halt to economic growth, and in the worst case to introduce permanent socioeconomic stagnation, decline or collapse. Like peak oil, climate change carries massive cultural implications, but its primary outcome is a bundle of ecological perturbations, some of catastrophic sociological scale.

Indeed, each of these threats alone can trigger classic “vicious circles3” and a cautionary note is in order. Analyzing them in the standard Health Impact Assessment (HIA) framework, though necessary, chances mischaracterizing them as yet another benefit-cost policy decision between the economy and the environment. This dichotomy is false4. Peak oil and global warming appear to be, respectively, obdurate geological and ecological constraints on economic activity and social complexity5; they signal a need for a fundamental reconceptualization in the health sciences of humanity’s place in the biosphere6. Further, it is not far-fetched to say that they will –unfortunately later rather than sooner—awaken or force a majority of citizens to this needed rethinking and re-experiencing of our place in nature.

Thus, the question of which is more critical –peak oil or global warming– is counterproductive and a reflection of political rivalries, ideology, vested interests or perhaps honest misunderstanding. Good cases can be made for either as preeminent. Nonetheless, and this is not well understood in society, it appears that peak oil is most urgent in terms of onset and immediate socioeconomic severity. It may occur in less than five years –it may be commencing—and will explode into public consciousness as it disrupts social and economic activities with stark proportions. Given high level uncertainty, climate change may play out over the course of this century; conversely, there is mounting concern7 that the earth may be approaching inflection or tipping points which will usher in sudden –within a decade—deleterious events that trigger various health catastrophes: disease and famines caused by droughts (there is a fresh water crisis in many parts of the world, and in a related matter American aquifers are faced with depletion8), floods, a tipping of the Gulf Stream Conveyor Belt9 (but see this10 revision), extreme regional temperature increases and declines, melting ice sheets/rising sea levels, species invasions and disease vector advances, “hot” species extinction, to cite a few salient phenomena.

Rather than assign ascendancy to either, for sound health policy a nuanced grasp of their reciprocal relationships is needed, especially since it appears, 1) both will produce profound change for much or all of the 21st century, and 2) mitigating one while ignoring the other can be counterproductive. David Strahan11 argues that climate change and peak oil partisans, who often operate in isolation from or opposition to one another:

…ought to be such natural allies. For every climate argument there’s a strong peak one to reinforce it. The climate change campaigner wants to reduce food miles and encourage local agriculture in order to cut carbon emissions; the peak oilier wants the same to secure the food supply when fuel runs short. The climate change campaigner wants higher vehicle fuel economy to cut carbon emissions; the peak oiler to help defer the date of peak production and its attendant economic crisis. Broadly speaking both agendas call for an early and rapid transition away from the oil economy….

Strahan also discusses12 the Stern Report on global warming and notes that it accepts dubious information about the distant onset of peak oil which would make Stern’s13 calculations of economic costs invalid. In similar fashion, Uppsala University’s Kjell Aleklett14 and his colleagues claim that the more severe of the recent IPCC15 global warming family of scenarios “require more oil [to be available on the market for consumption] than what is realistically possible” because of the nearness of peak oil. They further report the same holds for natural gas and even16 coal17 (which many energy analysts think is super-abundant and will smoothly replace oil).

This does not imply that we need not worry about future global warming or that the amount of greenhouse gasses already –due to the time delay involved– released by fossil fuel burning is insignificant; or that Aleklett and his colleagues know with certainty how much oil remains. It is to affirm that both issues need to be understood simultaneously to make sound public policy choices, given the tendency of proponents of one issue to discount or misconstrue the other issue. To this point in our nation’s history the abundance of natural resources has indulged, even institutionalized, a spendthrift attitude toward social policy. Simply put, we will have fewer degrees of freedom to misallocate (pork barrels, miscalculations, waste, fraud and abuse) natural and economic resources as we face the compounding challenge of peak oil and global warming.


h/t: Speaking Truth to Power