The Dangers of Fossil Fuels
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
The Dangers of Fossil Fuels
The Earth's atmosphere today is far from clean. Many types of pollution fill the air humans breathe. This problem is largely due to the fact that most countries have been excessively reliant on fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuels are made of organic matter that has been compressed for thousands of years beneath the earth's surface. The process that forms fossil fuels is extensive and time-consuming. The amount of time it takes for fossil fuels to be produced makes these fuels exhaustible sources of energy, and at the speed with which the world is consuming them today, they will quickly be depleted.
This, however, is not the only problem with the world's excessive dependence on fossil fuels. The burning of these fuels releases many harmful gases, which are damaging to the health of humans. These emissions are not regulated tightly enough, as Neela Banerjee and Tony Barboza, writers for the Los Angeles Times, explain in "EPA to Propose Stricter Ozone Limit; A Tighter Standard Could Bring Cleaner Air to Millions. But Critics See a Threat to Jobs." Banerjee and Barboza state that the current limit for ground-level smog is 75 parts per billion, which is not low enough to protect people's health. No other legislation has been passed that would reform the limit and lower it to ensure better civilian health (par. 3). Banerjee and Barboza add that the opponents of a tighter standard, who are mainly "the oil industry, power companies and other industries, along with their mostly Republican allies in Congress, contend that a tighter ozone standard would damage the economy and send manufacturing jobs overseas" (par. 6).
Opponents argue that the ozone standard is healthy as is, and a new law would only harm the economy and the world. There is also controversy over whether the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting release of greenhouse gases cause global warming. Despite the staunch opposition, there is overwhelmingly clear scientific evidence that global warming is affected by humans. Findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should erase all doubts about the existence of global warming and climate change, however ("Climate Change Controversies"). Michael Mann identified the average temperatures from tree rings, coral reefs, and ice cores. Mann then compared the temperatures he recorded to the temperatures from 1000 AD to 1800 AD. His results are worth noting. The temperature of the northern hemisphere had been fairly constant from 1000-1900 AD (a 900-year period). Once the year passes 1900, however, the temperatures shoot up at an alarming rate ("Climate Change Controversies"). In just over 100 years, the temperature of the northern hemisphere has increased to almost three times what it was for the 900 years before. The Industrial Revolution began to spread across the world about fifty years earlier, and fossil fuels were burned with a new vigor, which resulted in the release of a significant amount of greenhouse gases. While correlation may not mean causation, many other scientific studies have also linked greenhouse gases to global warming, and one would be hard-pressed to find reliable evidence to counter Mann's findings.
The damage burning fossil fuels can cause was not widely known until fairly recently. But most nations have become dependent upon these fuels. The three main fossil fuels are coal, petroleum, and gas. According to "History of Fossil Fuel Usage since the Industrial Revolution," fossil fuels have played a large role in the world's development. The world came to depend heavily on fossil fuels after the Industrial Revolution began. The reserves of fossil fuels were seemingly endless, and coal, unlike many other fuels, could be used in its natural form. These and many other advantages caused many countries to switch from agrarian fuels to fossil fuels, which elevated the popularity of fossil fuels to new heights (par. 2).
The controversy around fossil fuels is widespread. Coral Davenport, a writer for the New York Times, touches on the different ideas people have in "Obama Pursuing Climate Accord in Lieu of Treaty." Scientists warn that people are already experiencing the effects of human-induced global warming: severe droughts, more wildfires, rising sea levels, and devastating tropical storms. These scientists contend that action needs to be taken quickly. However, as Davenport explains, many people "remain skeptical of the established science of human-caused global warming" (par. 5), and, as a result, are skeptical of the negative effects burning fossil fuels may have. These critics do not believe that burning fossil fuels is a problem, at least environmentally. Davenport also explains that many efforts have been made to curb these emissions, but efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol did not have the intended consequences. A large number of people believe that not much can be done to mitigate the problems burning fossil fuels causes.
Banerjee and Barboza point out another side of the debate: some parties claim that if efforts are made to curb fossil fuel emissions, the American economy may be endangered. The people with this mindset argue that "a tighter ozone standard would damage the economy and send manufacturing jobs overseas. Even some nonpartisan experts such as former regulators worry that a deep cut to the ozone implemented too fast could hammer local economies" (par. 6). This only adds another dimension to the ongoing debate surrounding fossil fuels.
There are also many social implications of burning fossil fuels; particularly, the emissions from burning fossil fuels are detrimental to human health. "The Health Care Burden of Fossil Fuels" reveals the somewhat shocking number of health problems and illnesses caused by particulate pollution from fossil-fueled power plants in 2013. In fact, over 30,000 premature deaths in 2013 are believed to be caused by pollution from fossil-fueled power plants. Referred to as "the human cost of energy," diseases caused by the burning of fossil fuels directly affect each and every human being.
Robert Polack, a professor of social work, Shelly Wood, a researcher, and Kimyatta Smith, a graduate student, analyze how the United States has come to be so dependent on fossil fuels in "An Analysis of Fossil-Fuel Dependence in the United States with Implications for Community Social Work." Pollack, Wood, and Smith explain the sectors of society that depend on fossil fuels, including transportation (both public and personal), the food industry, home heating, and, above all, energy production. These four groups cover most citizens' lives, illuminating just how dependent people are on fossil fuels (par. 3). The authors state that "personal transportation also became highly dependent on petroleum during the post-WWII era. . . . [The] system is highly dependent on petroleum for fueling commercial and personal vehicles and in its construction and maintenance. The movement of goods and people is now heavily reliant on fossil fuels, with 96% of all transportation utilizing petroleum" (par. 5). The food industry is also dependent on fossil fuels, as "current food production requires 10 units of fossil-fuel-derived energy for every unit of food produced" (par. 6). Polack, Wood, and Smith describe the possible ramifications of being dependent on fossil fuels, stating that petroleum production has been steadily declining, but demand for petroleum has not: "Since the 1980s, and accelerating in recent years, world consumption has dramatically outpaced discovery, with about four barrels consumed for every barrel discovered during 2002; moreover, production is now declining in two thirds of oil-producing countries" (par. 12).
Unfortunately, the political environment surrounding fossil fuels is not as clear-cut. Most politicians are reluctant to address the issue of fossil fuels and how they affect climate change. Banjeree and Barboza note that Republicans and Democrats are often split over the issue, which leads to a standstill in Congress over climate-change legislation. As a result, President Obama has tried to bypass Congress, but this only leads to more dissent from Republicans (par. 8). Davenport further clarifies the political mood surrounding climate change, explaining that "there is no chance that the currently gridlocked Senate will ratify a climate change treaty in the near future, especially in a political environment where many Republican lawmakers remain skeptical of the established science of human-caused global warming" (par. 5). As a result, most politicians are reluctant to even discuss climate change.
The fossil fuels used now are damaging to both the environment and to people's health. Despite the ramifications of using fossil fuels, most of the world has become excessively dependent on them, which does not bode well for the future. There are many social implications in being so dependent on fossil fuels; the store of fossil fuels will not last forever, and the burning of fossil fuels has proven to be detrimental to both human health and the environment. The transition to renewable energy will not be immediate, but it must happen if we are to have a cleaner, better, and healthier world.
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"Climate Change Controversies." Environmental Encyclopedia. Ed. Marci Bortman, Peter Brimblecombe, and Mary Ann Cunningham. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Science in Context. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
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Polack, Robert, Shelly Wood, and Kimyatta Smith. "An Analysis of Fossil-Fuel Dependence in the United States with Implications for Community Social Work."University of Windsor. 2010. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.
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