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Bill McKibben writes for The New Yorker in a March 18, 2022 article titled "In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things" (emphasis added):

Our species depends on combustion; it made us human, and then it made us modern. But, having spent millennia learning to harness fire, and three centuries using it to fashion the world we know, we must spend the next years systematically eradicating it. Because, taken together, those blazes—the fires beneath the hoods of 1.4 billion vehicles and in the homes of billions more people, in giant power plants, and in the boilers of factories and the engines of airplanes [and] ships—are more destructive than the most powerful volcanoes, dwarfing Krakatoa and Tambora. The smoke and smog from those engines and appliances directly kill nine million people a year, more deaths than those caused by war and terrorism, not to mention malaria and tuberculosis, together. (In 2020, fossil-fuel pollution killed three times as many people as COVID-19 did.)

In 2020, did three times as many people die from fossil-fuel pollution as from COVID-19?

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The claim's specificity is probably not rock-solid, but the idea that fossil fuels kill huge numbers of people annually is sound.

I'm assuming McKibben was relying on this study from Harvard University published in Environmental Research, which provides a point-estimate of deaths from sub-2.5 micron particulate matter emissions of 8.7M deaths per year. Rounding that off produces a 9M/year estimate.

It's important to note that the study itself identifies some pretty dramatically wide 95% confidence intervals (including negative values - which would represent air pollution actually prolonging people's lives by preventing their death... lol). The real number could be 0 or as high as 14M deaths per year.

That study does a good job at improving on the existing methodology for modeling - and typing - air pollution. In particular, it focused on filling in gaps left by studies that generally use satellite data because satellites can't tell if a given bit of PM2.5 came from fossil fuels, agriculture, or folks cooking over campfires. Those corrections produced a big jump in the numbers of deaths attributable to fossil fuels, in no small part because it's able to examine the intersection between burning of large amounts of fossil fuels and high population densities associated with urban centers - particularly in China. (There's a whole section in the study devoted to the work China has been doing to get it's air pollution under control, and incorporating that tightens the 95% CI considerably).

There's also some amount of rhetorical license due to McKibben since fossil fuels are a century+ old energy paradigm, and COVID-19 is both recent, and being swiftly studied and adapted to. In a given year, have fossil fuels killed exactly thrice as many people as COVID-19? Estimates of that specificity aren't really possible.

But in the long run, fossil fuels' body count makes a mockery of COVID-19, for sure.

It's also important to note that this is ONLY considering deaths from PM2.5 exposures. Fossil fuels kill in a dizzying variety of ways from mining accidents (coal mining has gotten a lot better since its inception, but it's still a dangerous business, as is oil drilling), climate impacts, political factors (it's not entirely unreasonable to lay casualties of wars fought over oil fields at the feet of fossil fuels, etc).

Most of these numbers are unknown, many unknowable, and apportionment and attribution is rife with philosophical issues.

But we know enough to know that fossil fuels are bad.

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    So to say "fossil fuels killed more than COVID-19 in 2020" would be too specific -- but what about "fossil fuels kill more in an average year than COVID-19 killed in 2020"?
    – LShaver
    Mar 22 at 14:12
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    @LShaver The problem is in making a claim that we know how many people COVID-19 killed, and how many people Fossil Fuels killed. We don't have good enough data to make precise point estimates of either. We just know both numbers are big - way bigger than we want them to be. There's strong evidence that we grossly underestimate both figures. If I was being graded on accuracy of language, rather than rhetorical impact I would say they are, at the least, reasonably comparable to one another in that they are both very deadly.... but one is a thing we choose to do to ourselves continuously. Mar 22 at 14:25
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    @reirab Gasoline/Petrol in particular are fairly clean-burning fuels insofar as PM2.5 is concerned. PM2.5 mostly comes from coal. So yes, Transportation is more GHG, but nowhere near as much PM. Mar 23 at 20:13
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    @reirab the author is using "engine" in the broad sense of a "machine designed to convert one or more forms of energy into mechanical energy", which also applies to power plants which first use an engine to create mechanical (rotational) energy, which is then used to generate electricity.
    – LShaver
    Mar 24 at 0:41
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    I'm accepting this answer because it directly addresses the source of the 9 million figure, and explains why the comparison itself (irrespective of the numbers) is questionable.
    – LShaver
    Mar 24 at 15:05
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The smoke and smog from those engines and appliances directly kill nine million people a year

I’ll address the “nine million people a year” estimate. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 7 million people a year “die prematurely” from air pollution. They break this down into household pollution, which according to their estimates causes 3.8 million premature deaths, and ambient (outdoor) air pollution, which causes 4.2 million premature deaths.* You can find detailed explanations of the nature of these sources of pollution and references to further resources on the above-linked web pages.

* Since 3.8+4.2=8 and yet the WHO cites 7 million as the estimate for the total air pollution deaths, presumably that means that 1 million of the premature deaths are classified as being brought about by both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Now, 7 million is not that far from 9 million, so in that sense McKibben’s estimate appears plausible. However, I see a couple of issues with his way of presenting things:

  • “directly kills” seems stronger than “causes premature deaths”, which is a vague and not precisely quantified statement. (E.g., if someone died six months sooner than they would have otherwise because pollution exacerbated some medical condition they had, it’s probably misleading to say they were “directly killed”, but “died prematurely” sounds more correct.)

  • McKibben’s article focuses on humanity’s need to stop burning fossil fuels (e.g., the article’s subheadline reads “The truth is new and counterintuitive: we have the technology necessary to rapidly ditch fossil fuels”). However, the 3.8 million premature deaths from household pollution are, according to WHO’s explanation, “attributable to inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves paired with solid fuels and kerosene.” The WHO also writes: “Around 2.6 billion people cook using polluting open fires or simple stoves fuelled by kerosene, biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal.”

    Now, biomass is not a fossil fuel, so if you’re only interested in deaths related to fossil fuels, the 3.8 million figure is surely an overcount. But McKibben’s writing seems to conflate multiple sources of pollution in a single paragraph by talking less precisely about “fires”, (and its synonyms “combustion” and “blazes” — well, this is a New Yorker article after all…), while making the overall target of the article appear to be fossil fuels specifically.

    In any case, from the WHO’s explanation it’s clear that these household pollution premature deaths are caused largely due to the terrible methods of burning fuel (whether fossil-based or not), which result in huge amounts of harmful particulate matter being released, rather than to the mere fact of the burning itself. So if you count these deaths in the seven million statistic, the marshaling of these deaths in support of McKibben’s “stop burning things” argument seems a bit dishonest to me. And if you don’t count them, then we are down to only 4.2 million deaths from outdoor pollution, which is quite far from McKibben’s 9 million.

Summary: the WHO is not necessarily the only or most authoritative source of data on this topic, so McKibben might be relying on another source that’s equally credible. However, at least when cross checking his claims against the WHO’s data, they seem a tad hyperbolic to me.

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    I'm guessing the 9 million figure is from this article from April 2021, which was widely reported in the news. If you Google "fossil fuel deaths by year" it's referenced in all five of the first results.
    – LShaver
    Mar 22 at 13:51
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    Your distinction between "directly kills" and "causes premature deaths" is identical for covid. Mar 22 at 19:22
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    @TechInquisitor no, it is not. The claim is that the modern industrialized world has air pollution which can cause someone to die a few months sooner on average. However, that can be misleading, as the average lifespan is a lot longer than it was in pre-industrial times due to better food distribution and medicine. So if someone would have died at 50 in the middle ages, would have died at 92 in modern society without air pollution but dies at 90 due to air pollution, would it be better in the middle ages? On the other hand, with covid you can die at 30 while otherwise you could have reached 90
    – vsz
    Mar 23 at 5:14
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    @vsz According to the cdc, in the US, all deaths involving covid for individuals 30-40 years old account for less than 2% of deaths for all ages involving covid, which is a similar total number of deaths due to other diseases in that age group. Considering that comorbidities are a serious confounding factor, it is fairly safe to say that very very (I only put 2, not 3 smh) few 30 year olds died to covid who would have lived to 90.
    – BlackThorn
    Mar 23 at 16:36
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    @DanRomik agreed, we shouldn't be debating about covid deaths in the comments, but this is still relevant to your answer. The question is about relating covid deaths to pollution deaths, so the semantics between the two are very much on topic. Your answer only addressed the semantics of pollution deaths while ignoring the fact that many of the same issues are present in covid death accounting.
    – BlackThorn
    Mar 23 at 17:05
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The smoke and smog from those engines and appliances directly kill nine million people a year

In 2020, fossil-fuel pollution killed three times as many people as COVID-19 did.

The Dan Romik's answer does a good job of critiquing the 9 million people per year, but the other side of the equation is also uncertain, as in did only 3 million people die of COVID-19 in 2020? Studies have tried to estimate the true death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and they come up with an answer that is many times higher than the official one. Nature discusses two models that attempt to use excess mortality to estimate the true death toll, and the answers are about three times greater than the reported deaths:

COVID'S true toll

Another challenge to the official numbers has recently been published, though at time of writing this is currently only available as a non-peer reviewed pre-print, is an analysis of nasopharyngeal swab taken from 1,118 deceased individuals at a single hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. The detected COVID-19 was detected among 32.0% of those samples. During times of peak transmission COVID-19 was detected in ∼90% of all deaths. This indicates that only about 10% of COVID-19+ deaths were identified in life, indicating an under-counting of approximately an order of magnitude. This is consistent with a surprisingly low incidence of reported COVID across much of Africa and may indicate the true death toll is many times that reported.

While there is plenty of uncertainty in both these analyses. In the former there are semantic questions about how deaths indirectly related to covid are counted in this context. In the latter is very hard to generalise to wider situations than this hospital and would be expected to be very different in areas with more testing capacity, which probably means most of the world outside of Africa. However considering both these areas of uncertainty assuming that only 3 million people died from COVID-19 in 2020 is not well supported by the evidence.

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    What is the "official" count for 2020, if there is one? If we're applying a less conservative model to covid deaths, it only makes sense to apply a less conservative model to fossil fuel deaths as well. So we should at least start by comparing the "official" numbers.
    – LShaver
    Mar 22 at 13:53
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    @LShaver Our world in data has total_deaths = 1,881,743 for the end of 2020. As they have 17 for 22nd Jan I think that is an answer.
    – User65535
    Mar 22 at 14:27
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    Excess death would also include deaths caused by the restrictions imposed by governments (via depression, less exercise etc), even including deaths resulting from vaccine side effects. I don't necessarily claim these are the most important factors, but people have been very much on the lookout for covid-related deaths, and since there are so much excess death that's unaccounted for you need some real evidence to attribute all of it to the virus itself. This especially since the world has changed quite extensively by the reactions to covid, and we can't know 100% they were all necessary.
    – EdvinW
    Mar 23 at 13:40
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    @EdvinW, I agree. Deaths caused by stupid restrictions, fear and lifestyle changes are unfair to be counted as caused by the virus. Mar 23 at 14:41
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    I do try and mention that, "there are semantic questions about how deaths indirectly related to covid are counted in this context". Any quantification of this effect you are aware would help the answer if you pointed me at it.
    – User65535
    Mar 23 at 14:44

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