Isn’t 8 Million Deaths a Call to Action?

A recent article from earlier this year, put out by Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, analyzed fossil fuel emissions’ impact on human mortality and found that fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for more than 8 million deaths worldwide (Burrows 2021). The driving force in this system is the human demand for energy which leads to pressure on the system in the form of carbon emissions to the atmosphere due to the fossil fuel resources used for the majority of the global energy needs.

The state of the system, where carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere and oceans from fossil fuel combustion for energy needs, has led to concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to be averaging 412.5 part per million currently (IEA 2021). The combustion of coal, petroleum products, and natural gas have created environmental issues worldwide and has led to climate change, air pollution, and ocean acidification (McKinney, et al. 2019, 195). These issues are not only impacting the environment, but the direct impact to human mortality rates can be attributed to fossil fuel air pollution now as well. With U.S. energy related carbon dioxide emissions projected to continue around 5 billion metric tons per year, efforts need to be focused on reducing those emissions (EIA 2021). One of many needed solution responses to reduce impacts to the system is carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS). By reducing the amount of emissions at the source of generation as much as possible, the continued impacts from the use of fossil fuels can be slowed by CCUS to provide more time to develop more renewable solutions.

Figure 1. U.S. carbon emissions projections

Source: (EIA 2021).

A major issue with carbon accumulation in the atmosphere and oceans is that these large stocks create delays in the complex system. These delays can take years or decades to fully reveal the depth of the issue, so these long delays create more room for inaction. If we wait until the problems become obvious, it will likely be too late the solve the problem with less drastic impacts to life and the environment (Meadows and Wright 2008, 103-105). These long delays, combined with the concept of bounded rationality, where individuals are making the best choices based on their own information and needs, leads to the projection that fossil fuel use will continue for decades to come and increasing the problems further. The non-linear, and delayed, impacts require more proactive solutions and responses.


Do you think that bounded rationality can be countered by education alone? It seems like information about carbon dioxide and its impacts are easily available, yet the behaviors continue. Should policy and regulation be utilized more if education is not effective?


Burrows, Leah. 2021. “Deaths from Fossil Fuel Emissions Higher Than Previously Thought.” Harvard. February 9. Accessed July 7, 2021.

EIA. 2021. “EIA’s AEO2021 Shows U.S. Energy-related CO2 Emissions Rising After the Mid-2030s.” Energy Information Agency. February 21. Accessed July 7, 2021.

IEA. 2021. “CO2 Emissions.” International Energy Agency. Accessed July 7, 2021.

McKinney, Michael L., Robert M. Schoch, Logan Yonavjak, and Grant A. Mincy. 2019. Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions. 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. 2008. Thinking in Systems: a Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub.

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