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Curbing Fossil Fuels to Power a Public Health Revolution

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"Once you have the knowledge," His Holiness the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation on global climate change two years ago, "then the ethical responsibility becomes that much more important." His response referred to a map our research team produced showing the stark contrast between poorer countries most vulnerable to climate-sensitive diseases, versus industrialized nations pumping the majority of climate altering pollutants into the atmosphere. And on average, Americans emit six times more than the typical global citizen.

Inferred was a lack of compassion by a country that shows few signs of curbing its emissions in the face of overwhelming evidence of the adverse effects of global climate change -- be they ecological, societal or health-related impacts. Climate-sensitive diseases may threaten the poorest countries first; yet in a globalized world, an increase in disease anywhere, can eventually reach everywhere.

The simple truth is that our antiquated energy policies, along with other industrialized nations, are disrupting the planet's climate and threating many species, including our own. But much of our economy is dependent on fossil fuels. So to respond to the Dalai Lama's observation that we continue such behavior despite full knowledge of the harms involved, presents a daunting challenge... or does it?

Consider statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) that more than 800,000 people die prematurely each year from urban air pollution, mostly stemming from burning coal, oil and gasoline. Additionally, transportation powered by internal combustion engines (especially personally owned cars) reduces daily exercise options to the extent that WHO estimates nearly 2 million people die prematurely each year due to declines in physical fitness. These problems pertain to the U.S. More than 60,000 deaths occur annually from particulate air pollution, and an estimated 60 percent of American adults do not meet minimum levels of exercise as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC). Mix this last fact with some processed foods or sugary soft drinks and you have the perfect recipe for our nation's No. 1 raging epidemic of obesity and its sequelae.

So here's the good news: Imagine if cities in the U.S. improved design for safe walking and biking -- that is, "active" transport. Our research center actually studied this scenario in the Great Lakes region of the U.S., and found that by replacing short car trips (less than 2.5 miles one way) in urban areas with a fraction of bicycle trips, we could save lives and money. The air quality improvements, coupled with exercise by biking half of those short car trips just during four summer months could save 1,200 lives, several 100,000 hospitalizations, and $8 billion each year in avoided mortality and health costs. In short, what a huge public health dividend and golden opportunity by curbing our use of fossil fuels!

We are not alone with these research findings. A similar study from London showed large benefits from replacing automobile trips with bike commuting, for example: up to a 19 percent reduction in heart disease and stroke; 8 percent decline in dementia; 13 percent reduced risk of breast cancer; and a 39 percent decrease in road traffic crashes. One study in the U.S. that compared the best versus the worst cities for commuting by biking or walking found obesity and diabetes rate to be 20 percent and 23 percent lower, respectively.

"But won't it be an economic hardship to depart from using cheap fossil fuels?" -- a question I've heard echoed in halls of Congress and state capitals. Well actually, according to an international cost/benefit meta-analysis (by Drs. Nemet and Holloway) the answer is that to remove one ton of CO2 by switching to cleaner fuels, it might cost as much as $30 per ton. However, the associated air quality and health improvements from using the cleaner fuel provides benefits averaging $49 per ton of CO2 removed. That's almost $20 per ton of cleaner energy. The benefits clearly outweigh the costs tied to parting ways with today's conventional power sources.

But the health and environmental costs of burning hydrocarbons unfortunately are not accounted for in fuel prices. If they were, our energy policies would shift overnight away from unhealthy fossil fuels. If we fail to recognize the larger benefits side of the equation then, indeed, the dinosaurs will have their revenge as we continue to burn their remains ("fossil" fuels) fouling our air and disrupting global climate in the process.

In short, the choice is obvious: reducing combustion of fossil fuels saves lives and money. When speaking with the Dalai Lama again on May 15 in Madison, I will tell him the good news; what I thought was an insurmountable challenge regarding our use of energy might actually become an unprecedented opportunity for change that could have lasting benefits for humanity.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Global Health Institute in conjunction with the Change your Mind, Change the World 2013 conference. This series of dialogues on global health, sustainable well-being and science & happiness will feature his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and other thought leaders on May 15, and will be live Webcast on May 15 at 9:30am (CST) and 2pm (CST) via