Energy security as human security

Jonna Nyman

Not only are current patterns of energy exploitation a key contributor to climate instability, they also affect human security directly. First, we have the ‘indirect’ side-effects of fossil fuel burning: the impact of climate change on human health. According to the World Health Organisation, ‘global warming that has occurred since the 1970s caused over 140 000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004’. This includes not only deaths from pollution related illnesses, but also deaths from extreme heat, increase in the rate and range of weather-related natural disasters, increasing risk of floods and droughts from variable rainfall patterns (both of which increase risk of diseases, particularly in developing countries – including diarrhea, dengue fever and malaria). Changing weather patterns will also affect food security, which in turn increases the risk of malnutrition and undernutuition, particularly in the developing world (see WHO climate change and health factsheet).

Secondly, the energy extraction process has a more direct impact on human security. There are no accurate figures on how many die in coal mining accidents globally, though some estimate mining accidents alone kill around 12,000 annually. Coal miners also suffer a high risk of developing black lung disease from inhaling coal dust, as well as lung cancer and other lung diseases. Climate change is also likely to increase the ‘occupational health hazards’ associated with coal mining. Oil drilling and extraction carries it’s own hazards. The impact on local communities can be devastating. When accidents occur, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it causes a huge amount of damage to ecosystems, marine and wildlife habitats, as well as local fishing and tourism. Both residents and those involved in the clean-up also suffered long-term health consequences.

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Many people volunteered to help with the clean up operation after the BP oil spill, to minimise wildlife damage. Little did they know that they risked serious long-term health consequences in the process

Fracking, which is used to extract both shale gas and oil and which has so far been most popular in the United States, has been lauded for its climate benefits as shale gas is seen to be more environmentally friendly than coal. However, fracking releases methane into the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Other pollutants released by the drilling are known to cause ‘short-term illness, cancer, organ damage, nervous system disorders and birth defects or even death’. Groundwater pollution has been another big side-effect in areas near big shale-plays, and there is an as-yet unclear link between fracking and an increase in earthquakes.

Clearly, extracting fossil fuels has a serious impact on human survival, health and well-being, and these are all issues largely overlooked in political discussions on energy security.

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