Two days before Christmas, the deputy mayor of Cap-Haitien brought to 95 the number of Haitians burned alive on December 14 after an overturned tanker truck caught fire and exploded. About 100 residents gathered around the overturned truck, according to news reports, trying to refuel when the fuel ignited.
The grisly accident in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, was at least the fourth such accident to occur in 2021, and the second in two months. As I wrote in these pages last month, November 5, “as several thousand policymakers, researchers and climate activists at the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow attempted to forge agreements on how to reduce the consumption of hydrocarbons, about 115 people were burned alive. trying to retrieve gasoline from a damaged tanker near Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
This accident follows an almost identical accident on July 17 in Kenya. As a newspaper report explained, “people had rushed to the scene with jerry cans to siphon fuel from the overturned tanker before it exploded.” The initial death toll was estimated at 13, but was later raised to 20. About a month later, another accident occurred in Lebanon, which is in the midst of a severe economic and energy crisis. According to Reuters, the Lebanese army “had seized a fuel storage tank hidden by black merchants and was distributing gasoline to residents when the explosion occurred.” The initial death toll was estimated at 28, but was later increased to 33. 80 others were injured.
It’s hard to imagine a worse way to die than to be burnt alive. And yet, in the past 12 months, at least 263 human beings have been immolated – and each of those deaths has been caused by extreme energy poverty. The conflagrations in Haiti, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Lebanon show how desperate people can be to get the energy they need to improve their lives. These four accidents show, once again, that the defining inequality in today’s world is the staggering disparity between the energy rich and the poor. More than 3 billion people around the world live in places where the per capita electricity consumption is less than that used by the average American refrigerator.
In Haiti, according to the World Bank, electricity consumption per capita is less than 40 kilowatt hours per year. By comparison, in the United States, this figure is almost 13,000 kWh per capita per year, or about 325 times more than that used by the average Haitian. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, electricity consumption is so low that the World Bank does not release any data on it.
But electricity poverty is only part of the story. Tens of millions of people around the world are in such desperate need of fuel that they risk their lives for a few liters of “free” gasoline or diesel. In 2019, around 270 people were burned to death trying to do just that. In January 2019, in Hidalgo, Mexico, around 85 people were burned to death as they attempted to recover gasoline from a pipeline that had been illegally operated. In May 2019, in Niger, 76 people died after an overturned tanker truck exploded as crowds attempted to retrieve the spilled fuel. Two months later in Nigeria, a similar accident left at least 45 dead. As the BBC reports: “People had gathered around the crashed tanker after the accident, some trying to scavenge fuel. In August 2019, around 64 people were killed in a similar accident in Tanzania. According to a newspaper report, “People were trying to recover fuel from the vehicle, which had overturned on a main road, when it exploded.”
What makes it all so beautiful, or maybe the word is picturesqueis that climate activists in rich countries never tire of denigrating hydrocarbons. To cite just two examples, in January Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and arguably America’s most famous climate activist, published an article in the New Yorker in which he said that if there was one “rule of thumb for dealing with the climate crisis, it would be: stop burning things”, including natural gas. McKibben insists that we should all shift our energy needs to solar and wind power and that “we can and must end the age of combustion quickly.”
About a week later, on Jan. 28, in his State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio said New York City would “forgo fossil fuels entirely” and “ban fossil fuel connections in the city. the city by the end of this decade, literally ensuring that our only choice is renewable energy.
But when people like McKibben and de Blasio use the words ‘we’ and ‘our’, they have the luxury of living in places where oil is so cheap and plentiful that they can imagine a world where it is not. required. McKibben is an academic-in-residence at Middlebury College, where annual tuition, tuition, accommodation, and meals cost students $ 76,820 per year. When McKibben and de Blasio use words like “us” and “our”, they are not speaking for the people who live in places like Cap-Haitien and Freetown.
Next time you hear a climate activist tell you how terrible it is to use hydrocarbons and that we should be using renewable energy, and only renewable energies, you could tell them what happened this year in Cap-Haitien and Freetown. You might remind them that instead of complaining about climate change, they should be grateful for the abundant energy that allows them to lead comfortable lives. We can also remind them that in 2021 alone, 263 human beings were immolated – burned alive – while trying to get their hands on a few liters of fuel.