Why Fighting Air Pollution and Stopping Climate Change Aren’t the Same Thing

Why Fighting Air Pollution and Stopping Climate Change Aren’t the Same Thing

Delhi morning, 2011 (Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier / Flickr)

This past December, the leaders of the world’s most populous countries, India and China, returned from the momentous Paris climate talks to record levels of air pollution in their capital cities. Even as Beijing, choking from the well-publicized murk in its own sky, extended its second, unprecedented red alert and suspended production at some 2,000 factories, Delhi faced pollution levels more than three times as severe. Much as the Paris deal deserves celebrating, its fruits could well wind up doing little to lift these cities’ smog, which have helped to make air pollution one of the leading causes of death and disease in our world today.

A hope has prevailed across most media commentators and environmental groups that curbs on carbon emissions will also fix the dirty air in these nations’ metropolises. But past experience suggests otherwise. Historically, pollution control inside the United States and other long-industrialized nations has meant tackling one enormous environmental problem while ignoring the other.

After a stinging haze began swirling across the Los Angeles basin in the mid-1940s, a political furor arose, and scientists and regulators set about trying to understand and contain the problem. At first they looked for solid particles and the sulfur oxides often associated with these, akin to the tiniest particulates now troubling Beijing and Delhi skies. Like these, Los Angeles’s smog pooled only across the basin, especially when trapped by overlying layer of cooler air. It stung eyes, obscured buildings, and stirred far-reaching concerns about Angelenos’ health. It drove so many residents to local clinics or emergency rooms that in the 1950s local doctors recognized a pervasive “smog disease” and became convinced it was triggering lung cancers.

The earliest emergency measures did significantly curb the overall amount of carbon being ignited across the basin. Sternest of these, accompanying a new smog alert system starting in 1955, a highest “health hazard” level set for sulfur dioxide and other recognized pollutants would trigger a far-reaching shutdown of industry, traffic, and businesses. Like that recently declared in Beijing, however, it was imposed only rarely, and for a very short time.

Most of the other ways in which Los Angeles and other American cities tamed this sort of air pollution, by contrast, actually enabled more carbon to be burnt. New science, laws, monitoring, and enforcement aimed only at alleviating local or regional accumulations of contaminants. They concentrated far less on conflagrations of carbon than on human exposures, especially threats to people’s health. California, then the entire United States, adopted a similar strategy: enclosing those fires that blazed in factories or power plants or cars, or else filtering out the least healthy effluents. Catalytic converters, for instance, “solved” only one part of the environmental problems posed by cars, what went out the tailpipe. They didn’t address either how much or what kind of fuel was being burned.

Successful as this earlier wave of environmental regulation has been with what thereby became known as conventional pollutants, it has remained all too effectively disengaged from the torrent of fossil fuels Americans have continued to burn. Even as average ozone levels are now 40 percent lower than in the 1970s, Los Angeles has twice as many cars. A few measures, like the advent of mass transit and of hybrid vehicles, have kept Americans’ carbon emissions from rising as much as they might have. But overall, the pollution control ushered in by the Clean Air Act actually permitted the United States to become the world’s biggest emitter of carbon over the late twentieth century and the single greatest contributor to global climate change.

We Americans also have a hard time remembering that half a century ago in our country, “conventional” pollution provided a tremendous spur for mobilizing citizens. Its localized, palpable and downright pathological presence in and around American cities furnished the single most powerful rationale for a mass environmental movement. Among the fruits of its crowning legacy, the Clean Air Act, are the Obama administration’s new rules targeting carbon emissions.

Yet the imperceptible, non-toxic character of greenhouse gases has long hindered any comparable movement on the climate’s behalf in a nation such as the United States, at least until the effects of climate change started hitting home. Even today, the massive release of carbon-rich methane from an underground storage facility near Los Angeles, though on-going since October, did not make many headlines until nearby residents started to get sick. And what most bothered them even then was not methane itself but smellier chemicals, deliberately added to signal its odorless presence.

Now, those of us cheering the new climate pact in nations whose cities seem less afflicted need to understand that the push to curb pollution in countries such as China or India cannot, and should not, be the same as our own. Politically speaking, only by tying the deadly smog over their cities to the imperative of reducing carbon emissions can leaders, activists, and policymakers in the global South stand a chance of actually achieving or going beyond what they’ve promised in Paris. Already they’ve been making moves that work against both pollution and carbon emissions: Beijing has been gradually shutting down its coal-fired power plants and most recently, Delhi has attempted to halve the drivers on its roads. If there is to be any hope of solving the twin climate and pollution crises, such emergency measures will need to shift into the realm of sustained policy.

To support them, “capacity building” promised by the new pact for developing nations should prioritize shifts in these countries’ fuel mixes that actually do target the dirty air afflicting cities like Beijing and Delhi. Simply moving coal-fired power plants further from city centers won’t cut it. And this assistance should not be limited to the problem as we in the global North tend to define it: reducing the volume of fossil fuel is being burnt. Instead, throughout the global South, this aid should also support all the monitoring, expertise, technology, and enforcement that reduces people’s exposures to the most dangerous by-products of fossil-fueled fires, protections most climate-related policy and activism in North America and Europe now take for granted. This pollution is killing and sickening millions right now, not just in a future of rising sea-levels and worsening droughts or storms. And with such cities set to receive the greatest share of global population growth in coming decades, this problem too threatens to get worse before it gets better.


Christopher Sellers is the author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th-Century America. He is a professor of history at Stony Brook University in New York.

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