Global air pollution kills millions

Breaking bad

The recent accounts of massive air pollution overloads in major cities across the globe are frightening. These are cities where the air is pratically unbreathable, where people stay indoors, the windows shut tight, the front door locked, trying to keep the air-borne pollution from entering their homes. Pedestrians stumble along, coughing into their facemasks—pressing them closer to their nose and mouth. Why has air pollution become so bad when there have been so many international agreements that supposedly set limits on the emission of air-borne pollutants?

The cities with the worst problems are mostly in China and India. But many large African cities don’t report air pollution levels. The suspicion is that most of the largest African cities also have major problems with toxic air pollution. Europe is not far behind.  Milan, Naples, Barcelona and London have all breached their safe limits during the last month.

According to a recent study in Nature, more people now die from air pollution than malaria and HIV combined. That’s counting 1.4 million people a year in China and 650,000 in India. In Europe it’s estimated that air pollution kills 180,000 a year.

It would be easy to blame everything on climate change. That way no one is really to blame because they say we have a shared responsibility. Any manager knows that that means that nothing gets done. Shared responsibility is no responsibility.

The disgusting smogs that settle like a miasma on the streets of these cities are not caused by climate change. But the same irresponsible negligence, greed, and self-interest that is rapidly destabilizing the global climate has created a massive problem of urban pollution in many of the largest cities across the globe.

Most of the smog and pollution in the urban environment are from vehicles burning gasoline and diesel fuel. But in many of the cities in Asia, hundreds of thousands of poor families cooking with wood, charcoal or dung generate clouds of acrid smoke that makes the problem several times worse. It will also eventually kill many of the small children playing around the stoves. In Haiti, where practically all the urban poor cook over charcoal, air pollution from cooking over charcoal and wood kills several thousand children a year. But poor people are not to be blamed for being poor and having only enough money to buy a handful of pieces of charcoal to cook their evening meal.

Keeping nitrous oxide and particulates out of vehicle exhaust systems is not difficult. Catalytic converters have been around for decades and microfilters are commonplace. Power station flue gases can be scrubbed squeaky clean. So why isn’t this done ? I think we all know the answer. Industrial enterprises are in the business of making money. They say that it’s not their job to protect the environment; it’s not their fault if the laws against emissions of air-borne pollutants are too lax. Or in many developing countries inexistent. Its the job of legislators to legislate; business and commerce create employment, provide jobs, keeps the economy moving forward and makes the world a better place. The environment? That’s not their business.

Except that it is. The big energy companies have made the environment very much their business.

In America, the oil companies, the coal industry, and companies like Koch Industries have for decades systematically worked to subvert and block all attempts by legislators to tighten environmental standards and limit emissions from power stations, transportation systems, and industrial production ; in fact any major industrial or commercial operation that produces air-borne effluents. And that’s pretty much all of them.

It’s worth remembering that old joke : Ah democracy. The best government that money can buy!

This is nothing new. It’s just that the stakes are substantially higher. Whereas before, politicians were being paid to look the other way during the prohibition era, bribed to approve a dodgy land purchase in Califormia, or persuaded that a bid from a particular firm was clearly superior in a lucrative government contract—the impact of these commonplace forms of corruption was relatively local. But now the scale of the damage caused is much greater.

Fossil fuel and mineral processing industries constantly coerce politicians and manipulate legislation so as to prevent any initiative that tries to force them to pay their externalised costs. The cost of their pollution. Part of their approach is to convince people that in fact there are no external costs : that the environment has an almost infinite capacity to absorb pollutants ; that flue gas emissions dissipate in no time at all; that the ocean is infinitely accommodating, and that increasing levels of carbon dioxide is naturally good for plants. When urban smog becomes so bad that it cannot be ignored, industry spokesmen will blame weird weather : stronger than usual temperature inversions and the unpredictable effects El Nino.

The inability to substantially reduce pollution levels in urban environments is one of the most egregious failures of national governments. If the first priority of governments is to protect their people ; almost all developed country governments have failed. Air pollution kills thousands more people than terrorists. Spending billions of dollars to arm the nation against jihadis when so many people die from urban air pollution makes sense only if you work for the arms industry. Spending millions of dollars to subsidize the oil and coal industries when you know that their emissions exact a massive external cost is simply indefensible—yet many politicians refuse to change the status quo : it’s just too profitable.

So urban smog and air pollution will continue to have a deadly and chronic health impact on millions of people in dozens of major cities around the world—as long as politicians and legislators find it impossible to stand up to big business and their determination to block any legislation that threatens the staus quo. The profitable staus quo.

So what of climate change in this context of toxic smog and air pollution sickness? Imagine a city where air pollution is excessive–a red alert has been issued ; the elderly, the frail, and the young are advised to stay indoors. The temperature is a balmy 25 °C. But the next day, a heat wave exacerbated by climate change raises urban daytime temperatures to 45°C. Even with clean air, if this temperature continues for several days, hundreds maybe thousands of people will die. As they did in the heatwaves in Europe in 2003 and in Russia in 2010 when 72 000 and 55 000 people died respectively.

This nightmare combination of high levels of air pollution and heat wave temperatures will have a catastrophic impact on the health of urban communities. The cost of trying to help and care for so many sick and dying people will be atronomical. And 2015 was just declared the hottest year since records began. “Uncharted territory”, one climate expert called it. But the truth is :  it’s a lot more dangerous than that.

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