Monday, January 26, 2015

Air Pollution Provides Model of Success

"Urbanization and Air Pollution: Then and Now," by David D. Parrish and William R. Stockwell appeared in Eos, Earth and Space Science News, Vol 96, No 1, 15 Jan 2015, page 12. The article was about events concerning air pollution since the 1940s, but it provides an interesting analogy for how to deal with climate change. The situation with air pollution was very similar and many of the problems were the same.

The authors wrote of how bad air pollution was in the 1940s and 1950s, stating, "Episodes of high levels sulfurous smog killed or sickened thousands in Donora, Penn, in 1948, as well as in London in 1952." Continuing, they state, "These events were the result of very high emissions of sulfur dioxide, smoke, and other particles during stagnant, foggy weather conditions." Additionally,
At its height in the 1950s and 1960s, air pollution got so bad in Los Angeles that reportedly "parents kept their kids out of school; athletes trained indoors; citrus growers and sugar-beet producers watched in dismay as their crops withered; the elderly and young crowded into doctors' offices and hospital ERs with throbbing heads and shortness of breath"

The situation they describe was one where high levels of manmade emissions caused all sorts of environmental issues - similar to the situation with climate change.

They then state,
In North America and Europe, the coupling of industrialization and air pollution required the creation of air quality standards and regulations for emissions sources such as vehicles, electrical power generation, and industrial facilities. The success of these efforts has caused the most severe air pollution episodes to be distant memories in those regions.

If you didn't know the article was about air pollution it would be easy to think they are discussing actions to control climate change in this discussion. Even the sources of the emissions are the same.
In Los Angeles, scientific and engineering advances combined with political and societal commitment sustained over decades resulted in remarkable air quality improvement.

Of course, the issue is cost and they state, "Looking back, has the improved air quality in our cities been worth the large expense required?" Again, the parallels are interesting, in a grim, scholarly way. Today, we are faced with manmade emissions that are destroying the climate and causing all manner of deleterious effects on people. The only way to deal with the problem is to address the source, but the question is how much is it going to cost?

The EPA said the cost of air pollution control was an estimated $520 billion between 1970 and 1990 (constant 1990 dollars). At the same time there have been benefits and the EPA estimates monetized benefits to come to $22 trillion. That is about 44 times as much as the cost. The cost-to-benefit ratio is very good. With the success of air pollution control measures, you would think it would be easy to convince the populous and governments climate change legislation is a good thing. I mean, who wouldn't like an investment where you get $44 for ever $1 you invest? The problem is people have forgotten how bad it used to be.
Progress there and across the United States occurred over such a long period that many have forgotten how bad air pollution once was and have failed to notice the gains made. In fact, most people alive in the United States today never experienced the very poor air quality of Los Angeles that occurred in past decades. This fading societal memory poses another challenge: how to ensure that improved air quality is not compromised as communities focus on efforts to spur depressed economies and deal with other urgent societal problems.
People forget. They forget how bad it was; they forget how we fought the problem; they forget how we overcame the problem. But, the worst part is they forget there was even any problem to begin with.

Once again, the analogy is a good one. People don't believe how bad the climate change problem is; they don't believe we can overcome the problem; they don't believe it is to our benefit to overcome the problem; but, worst of all, they don't believe there is a problem.

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