For two weeks, I’ve been coughing. In a quiet moment, I looked up New York air quality and found that, according to the American Lung Association, New York gets a D for ozone pollution and Suffolk County, including the fancy Hamptons, an F. “Illness” explained. But no-one talks much about New York smog–we hear that about LA, and now especially about China. We’re Orientalizing our ozone.
In fact, those of us who are not scientists are often confusing terms. As so often, our cultural stereotypes fill in the blanks, so we assume China is now the worst offender. Ironically, a recent study of China’s regulations during the Beijing Olympics shows that mitigating climate change would be possible if there was political will to do so, while London’s Olympics are about to open in a cloud of smog.
One of the negative side-effects of fossil fuel capitalism is poor air quality in summer, when ozone builds up in the atmosphere as a by-product of fossil fuel consumption. Ozone accumulates from the break down of nitrogen oxides with volatile organic compounds in reaction with the heat of the sun. It’s damaging to people with asthma or heart conditions but it’s invisible.
When we discuss smog, we assume that it’s a visible cloud, like the London “pea-soupers” caused by burning coal.
This London smog in 1952, making the city dark at midday in summer, finally prompted the Clean Air Act of 1956. If you look at newspapers and personal records from the time, there wasn’t much comment. It was just another fog.
The brown-colored photochemical smog that is typically seen in California derives its appearance from nitrogen oxides, not the sulphur by-products of coal, which made for typically yellow “fog.”
Before the 2008 Olympics, there was great concern about air quality. If you Google “Beijing smog,” you see many images like this:
Like Londoners before them, Beijing residents seem to be going about their business, although we can’t really be sure what we’re seeing here. Is it smog of the London kind, caused by coal? A photochemical smog? Some combination? Or a hazy day with lots of wood fires?
My point is simply that while we hear a great deal about China’s air quality, and it certainly appears to be poor, we hear very little about what’s happening in the Anglophone countries that has left me coughing. For example, despite the apparently never-ending wet summer in the UK, a couple of days of hot weather has created “a perfect storm” for high ozone levels. Just as the Olympics begin. For distance athletes in particular, this can cause severe respiratory problems. Indeed today Greater London was declared to be having what the bureaucrats call “a pollution episode.” No action is planned by UK authorities other than hope.
During the Beijing Olympics, however, a new NASA-sponsored study shows that by reducing industry and construction and requiring people to use vehicles only on alternate days, there were unexpected consequences, such as
dramatically cutting emissions of carbon dioxide by 24,000 to 96,000 metric tons (about 26,500 to 106,000 U.S. tons) during the event.
To put this in perspective, the authors note that this reduction by a single city represents more than one-quarter of 1 percent of the emissions cut that would be necessary worldwide, on a sustained basis, to prevent the planet from heating up by more than about 2 degrees Celsius.
So now know that if one city can make a significant reduction in the planetary calculus of climate change over a period of a few weeks, there is no need for doomsday scenarios. Just action.
This is the most positive news about climate in a long time. In his recent jeremiad about climate, Bill McKibben suggested we target Big Oil. While I could not be more sympathetic, that campaign will take more time than we may have, as he acknowledges. This data allows us to do an end-run around Big Oil by using the progressive forces in global cities to drive change. It surely will not be easy. But it could be done.
What we need is to stop pretending this is not happening and start acting city to city. It’s going to take 400 cities to do this. I have some suggestions.