Air pollution in China is killing a staggering 4,000 people a day, according new study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The main contributors to this epidemic are coal-fired power plants, which put nearly everyone in the country at risk of premature death. Fortunately, China has pledged to cut its coal consumption in order to limit its contribution to climate change, and this will dramatically improve public health. The added perk of lives saved is what experts have termed a “co-benefit” of climate action, but given the profoundly harmful effects of air pollution, it might be fairer simply to call it a “benefit.”
“We’ve had studies that look at what happens after the air gets cleaner and we find the people live longer.”
Social scientists have long noted that Americans see climate change as distant threat, and some studies have found that one way to deal with this dilemma is to emphasize the public health benefits of dealing with carbon pollution. Cut coal, oil and gas now, and you’ll start breathing more easily right away. The White House has embraced this argument, educating the public on the immediate public health benefits of the Clean Power Plan, which promises to prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths by limiting carbon pollution from power plants. The very name of the initiative, the Clean Power Plan, is intended to bring these associations to mind. What’s notable here is not that the public health argument works, but that it doesn’t work better. Too many Americans still don’t understand that pollution poses a significant threat to their families, their friends and themselves.
According to a 2009 EPA estimate, air pollution kills between 63,000 and 88,000 Americans a year. That’s more than the number of Americans who died in the entire the Vietnam War, a fact that should have people marching on the Capitol. Because the toxic chemicals undermining public health — nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide — come from the same tailpipes and smokestacks coughing up climate-distorting carbon pollution, moving to clean energy won’t just preserve the climate, it will also save lives right away. Janice Nolen, Assistant Vice President of National Policy and Advocacy at the American Lung Association, said, “We’ve had studies that look at what happens after the air gets cleaner, and we find the people live longer.”
If we continue along our current path, polluting no more than we do now, air quality will actually get worse as rising temperatures lead to the formation of more ozone pollution. Said Nolen, “One of the things we’ve just learned in the last ten years or so is that actually [ozone] can kill people. It can shorten lives by months to years.” According to the American Lung Association, more than four in 10 people live in areas with unhealthful levels of ozone.
Nolen pointed to a study that looked at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. During the games, the city imposed traffic controls that cut the number of cars on the road. Atlanta saw the number of people going to the hospital for asthma plummet as ozone levels declined. After the Olympics ended, it was back to business as usual: more traffic, more pollution and more asthma attacks. Children were going back to the hospital for an entirely preventable ailment. “Early in my career at the Lung Association, I had a mom who called me, whose child had died on the floor in the kitchen from an asthma attack,” said Nolen. “That shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t need to happen, and my heart went out to her.”
New regulations on ozone are expected soon, and already they have felt pushback from business. It’s a familiar drumbeat, but a half-century of air quality standards suggests that industry has little to worry about. According to Nolen, in the 1950s and the 1960s, the U.S. looked something like China does today. Then, like now, there was some protest from the nattering nabobs on the cost to the economy of limiting pollution, but authorities set air quality standards according to what was needed, and businesses responded with new technologies designed to protect public health. Explained Nolen, “Because we set the standards where we had to stretch ourselves, we were able to develop entire industries to deal with providing cleaner fuels.” Since 1970, pollution from industrial sources has sunk nearly 70 percent while inflation-adjusted GDP has more than tripled.
Air quality standards have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions in healthcare costs without tanking the economy. It’s a valuable lesson, and one that should be reexamined, because independent of addressing climate change, cleaning up the air is clearly a worthy goal. If saving American lives in the short-term happens to avert a climate catastrophe in the long-term, that’s something a lot of people could live with.