Fight climate change so we don’t all choke to death


In the American West, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.

These deeply unsettling images are thanks to gargantuan smoke plumes erupting across the region, which blocked out all but red light. California has already had its worst year of fires on record, and the season is not even close to over. Two whole towns in Oregon were burned to the ground in a matter of minutes.

Climate change is deeply implicated in these wildfires, of course, but the cursed blood-red skies raise one of the most underrated reasons to attack the problem: air quality. If for no other reason, nations around the world should slash greenhouse gas emissions because the associated air pollution is killing people by the millions. It would quite literally pay for itself.

As David Roberts writes at Vox, the most recent science has found a dramatically higher toll of sickness, death, and economic damage caused by air pollution. Most of this comes from carbon fuel of some kind — burning natural gas or especially coal for electricity, or oil for transportation, or biomass for home heating and cooking. The resulting smoke and smog contains all kinds of poisonous and carcinogenic compounds, plus very tiny particles can get lodged in tissues and cause a slew of different chronic diseases. Climate scientist Drew Shindell has found something like 250,000 Americans are killed by air pollution annually, and all that sickness and death adds up to a staggering economic cost of perhaps $700 billion per year.

Most research on air pollution has focused on human activities, not wildfires. We know for a fact that climate change worsens wildfires in the American West by increasing temperatures, causing alternately extreme precipitation that fuels an explosion of undergrowth and severe drought that dries it out, and so on. (All that is made more dangerous to people by the constant creep of sprawl into dangerous tinderbox country.)

Now, the science on wildfire smoke is as yet somewhat equivocal. Researchers are confident that it is bad for you, but as yet there is not conclusive proof that lots of people are getting sick from it now. But it basically has to be the case that enough consistent wildfire smoke exposure will cause similar health problems. It’s got even more of the same toxic compounds and tiny particles as other air pollution — and after all, unlike smog, enough smoke inhalation can kill you in minutes.

At any rate, an eerie red sky like something out of the Book of Revelations is not so much a presentation of a novel new danger as a gripping illustration of an existing one. Even if wildfire smoke somehow turns out to be not that bad (which it won’t), it is still the case that all those other sources of air pollution are killing millions of people and giving tens of millions chronic diseases every year.

Importantly, as Roberts writes, the case for completely decarbonizing the economy pencils out just on air cleanliness grounds, because air pollution is …read more

Source:: The Week – Health


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