Air pollution important to climate debate

One way to get people to listen would be to point out some of the damage that is happening.

Anant Naik

Over the past several years, we’ve seen more and more people grow concerned about the state of our planet’s environment. As Congress deliberates the Keystone Pipeline and deregulation of the Environmental Protection Agency, more people are educating themselves about these important issues.

This is a good thing. As I’ve argued in previous articles, we need to focus on actual science when looking at climate change instead of the political arguments made against its existence.

Still, I believe that most people’s concept of climate change is too abstract. Though we know increased carbon emissions are a bad thing, few citizens actually experience the harm it causes. I think we need to focus on the tangible parts of environmental harm, including air and water pollution.

First, we must establish the not-so-obvious link between global warming and pollution. Factories and industries that generate significant amounts of carbon dioxide also generate various other chemical pollutants, including harmful sulfur and nitric compounds. This is why air pollution is often a common measurement of the progress made to purify a local environment.

But air pollution isn’t just bad for our planet and our melting ice caps. It legitimately harms civilians. A study by the American Heart Association explains that air pollution commonly results in cardiovascular problems, which have high mortality rates. To put this into perspective, a recent study by the University of Chicago, Yale University and Harvard University shows that 660 million civilians in India could lose an aggregate of 2.1 billion years of life because of air pollution.

Per person, that’s 3.2 years lost.

In China, 1.2 million people died of air pollution in 2010, and half a million have died prematurely every year after that. The United States isn’t any different. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that more than 200,000 Americans prematurely die every year due to various forms of air pollution. In the U.S., 47 percent of Americans live in areas with dangerously high air pollution levels.

When considering global warming, we tend to focus on CO2 emissions and other abstract measurements instead of the problems that are harming people right now. Climate change isn’t an abstract concept when we look at how it impacts people’s lives every day. When thinking about the Keystone Pipeline, for example, we ought not to focus simply on the harms of burning oil but on the project’s environmental impact as a whole.

By no means am I arguing that we should stop looking at long-term harms — my argument is that we ought to look additionally at the immediate impacts of our industries.

It’s hard to hold companies and lawmakers accountable. It’s becoming easier, though, through research to point at the number of innocent civilians who die from these problems. By using facts such as these, we should be able to lobby for effective environmental policy change.