Emissions are unhealthy for us, whether you believe in climate change or not. Question is: How do we detach ourselves from this mental roadblock and confront the real problem?
By John Friedman
The discussion about climate change (or global warming) is often distilled down to two distinct sides – those who believe that the climate is changing due to the actions of people and those who question the scientific consensus that the globe is warming and that human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are contributing to a change in the amount of ‘greenhouse gases’ in our atmosphere.
Instead of two, there are three sides in the climate change discussion.
The first is represented by those who shout ‘the sky is falling’ and each year announce that we are at a tipping point. That if action is not taken immediately, global calamity is inevitable and unavoidable.
The second group focuses on denying or discrediting the science and insisting that no action is necessary to address what is, in fact, a non-issue.
And somewhere in the middle is the group of people who believe that the issue is real, and that the combination of a legislative agenda and humanity’s capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship can be marshaled to address the issue.
Each side has its proponents and advocates, of course. Parsing the argument down to its basic elements is no easy task, particularly in a society (primarily in the United States) where science – and scientists - are viewed with skepticism.
Many who seek to deny climate change find justification in fears that emerged about ‘global cooling,’ despite the fact that that conjecture had little support in the scientific community.
For me, however, their argument falls apart completely because no one can claim with intellectual purity that pumping particulate matter and chemicals into the atmosphere can have a positive impact on our health and wellness. Despite the fact that exhaust and smoke dissipate visually, the gasses are still there (diluted but still present) in the atmosphere.
As byproducts of internal combustion, we are pumping nitrogen (N2), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) hydrocarbons (CxHy), nitrogen oxides (NOx), Ozone (O3), and particulate matter into the air we breathe.
Even ‘clean coal’ [which removes most of the sulfur dioxide (S02), nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from the process] emits CO2 and other emissions. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for approximately one-third of the mercury emitted into the air in the United States.
So whether or not you believe climate change is real or not, the fact remains that we are still changing the chemical composition of the air we breathe and exposing ourselves to chemicals and compounds that are known to have health risks. Medical studies have linked increased levels of pollution in the air and water to a myriad of health risks, including strokes and memory loss.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists particulate matter and ozone as “known respiratory irritants” that can aggravate asthma either by themselves or when combined with other environmental factors. This is why, when ozone levels in and near our cities reach certain levels ‘ozone alerts’ are issued; so that even those who do not have difficulty breathing are encouraged to stay inside for health reasons. Recent health studies also suggest that particulate matter is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Francesca Dominici, PhD, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health has researched on air quality and the impact on health. She says:
“When we analyzed the data for heart failure, we observed a 1.28 percent increase in admissions for each 10 microgram per cubic meter increase in fine particle pollution. Most of these admissions increases occurred the same day as the rise in fine particle concentration, which suggests a short lag time between the change in pollution and the subjects' response.”
Because emissions (a polite term for pollution) are known to be unhealthy, those who argue against taking action to reduce them because they don’t believe in climate change are still arguing against public health.
The salient question to ask then is even if the planet isn’t warming – is this stuff that we really want to breathe?