Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Air I Breathed as a Child

When I was a child in the early 1970s, growing up on Long Island, about 30 miles east of NY City, I remember going to the edge of an old sand quarry at sunset during the summers, where I could stare directly into the setting sun, because the air was so polluted. With binoculars, I could actually see sunspots.

Beyond the myriad human illnesses caused by air pollution such as asthma, emphysema, and coronary artery disease, consequences included acid rain, which devastated forests and lakes throughout the northeast.

Regulations resulting from the Clean Air Act of 1970 and equivalent legislation in Europe led to the long-term decline in various forms of air pollution. A cap and trade system put into effect in the US resulted in steadily decreasing sulfur power plant pollution.

I’ve asked myself, with all the improvements in air quality in the ensuing decades, is our air clean enough? Based on an article I read in a recent issue of Science News (09/30/2017, p 18-21), which summarizes the latest research, the answer is an unequivocal no. In fact, the list of modern human maladies connected to air pollution is increasing.

After filtering out other factors, scientists found that even when particulate pollutants (soot from vehicles, power plant, and factory emissions) remain below what are now considered maximum safe levels, death rates still correlate with increases of these substances in the air we breathe. Current estimates are that 200,000 people die each year just from particulate pollution and in the cities where pollution is higher, so is the death rate. The mechanism appears to be inflammation which extends beyond the lungs to other regions of the body, which leads to substantial increases in heart disease and stroke, just as cigarettes do.

Based on animal studies, inflammation from pollution is also a contributor to obesity. Indeed, population studies show that the closer people live to a major roadway, the heavier they were, especially children. Links to diabetes have also been found in both human and animal studies. Particulate pollution and ozone contribute to insulin insensitivity.

The latest studies are showing links between particulate pollution to an increased rate of brain aging, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Eighteen such studies have been published and although more work needs to be done, researchers are alarmed.

These observations are being made in a country where the levels of particulate and ozone pollution are already below regulatory standards in most cases. I shudder to think about what is happening in other countries without such controls, for example China and India.

Given what we have known for decades on top of current findings, we need to ask ourselves how much we are willing to sacrifice in terms of increased mortality and preventable illness in order to use our heavily polluting power sources like coal.

We want a certain lifestyle in this country, but are we still willing to pay for it in terms of lives lost?  Given the policies of the elected government in Washington, D.C., who are promoting coal instead of alternative energy that answer, sadly, appears to be yes.

However, even though EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said without irony that “The war against coal is over,” after the Trump administration recently discarded Obama’s Clean Power Plan, all is not lost for those of us who want cleaner air.

Despite rescinding Obama’s moratorium on leasing more federal land for coal mining and rolling back regulations, the coal industry is still dying. Demand for coal is still declining, and several applications for leasing federal lands have either been cancelled or have gone without any takers.

142 existing coal plants partially or completely shut down since 2009. 81% of the over 200 proposed projects since 2000 have been cancelled, based on Sierra Club data. The reason – they lose money.

Most of coal’s decline can be traced to cheap natural gas, but increasingly the competition is coming from renewable energy, such as wind and solar. According to Bloomberg, solar is the cheapest form of new energy, especially in developing countries and it can compete even without government subsidies.

I wish that we had a government which accepts the science that burning coal is bad policy, bad for our health, and bad for our environment, but I happily accept that market forces are doing what reason and evidence cannot.

The “war on coal” may have been “won,” for the time being, but it’s a pyrrhic victory at best.

The coal industry is itself on life support and I don’t think even Federal intervention can save it.

I doubt the air in the US will ever return to the kind I breathed as a child, but the battle for cleaner air, unfortunately, still continues.

What if our underlying prosperity is ripped out from underneath us?

“What if our underlying prosperity is ripped out from underneath us?” - Paolo Bacigalupi, science fiction author

The people of Puerto Rico are having to answer this question as I write this column. Several days after Hurricane Maria ripped their island apart with sustained winds equivalent to an EF-3 tornado, they have no electricity, no communications, no food, and no potable water. Many don’t even have their own roofs over their heads any longer. 

Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States, supplies have to be shipped in, then distributed by land over a road network clogged with downed trees. In the meantime, people are getting water from springs created by landslides triggered by the storm. Unless something changes, waterborne diseases may not be far behind.

This is just Puerto Rico. Other Caribbean islands are now uninhabitable or are very close to it. For the first time in 300 years, there is no one living on Barbuda. A third of the buildings on St. Martins were destroyed. The British Virgin Islands lost all their infrastructure. St. Martins lost a third of its buildings, and in the US Virgin Islands almost half the population is still without power. 

The devastation of four hurricanes which exceeded Category 4 over the last few weeks is mind boggling. Estimated losses now exceed a combined $480 billion. Although that represents only about 3% of the 2016 GDP of the US economy, it also means untold suffering for hundreds of thousands of people as well. 

A few years ago, I posted a blog on the Westborough Patch which I titled “A Dope Slap Moment” about Hurricane Sandy. I hoped that the devastation would act as a wakeup call about the realities of climate change. I was criticized by one commenter as “an environmental wacko.” 

At the time, I told that person that the effects of climate change would be obvious within 30 years. I was wrong. The effects are obvious now.

Because I am a data nerd, I plotted up the number of North Atlantic Category 4 hurricanes per decade along with the average global temperature change per decade since the 1860s. The numbers track each other very closely. The number of Category 4 storms per decade before 1900 was less than 5. Since 2000, the number of storms per decade has exceeded 10. So far this decade we have had 13 and we still have 3 years to go.

Brings to mind the words from that old Buffalo Springfield song, “There’s something happening here...”

If you are thinking of retiring to South Florida, you might want to reconsider.

Given these trends, one has to wonder how many people will just pack it in, leave the Caribbean and essentially become climate refugees. Most of these island’s economies are dependent on tourism, which I doubt will recover any time in the near future.

The head of FEMA said on September26th that "We do not have a culture of preparedness in this country," which is absolutely true. We do need to plan for disasters, but we also need to plan for change.

We can no longer assume that the way things were are the way things will be. We can no longer have a flood insurance program that requires people to rebuild on the location where their home flooded. We can no longer encourage developers to build subdivisions in flood plains formerly reserved for flood water storage. We can no longer assume that what used to be low probability events, like a 500-year storm, will not happen again next year, or even the next month. 

If we plan, we can mitigate the threats to our underlying prosperity. We can prepare. But first, we have to recognize there is in fact, a problem. 

These days, that’s a problem all by itself, especially when the President feels the need to explain to reporters that Puerto Rico “is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean.”

Thank you Captain Obvious.