Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

A clear and present danger

I have made a suggestion similar to that embodied by this op/ed article, and I am glad to see that I am not alone in thinking that reducing the kind of air pollution that everyone can agree is pollution is a necessary and achievable first step in addressing climate change.

Clear the air

Clear the air: the first step to fight global warming.
[ Image Source ]

The idea of climate change is too abstract, too far removed from ordinary human experience, to be readily accepted or understood. Carbon dioxide, methane and hydrofluorocarbons, in their present atmospheric concentrations, are undetectable by the human sensorium, and it is too easy to deny that they are present in sufficient concentrations to cause harm. And people are naturally disposed to prefer to disbelieve anything they can’t perceive for themselves, particularly and increasingly so as the straitened circumstances in which they must pursue their daily lives concentrate more of their finite attention on the immediate needs of their families.

Therefore, I reiterate my proposal:

Rather than try to hew a path through reams of research papers and terabytes of computer models, I defy you to see for yourself the real state of the air you breathe. A simple and convincing experiment (if you dare to perform it): Go outside with a bright flashlight — preferably on a calm winter night — and see what appears in its beam. And if you really want to scare yourself, go inside your house — that putative sanctuary from the world’s ills — shut off the lights for a moment, and repeat the experiment there.

All of what you see in your flashlight beam is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg: It is the particulate component of the soup of pollution that you must breathe all the days of your life. It consists of tiny, jagged chunks of partially combusted wood and hydrocarbons that wound your lungs and then penetrate and damage every organ in your body. It is also associated with an invisible and often imperceptible miasma of toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, that combine with the particles to compromise your health, stultify your mind and shorten your life.

Learn this essential fact through your own eyes, and then bring it home to people. Help them to see for themselves how tainted is their air. Circulate petitions and exert pressure on regulators, city councils and boards of supervisors. Establish in them the habit of acting to protect their families’ health by demanding control of pollution sources. Create a precedent in which people have successfully fought for their local environment.

All of this will not cure climate change. It will barely dent it. But the precedent is the crux of the matter: Once people start to think about the environment, a sort of intellectual chain reaction will ensue; and one day, perhaps not too late to stop the worst from happening, people will follow up by demanding real attention to the environmental issues that they can’t personally witness. Meanwhile, reducing pollution in general terms, although it is not enough, is at least a beginning.

And we’ll all breathe with a little more comfort and a little less dread.

Originally published as a review of a New York Times opinion article on climate
change and pollution

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