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The Environmental Movement Must Not Let Concerns about Air Pollution Fall to the Wayside

Image depicts a power plant (Getty)

Air pollution kills somewhere between 90,000 and 360,000 Americans every year, making it one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Tens of thousands of Americans will develop dementia, lung cancer, psychiatric disorders, cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, and a whole host of other illnesses this year because of air pollution.  Children are among the worst affected, as air pollution is one of the leading causes of childhood asthma and lifelong lung damage. Perhaps the worst part about the catastrophic state of air pollution in the United States is the ample proof that the problem is solvable.

The Clean Air Act (1970) is estimated to have saved tens of millions of American lives over the last 50 years, as well as $22 trillion in reduced healthcare costs from preventing air-pollution-caused illness.  It is arguably one of the most effective and important pieces of legislation in American history.  

The problem of air pollution is simultaneously one that has a tremendous amount of work left to be done, but also a track record of being a feasible problem to fix .  It’s the kind of setup that should be incredibly tantalizing to environmentalists looking for ways to make immediate and effective impacts.  Yet, notably, environmental organizations have largely moved away from messaging on the issue of air pollution in favor of climate arguments concerned with long-term temperature increases.  Climate change is still incredibly important, but the lack of any real comprehensive environmental legislation in the past 30 years is a signal that the environmental movement has a serious problem with messaging to the American people that the environment is something that needs to be fixed.  A focus on air pollution gives more urgency and tangibility to the environmental message, and environmental advocates should once again center it in their movement.

Dirty air scares people.  Few public health campaigns can claim as much success as the anti-smoking campaigns of the 1990s and 2000s.  Fears of the health effects of second-hand smoke made it so that most Americans now live in states where it is illegal to smoke in indoor public areas like restaurants and bars, a concept that would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago. An environmental message centered around air pollution has the potential to trigger a similar kind of urgency that has been thus far lacking for the climate crisis.

To be clear, adding more emphasis on the issue of air pollution doesn’t functionally change most climate proposals (coal plants are both really bad for the climate and air quality).  What a focus on air pollution can provide is an effective and unobscure means of messaging green proposals to people suspicious of abstract and intangible climate doom. Everyone wants clean air, and promising to save voters from a bevy of health issues in the short term is an effective message.

The fight over energy sources is one example of how current environmental rhetoric fails to generate the urgency that the problem demands. Presently, the environmental movement focuses on reducing all fossil fuel usage in the US to zero. The main impetus is to limit global temperature increases over the course of half a century.  This is true and important, but it’s also true that the same measures would save millions of lives in the coming decades because of all the air pollution that would be cleared.  Both are objectively noble goals worth fighting for.  However, the latter provides climate change skeptics with much more concrete and immediate means to justify the economic upheaval that they fear from the Green Revolution.

Similarly, the transition from gas-powered cars to electric cars definitely has positive implications for the climate.  What will make a much more immediate difference for most Americans is the smog reduction that will come with the transition.  Cars contribute to most of the carbon monoxide pollution in the United States.  Any air quality map of a major city at rush hour looks like a red spider web, with the worst air quality concentrated along major roads.  Shifting all of these air-quality-killing gas cars to electric would make a huge difference in the exposure levels for city dwellers and their quality of life.

The environmental movement’s narrow focus on climate change can sometimes even hurt their proposals.  A good example is the focus placed by liberal environmentalists and conservative talk show hosts alike on bird deaths caused by wind farms. The tens of thousands of deaths caused by new wind farms pale in comparison to the 1.5 billion birds that have been saved by air pollution regulations passed forty years ago. Dirty air is absolutely devastating to birds and other animals as well as humans.  One of the best ways to clean up the air is to stop burning fossil fuels.  Because air pollution isn’t factored heavily enough into these considerations though, the flawed narrative that wind and solar energy are bad for bird populations continues to prevail.

The American environmental movement has stalled in the 21st century, as it’s proven nearly impossible to convince the public of the urgency of the climate crisis.  What is too often forgotten is that the same things causing climate change are killing millions of people right now because of air pollution.  It is essential that the environmental movement once again makes air pollution a central focus of its messaging efforts.