Cleaning Up Our Polluted Air Would Save More Money Than It Costs

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On August 5, Drew Shindell, a professor of Earth science at Duke University, appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Shindell is the lead author of the two most recent IPCC reports. He told the committee the latest study by his colleagues and NASA shows that “Over the next 50 years, keeping to the 2º C pathway would prevent roughly 4.5 million premature deaths, and about 3.5 million hospitalizations and emergency room visits.” He said many of these preventable deaths are tied to diseases resulting from poor air quality, including stroke, heart disease, and pulmonary diseases. The 2º C pathway refers to the guidelines adopted at the COP 22 climate conference in Paris in 2015 designed to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Centigrade.


A Bombshell

As Dave Roberts of Vox points out, “Shindell’s testimony reveals that the effects of air pollution are roughly twice as bad as previously estimated. That is a bombshell — in a sane world, it would be front page news across the country.” But we do not live in a sane world. We live in a world dominated by a lunatic who wants to bring back incandescent light bulbs because LEDs make his skin look orange and to trash low-flow shower heads because his hair has to be perfect.

“The air quality scientific community has hypothesized this for at least a decade, but research advances have let us quantify and confirm this notion, over and over,” says Rebecca Saari, an air quality expert who teaches in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo. “The air quality ‘co-benefits’ are generally so valuable that they exceed the cost of climate action, often many times over. (emphasis added).”

Are Humans A Form Of Virus?

So let’s see if we have this straight. Pollution from burning fossil fuels is making millions of people sick and many of them are dying prematurely as a result. The benefits of cleaning the air and making it safe to breathe would far outweigh the costs of doing so, and still we cannot find the political will to make that happen? It is enough to make a sentient person question whether humans are not, in fact, a form of environment-eating virus bent on destroying the only home they will ever have. That is the theory put forth in the movie The Matrix.

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. Instead you multiply, and multiply, until every resource is consumed. … There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern… a virus.” How fitting that the world today is in the grip of just such a virus and yet we shrug our shoulders and wonder when things will get back to normal — as if “normal” will somehow save us from ourselves.

Doing Nothing Costs More Than Doing Something

The Shindell report says, “The avoided deaths are valued at more than $37 trillion. The avoided health care spending due to reduced hospitalizations and emergency room visits exceeds $37 billion, and the increased labor productivity is valued at more than $75 billion. On average, this amounts to over $700 billion per year in benefits to the US from improved health and labor alone, far more than the cost of the energy transition.”

Roberts writes, “Scientists now know that exposure to smog (tiny, microscopic particulates) hurts prenatal and young brains. Even though they don’t yet fully understand the biological mechanism, they know it reduces impulse control and degrades academic performance. Similarly, they know it hurts the kidneys, the spleen, even the nervous system.”

Shindell adds. “The well understood pathways, things like strokes, lower respiratory infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, only seem to capture about half the total. When you look at the [new] studies, you find that air pollution seems to affect almost every organ in the human body. About twice as many people die in total as die just from the pathways we understand. We’ve been underestimating all along.”

A recent study from the national academies of multiple countries, including the US, concludes, “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: air pollution can harm health across the entire lifespan. It causes disease, disability and death, and impairs everyone’s quality of life. It damages lungs, hearts, brains, skin and other organs; it increases the risk of disease and disability, affecting virtually all systems in the human body.”

The Impact Of Big Data

What accounts for the latest study finding the effects of dirty air are twice as high as previously thought? Access to more data — specifically information on 60 million Medicare patients. Such massive amounts of data allow researchers to “control for socioeconomic status, temperature, hypertension and other existing conditions,” says Shindell. “You can convincingly demonstrate that correlation is in fact causal, because you can rule out essentially every other possibility.”

The finding that the impacts of dirty air are twice what they were previously thought to be probably still underestimates the actual situation. On both air pollution and climate change, the study omitted many effects that “are clearly present but cannot yet be reliably quantified.” The true numbers are almost certainly higher, Dave Roberts writes.

And that’s precisely where the so-called president of the United States and his cohort of deplorables have decided to attack the science. This group of fossil fuel industry apologists proposes to prohibit research based on randomized data because, you know, we need to be able to interrogate each and every one of the people in the survey to make sure they are not malingerers or immigrants or people of color or any of the other categories of people despised by Trump and his acolytes. They also want to exclude any secondary effects of air pollution from consideration, even thought those so-called co-benefits are by far the most significant when it comes to determining the total impact air pollution has on people’s health.

Dave Roberts concludes his remarks with these thoughts:

“The extraordinary level of suffering humanity is currently experiencing from air pollution is not necessary for modernity; it could be reduced, at a cost well below the net social benefits, with clean energy technologies on hand…..The millions of lives ended or degraded by fossil fuels every year are a choice (emphasis added). And when suffering on this scale, that is this brutally inequitable, becomes a choice, it enters the same ethical terrain as war, slavery, and genocide. The effects are more distributed over time and geography, as are the decision-making and the moral culpability, but the cumulative impact on human well-being — on our longevity, health, learning, and happiness — is comparable, and every bit as much worth fighting.

“US policymakers have a chance to kick start an energy transition that could save 1.4 million American lives over the next 20 years, especially among the most vulnerable, even as it creates jobs and saves consumers money. As Shindell says, it would be unconscionable not to act on it.”

Justice For All

As we at CleanTechnica often put it: Earth Justice = Social Justice = Racial Justice. This administration has not taken the actions needed to prevent 166,000 Americans from dying from COVID-19. What in the world makes anyone think they care a flying fig leaf about 1.4 million more unnecessary deaths over the next 20 years? They have shown absolutely no compassion for those afflicted so far. Instead, they plan to roll back pollution standards on mercury emissions from coal-powered generating plants, auto emission standards, and rules limiting how much climate killing methane fracking companies can spew into the atmosphere free of charge.

A seasoned criminal prosecutor could probably find grounds to charge most members of the current maladministration, industry lobbyists, and fossil fuel company heads with negligent homicide if not worse. Is that over the top? Perhaps, but when one considers the amount of harm being done deliberately to defenseless people who are innocent of any wrong doing, the idea may not be so far fetched. Perhaps they should be in the dock at the World Court in The Hague charged with crimes against humanity? You can form your own opinion on that subject.

What cannot be denied any longer is that burning fossil fuels is killing us and the planet that sustains us. At this point, nothing else matters. We must immediately find ways to stop making the burning of fossil fuels the basis of our economic system or perish. Make of that what you will.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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