In De­fence of the Air We Breathe

Science Illustrated - - EDITORIAL - An­thony Ford­ham aford­ham@next­media.com.au

The politi­ci­sa­tion of at­mo­spheric sci­ence over the last decade or so has some­how led to “cli­mate change” be­ing boiled (heh) down to noth­ing more than hot sum­mers, and al­legedly “econ­omy bust­ingly” ex­pen­sive elec­tric­ity.

Pro-coal politi­cians ar­gue that any cut Aus­tralia makes to our CO emis­sions won’t even 2 be no­ticed on the world stage, and the cost of mov­ing a whole coun­try from fos­sil-fuel power to wind and so­lar just isn’t worth it.

While TV panel shows and par­lia­men­tary en­quiries are yelling about CO -this and 2 de­grees-above-av­er­age that, some­where out in the cor­ri­dor all the other at­mo­spheric sci­en­tists are yelling “Hey! What about us?!” Be­cause the hu­man e ect on our at­mos­phere is about more than just CO and 2 other green­house gases. Re­mem­ber how in the 1970s and 1980s we used to talk about “pol­lu­tion”? Re­mem­ber “acid rain” and “diox­ides” and other nas­ties in the air (and in the soil, and in the wa­ter)?

CO is the bo­gey­man right now, but that 2 doesn’t mean there aren’t far nas­tier mon­sters lurk­ing in the ex­haust gasses of our ev­er­in­creas­ing in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity.

Just for a light sam­pling, con­sider: There are the sul­phur ox­ides, which can form acid rain. There’s nitro­gen diox­ide, which can cause con­stricted breath­ing and im­mune sys­tem prob­lems. Car­bon monox­ide we know, but how about “ground level ozone”? It’s a friend high in the at­mos­phere where it gets its own layer, but a room full of the stu is deadly.

Then there are the volatile or­ganic com­pounds, or VOCs. Meth­ane is another green­house gas that’s much more e ec­tive than CO at trap­ping 2 heat, but worse for you per­son­ally are ben­zene, toluene, and xy­lene, which are all car­cino­gens that cause leukaemia. Or so stud­ies sug­gest.

All of these and many more forms of pol­lu­tion still ex­ist, and we ig­nore them at our peril.

Pop­ulist govern­ments call for the dis­man­tling of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions and the dereg­u­la­tion of in­dus­try. It’s their view that “the mar­ket” will some­how sort all this out, since peo­ple won’t want to buy an iPhone if... they think the fac­tory in Chain is very dirty? Not sure I get it.

But China - specif­i­cally Bei­jing - is a good ex­am­ple of what hap­pens when you mas­sively ramp up in­dus­trial out­put and don’t fuss too much about en­vi­ron­men­tal rules and reg­u­la­tions.

As our fea­ture on page 36 ex­plains, clean­ing up the smog over Bei­jing and bring­ing back the blue sky is a ma­jor chal­lenge.

But it’s not as if this kind of thing hasn’t hap­pened be­fore. As re­cently as 1952, the Great Smog of Lon­don shut down the city for four days and killed a con­firmed 4,000 peo­ple, but pos­si­bly as many as 12,000. A week of weird weather trapped a thick smog made of coal par­ti­cles and sul­phur diox­ide, along with car ex­haust and es­pe­cially ex­haust from the un­fil­tered diesel en­gines of the 50s, right on top of the city.

It was thick enough to be vis­i­ble in­side, and it stung the eyes. Even­tu­ally the wind picked up and blew the smog away, but it must have been hell for those four days.

To the stoic Brits though, this was merely a par­tic­u­larly bad “pea-souper”. Af­ter all, Lon­don had su ered bad air events on and o since the 13th cen­tury!

Cli­mate change is bad. But smog is im­me­di­ately ter­ri­ble, and it’s a big part of why we have pol­lu­tion laws at all.

Cheap, reli­able elec­tric­ity is im­por­tant. But if I have to choose be­tween that and the air I breathe, I know which box I’ll be tick­ing.

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