On Wednesday, @LRB published a long essay of mine on the brutal effects of air pollution, which kills ten million a year. But beyond the moral horror, air pollution offers strategic and conceptual lessons for climate, as well. A long thread (1/x). lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/…
@LRB First, that brutality, which cannot be overlooked. Ten million deaths a year is one hundred million a decade, four hundred million in my lifetime. And the costs to human health and human flourishing extend well beyond the lives lost.
These are numbers so large they demand that we utterly reorder our moral picture of the world we live in today, recalculating our accounting of the brutality of the present and the intuitive discounting of status-quo suffering in the developing world that likely undergirds it.
This goes not just for the politically indifferent, but the engaged, as well, since taking taking seriously the new research on pollution means probably restoring clean air and clean water and human health to the very center of the environmental crusade...
...from the relative margins to which they were pushed as the movement matured, lately, around the necessary project of decarbonization. On the plus side, doing so might help 'solve' three once-insoluble-seeming features of the rhetorical challenge posed by climate change itself.
The first is environmentalism’s difficulty with anthropocentrism—by which I mean that it was, for a time, perhaps not anthropocentric enough...
...sometimes focusing too lightly on the plight of people to attract their urgent attention, and tabulating risks to the natural world that might be casually disregarded by those inclined to skepticism or complacency.
The second is the problem of global warming’s time sequence, long lamented as too distended to mobilize anyone today against damages arriving decades, or even generations, in the future.
That time sequence no longer looks so distended, after the last few years of serial disaster, but air pollution makes the motivational landscape looks very different still: millions are dying, right now, because of it...
...and, because pollution dissipates much more quickly than carbon dioxide, abating that pollution would save those lives quite swiftly.
When Bill McKibben recently offered a simple rule for addressing the climate crisis, it was: don’t burn stuff. But carbon hangs in the air for centuries, if we don’t remove it; pollution abates almost as soon as the match is extinguished.
The third is what has often been described as climate’s collective action problem—that because the benefits of decarbonization were thought to be distributed globally, and the costs of decarbonization were local burdens, states would be tempted to wait for others to act first.
Air pollution changes that calculus, as well—first because it is actually under the control of local and national governments, and second because it is a large local public health burden, which, if alleviated, offers very concentrated local benefits anyone should want to seize.
This is what Christiana Figueres, the former head of the U.N.F.C.C., called to me the “egotistic goal” of new climate action, which she believes is already reorienting the geopolitics of warming somewhat dramatically...
helping make the Green New Deal, as Adam Tooze has argued, the unlikely conceptual framework for nearly every public investment initiative across the world.
This past year, during the economic contraction of the pandemic, net-zero pronouncements were made by the U.S., E.U., Japan, South Korea, and China—each made entirely outside the peer pressure of climate conferences, on the basis of crudely calculated national self-interest.
More than 80% of emissions are now, as a result, at least nominally committed to decarbonization that would’ve seemed admirably rapid a decade ago—though 'nominally' is an awfully big caveat, since in the history of such pledges hardly any have ever been fulfilled.
Of course, the largest benefit of centering the costs of pollution in climate discourse is that those costs are simply so large and so immediately felt (it's one reason clean air and clean water tend to be much more popular with voters than climate-focused policies).
How large? The implication of numbers as large as ten million deaths annually is that, certainly in terms of human mortality, over the next few decades the toll of fossil-fuel pollution will likely be greater than all the other impacts of climate change combined.
Of course, death is not the only facet of human suffering, and climate will deliver punishing, transformative impacts well below the threshold of mortality: flooding, drought, crop failure; possibly poverty and state collapse and migration; hurricanes and wildfire.
But as brutal as each of these may be, it is very hard to tally the toll of them in a way that gets you anywhere near 10 million deaths annually—or even one million—without adding to most models the effects of improbable feedback loops or widespread civilizational collapse.
Perhaps warming will indeed trigger those feedbacks, and destabilize our societies; it is certainly not out of the question. But the giant toll of air pollution is no hypothetical; it is being observed today, and at a scale many times larger.
According to the WHO, extreme heat killed at least 166,000 people, in total, between 1998 and 2017—about 8,000 per year globally. Air pollution killed about a thousand times more.
In 2021, Madagascar was said to be on the brink of the world’s first “climate famine,” with 30,000 on the verge of starvation. In the same country, UNICEF estimates, more than 40,000 die each year from the effects of air pollution.
The future climate will inevitably grow more brutal, changing these hard-to-stomach comparisons along the way.
But in 2020, a large group of researchers at the Climate Impact Lab, led by Tamma Carleton, published a comprehensive, all-in accounting of the 'global mortality consequences for climate change.'
The Impact Lab is known for being at the alarm-raising vanguard of serious scientific and economic research on warming.
Their highest estimate for the end of this century – assuming an implausibly high emissions scenario called RCP8.5 – was for an annual death toll from climate change of 73 deaths per 100,000 people. Today, air pollution is killing up to 126 per 100,000. That's about 60% higher.
And that is a very-high-end estimate for climate mortality. In a more plausible, moderate emissions scenario, the Impact Lab projects fewer than 20 deaths per 100,000 at the end of the century—less than one-sixth the number of people that air pollution is killing right now.
In fact, according to Drew Shindell the annual death toll from all other climate causes is only likely to surpass that of air pollution in the second half of the century...
...and only then because air pollution has largely disappeared, thanks to the expected death of coal, the electrification of automobiles worldwide and the widescale rollout of renewable power. Hold pollution steady this century, and climate mortality won’t come close to its toll.
This points to a second contention of pollution research, even more disorienting: that, thanks to the decline of coal and the coming electrification of transport, in terms of the dying and suffering from air pollution, the worst might already be here, and maybe even behind us.
In the quite alarming new research by Karn Vohra and others that found 8.7 million annual deaths were attributable to air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, they also found that as recently as 2012 the toll was 10.2 million. sciencedirect.com/science/articl…
More recent research by the EU found that particulate matter was killing more than 300,000 Europeans each year. It also found that the figure had been 450,000 in 2005 and nearly a million in the early 1990s. france24.com/en/europe/2021…
These are all, by any objective standard, horrifying levels of suffering and dying now made needless by the availability and cost of renewable energy, which is cheaper to roll out than dirty energy for 90% of the world already.
At the same time, it is a story of improvement and progress alongside a story of horror and blindness—not one or the other but both.
As is the case with climate generally, both rates and levels matter—it isn't ultimately that comforting that things are getting a bit better if they are getting better from 10 million deaths per year, or from 50 gigatons per year, or from 0.25C of warming per decade.
Which is one reason why it is such distressing commentary on our likely future, and the level of normalization it will require to maintain a sense of moral equilibrium, that in living amidst and amuck that pollution today we have chosen to adapt largely by ignoring. (x/x)

• • •

Missing some Tweet in this thread? You can try to force a refresh

Keep Current with David Wallace-Wells

David Wallace-Wells Profile picture

Stay in touch and get notified when new unrolls are available from this author!

Read all threads

This Thread may be Removed Anytime!


Twitter may remove this content at anytime! Save it as PDF for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video
  1. Follow @ThreadReaderApp to mention us!

  2. From a Twitter thread mention us with a keyword "unroll"
@threadreaderapp unroll

Practice here first or read more on our help page!

More from @dwallacewells

25 Nov
"As carbon dioxide emissions have surged by 50 percent in 60 years, to nearly 40 billion tonnes worldwide, the Amazon has absorbed a large amount of that pollution—nearly two billion tonnes a year, until recently."
"But humans have also spent the past half-century tearing down and burning whole swathes of the Amazon to make way for cattle ranches and farmland."
"As a result, the Amazon as a whole is now a net carbon source, mainly because of humans setting it on fire. And even subtracting emissions caused by fires, the southeastern Amazon is now a net carbon emitter."
Read 4 tweets
25 Nov
“We read the hullabaloo about an ‘energy crisis’ as one in a series of ongoing struggles to define the political and intellectual terrain on which we make sense of climate change and our unrelenting march into a future defined by it.” newstatesman.com/ideas/2021/11/…
“Paradoxically, it is because climate change is a permanent state that the politics of it have tended to focus outsized attention on events, whether disasters or summits, which offer discrete moments of action and attention in the face of an otherwise amorphous problem.”
“But as Gramsci knew well, it is the interim stretches that are crucial in determining how moments of acute struggle shake out.”
Read 5 tweets
25 Nov
“In November, the authorities in Delhi closed schools and colleges indefinitely, suspended construction work, and shuttered half of the local coal plants after an episode of ‘toxic smog.” Life under the cloud of air pollution in India, a thread. (1/x) lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/…
“Throughout the city, particulate matter hangs around in offices, lobbies and private homes, even those with air purifiers. It often gets so thick it interferes with air travel. More remarkably, it has interrupted train travel, the smog making it impossible to see the tracks.”
“Taxi drivers have filtration systems sit shotgun to process the particulates that sneak in. Pedestrians can’t escape it, which is one reason that, on especially smoggy days, living in Delhi is the equivalent of smoking several packets of cigarettes.”
Read 12 tweets
24 Nov
Air pollution kills an estimated ten million people each year. But it does much more than that, too. A long thread on what it means that more than 90 percent of the world's population is breathing dangerously polluted air. (1/x) lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/…
"Here is just a partial list of the things, short of death rates, we know are affected by air pollution. GDP, with a 10 per cent increase in pollution reducing output by almost a full percentage point, according to an OECD report last year."
"Cognitive performance, with a study showing that cutting Chinese pollution to the standards required in the US would improve the average student’s ranking in verbal tests by 26 per cent and in maths by 13 per cent."
Read 22 tweets
19 Nov
“First they baked, then they burned, and now they’re inundated.
The Pacific Northwest and British Columbia have endured a punishing siege of climate disasters since the summer, supercharged by human-caused climate change.” washingtonpost.com/weather/2021/1…
“After an unprecedented heat wave to close June and a rash of wildfires that followed, the region is now recovering from devastating floods and landslides, blamed for at least two deaths.”
“In both western Washington and British Columbia, entire communities were engulfed by floodwaters, which entered homes and businesses early this week, displacing thousands of people. Streets turned into rivers, stranding hundreds of vehicles and leaving some areas inaccessible.”
Read 4 tweets
17 Nov
“In Glasgow over the past few weeks, we were treated to one vision of the climate future: halting, inadequate policy progress coupled with ever-rising hyperbole and rhetorical alarm. In British Columbia, right now, a different vision is unfolding.” (1/x) nymag.com/intelligencer/…
“That is: one climate emergency following in the wake of another, indeed made possible by the previous disaster, and in a prosperous, modern, well-governed part of the globe, absolutely overwhelming local infrastructure and the capacity of public officials to manage the crisis.”
“In June, the Pacific ‘heat dome’ shattered temperature records in BC, forcing climate scientists to reconsider their models and killing hundreds of humans and more than a billion marine animals, along with harvests of whole regions of farmland—‘the cherries roasting on trees.’”
Read 10 tweets

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just two indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member ($3/month or $30/year) and get exclusive features!

Become Premium

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal

Thank you for your support!

Follow Us on Twitter!