At a recent TEDx talk, Beth Gardiner, an American journalist based in London, offered a dire message: “The air we’re breathing here in London is literally killing us,” she told the audience. “And it’s not just London — all of Britain and much of Europe is in the midst of an invisible public health crisis.”
Gardiner’s warning was the result of four years of research on air pollution and its negative effects that took her across countries and continents. Her findings were recently published in her book, “Choked”, which examines air pollution in various nations and the measures governments are taking to counteract it.
From the United States to Europe, Africa, South Asia and China, Gardiner went on a quest to tell some of the stories about battling cancers, lung problems, asthma and other illnesses related to breathing toxic air. During her expeditions researching a form of pollution that the U.N. says affects 9 out of 10 people worldwide, she realized air pollution’s far-reaching impact.
“It intersects with issues of economic inequality and racial justice, and the way we balance private profit against the public good, corporate power and government authority, and obviously it intersects with climate change,” she said in an interview.
U.S. News & World Report spoke with Gardiner over the telephone to discuss what countries get right and wrong in tackling air pollution, and what the future of our air may look like. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Was it hard to sell the idea to your book publishers?
No, I think my editors shared my feeling that this was an important story and that it was our responsibility to help people understand it. And they had faith in me that I would be able to tell it in a way that would make it compelling to people and help them see its power.
Is anyone doing a good job in the fight against this invisible threat?
One thing that I found and that was really fascinating to me to learn is that America is actually a pretty significant success story in this regard. I’ve devoted a whole chapter to the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970 because I think that’s really one of the most important laws in modern American history. It’s literally saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars since it was passed in 1970. And I think it showed me what I saw elsewhere, too, which is that the one most effective force in bringing cleaner air all around the world is the wise exercise of governmental power and the scientifically grounded regulation.
Also, the United States Environmental Protection Agency historically speaking has been not perfect but a pretty effective agency, and it’s had the resources, both financial and in terms of the scientific expertise, to give teeth to air quality regulations and to really deliver tremendous improvements in American air.
Where does the answer lie for breathing cleaner air? Is it in private sector initiatives or at the government level?
I think what it really comes down to is governmental power because that’s the only thing that can check corporate power and the power of industry when it wants to pollute. You and I can’t personally force a car company to comply with the law or we can’t demand that a power plant switch to a cleaner fuel or install filtration or scrubbing equipment. It’s only the government that has the authority to do that. And when government has exercised that power wisely and (is) guided by science, that’s where you’ve seen significant improvements in air quality. And the thing that we know is that when you see those improvements, they really translate very directly into improvements in people’s health and literally save lives.
Are world governments doing enough to counteract the negative effects of air pollution?
In the U.S., unfortunately, now I think you’re really at risk of going backwards. The Clean Air Act brought us so far and the last 50 years in the U.S. have really been a story of progress on air quality improvements. But since President Trump took office, we have seen the EPA now being run by a former coal lobbyist (Andrew Wheeler), and the decisions that have been made are really reflecting the interests of polluting industries rather than the interests of protecting Americans’ health.
We’ve seen the Trump administration unraveling many regulations that have helped to bring cleaner air. We’ve seen them shrinking and eviscerating the EPA and its enforcement ability. Most radically what we’ve seen from this administration has been an attack on science that has undergirded clean air regulations in the U.S. over the last five decades.
Globally, there are places that are making progress, but generally speaking, there’s a pretty shocking statistic from the World Health Organization that says more than 90% of people on Earth breathe unhealthy air. What the science tells us today is that levels of pollution that are relatively low compared to what they maybe were in the past are still very damaging and still kill people. So in that sense, the bar has moved and we are definitely not keeping up with it.
What countries are invested in interesting clean air initiatives?
One thing that was a surprise to me is that China, which I think we’re all sort of used to thinking of as the poster child of dirty air, is actually really starting to make pretty significant progress. The air in China is still terrible but they are spending a lot of money and putting in a lot of effort now on installing a lot more clean energy, whether it’s wind, solar or other. They really helped over the last 10 years to change the economics of solar power, driving the cost of new solar panels down by something like 90%, and they’re now putting that same kind of muscle into electric vehicles.
So China is really turning its economies of scale towards trying to make better electric cars and electric buses and to get them cheaper. That’s really important because it’s not only bringing benefits to their own air quality, but because China is so huge and its markets are so big, those economies of scale mean that for the rest of us electric cars are likely to get cheaper and better much more quickly than they would have otherwise. So that’s good for air quality and health and countries beyond China. Obviously it is important for the fight against climate change.
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Q&A: The Air We’re Breathing Is Killing Us, Says New Research originally appeared on usnews.com