Thursday, November 19, 2015

Pollution and Global Warming: Can you smell the inevitability?

by Shem Opolot

Stop smoking and you will lower your chances of getting lung cancer; drink less and more often than not, your liver will stand the test of time; practice safe sex and hopefully you won't get AIDS. In a simpler world, simple behavioral changes such as these would alleviate most of the ailments that plague our existence. But what do we do when the very air we breathe will kill us if we're exposed to it long enough? Where do we run? Air pollution is a difficult problem to solve for several reasons:
We've caught on very late in the game. In the times of the London smog, during the boom of the industrial revolution, we were none the wiser to the price we pay for "progress". All we saw were bigger engines, and faster cars; bigger buildings and huge clouds of smoke signifying the fruits of our labor as we inched towards the modern era. It has taken several years for global warming and its causes to become a mainstay in our media and research, and despite the overwhelming evidence of global warming out there, we still have several skeptics. And unfortunately, some of  these skeptics are tax payers and legislators, who are serious impediments to the mission to create policy that can protect our world.

The negative consequences of the pollution problem are experienced disproportionately around the world, hence it has been difficult to prioritize attempts to abate the issue. For example, per the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the United States is the largest source of global warming pollution- emitting more carbon dioxide than China, Japan, and India combined. However, the crux of extreme global warming effects are being experienced outside the borders of the United States,  like the scorching heat waves in India earlier this year. As polar bears lose their homes in  the polar regions of the planet, or people's houses get wrecked by floods in Asia, others burn fossil fuels and manufacture cars with in-built software to cheat on emissions tests (yes Volkswagen, I'm talking to you). We willfully suspend our concern for these tragedies and our roll in them only until we have to tweet #PrayForCountryX, or until we have an excuse to go serve overseas,  whenever our guilt and compassion meet  opportunity.

How can we get ahead of this trend? Who polices the police of global greenhouse gas emissions? Should some countries start demanding reparations from the developed countries that produce much more emissions? Also, have we really failed to engineer and distribute clean energy? Or are we simply complacent? Or are our hands tied by the powers that be-the large corporations with lots of money that continue to benefit from burning coal fuels and other activities that are harmful to our environment? This issue is reminiscent of the battle that raged on over the banishment of the usage of  lead in gasoline for cars in the 1980s. I hope the implementation and translation into policy of the scientific evidence available now can result in swifter action to preserve Mother Earth.


  1. Interesting post Shemmy. I especially like that you bring to light that the US is the largest source of global warming pollution. However, I think an important point to realize is that while the US works towards more sustainable energy production - or at least claims to be - other developing countries prioritize economic development and industrial growth more than the environment. To make matters worse is that prior to the G20 summit in Turkey, studies reported that wealthy nations spend more than $450 billion annually on subsidies to support the fossil industry. In stark contrast, the spend an estimated $5 billion helping poorer nations develop more sustainable energy and adapt to the climate change that is already occurring.

    If we want to talk about what demands to make, I think we start with demanding change in our own country (yes, we are complacent), and invest in other countries while we're not in the midst of an oil crisis.

  2. Thanks, Shem, for a very insightful post detailing the nature of the problem we face in air pollution. The contrast that you made about behavioral risk factors versus environmental risk factors on health reminded me of the concept of the tragedy of the commons, which suggests that people often abuse shared resources because the consequences is diffused across all those who share the resource. When a smoker smokes, it is clear that the smoker will be the bearer of the burden of lung cancer. It is therefore rational for the smoker to cease smoking to improve his own health. However, when it comes to air pollution, the public bears significant health consequences of the pollution, while the industries continue polluting because the benefits outweigh the consequences of the pollution. When put in these context, I agree with your judgement that increased air pollution is inevitable, unless policymaker can act to change the values and priorities of industry leaders. Regulations should be set to restrict the output of smoke and pollutants. Another approach can be to assign costs to pollution, so a tangible price is associated with destruction of clean air. Only when we begin changing the way we think about the value of nature and clean environment can the spread of pollution be halted.

  3. Thinking of US is the largest source of global warming pollution, in a foreigner's point of view, it was quite shocking how people throw their garbages out here. I used to dispose my garbages carefully by separating in food, paper, glass, plastic and aluminum cans. Not that I am a particularly super eco-lover, this is just an old habit since I was little. My parents were the first generation to follow this complicated guideline about garbage disposal, but they soon get used to it, because they knew, unless they don’t follow, they will be punished by hundreds dollars of penalty.
    Now that garbage angel(which is me) don't feel any guilty to throw them all into one big trash can. Furthermore, with a huge convenience of this US life, I even sometimes feel thrilled while I use food waste disposal, which is also a major water contaminator.
    According to US Environmental Protection Agency(EPA), food is number one source of solid garbage, and by burying food waste, water and soil are seriously polluted. I looked up some campaigns to reduce food waste, but I don’t think they are realizable. I would propose compulsory regulation such as food waste fine, because once people adjusted to recognize what they have to do for the rest of their lives, they will find out some inconvenience is worth to the environment and good habit for the future generation.