Air pollution & accountability

While there was never any doubt in my mind that the world is governed by rules like “business comes first,” watching Merchants of Doubt in class last week definitely gave me a fresh sense of perspective of the issue, as well as a feeling of frustration in seeing how easily people (especially those in governance) ignore facts in order to promote a certain agenda. With Merchants of Doubt in mind, I couldn’t help but feel helpless while completing the readings for this week.

As I was reading through the EPA’s Clean Air Act, I was struck by the nation-centric language of the writing. The opening declaration acknowledges that growth and industrialization of the country has led to dangers in public health and welfare, and that action must be taken to control air pollution in order to better the people of “the nation.” There is a section on international protocol, which states that if it is believed that pollution from US emissions is believed to be endangering the wellbeing of those living in another country, the US must inform the Governor of the state from which the pollution is originating. Yet, even this comes with two caveats. The Clean Air Act does not state that the Governor must take action upon receiving this formal notification. This section of the EPA also only applies on a basis of reciprocity, meaning that it only applies for countries in which the US has the same right. To me, this seems like a very superficial means of regulation, especially since it does not outline any steps that need to be taken by the polluter. This lack of accountability is particularly troubling when considering how it is already difficult to track air pollution, given the mechanisms of global air circulation.

Screen capture from animation, based on data from the Goddard Chemistry Aerosol and Transport model, simulates the global movement of black carbon soot from August 1, 2009 to November 19, 2009. Black carbon is shown in white. Credit:NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Scientific Visualization Studio (source)

While I do understand that the US cannot govern international emissions, I question why there still isn’t an international agreement on emissions as there was with the 1987 Montreal Protocol. This is particularly frightening when considering emissions from countries like China and India; we know that their emissions are strongly affecting the local populations, but how much of that soot is traveling to other countries, and how can we protect ourselves from it?

A Beijing artist known as Brother Nut collects air pollutants with a vacuum and later assembles the particulates into bricks to visualize the extent of the pollution. Source: New York Times.


We are at a precipice right now in terms of determining the future trajectory of pollution, accountability, and collective action. Internationally, the negotiations of of COP 21 seem to be headed in the right direction. In the US, both the upcoming presidential election and the filling of Justice Scalia’s (who was known to dissent in Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007 and block the Clean Power Plan only weeks before his death) seat in the Supreme Court will have a huge impact on the future of climate change policy. As much as I want to think that we are headed towards the right direction, it is such a shame that the corruption exposed in Merchants of Doubt is so prevalent, and it is incredibly discouraging to not think, but know, that this sort of thinking is governing all potential future action in making any sort of clime change policy.