We are magazine hoarders. Well, not really. We hold onto them unread until they become so out of date that we dump them. But a few days ago, Ellis was about to toss the fall 2011 issue of Catalyst, the magazine of the Union of Concerned Scientists, when he noticed the cover story, “Global Warming and Health.”
For the moment let’s assume that the climate change deniers are right and that human behaviors and air pollution do not cause climate change. But what about their effects on our collective health? According to Liz Perera, the article’s author, there are currently 3.2 million children and three times as many adults who suffer from asthma in areas with poor air quality. Add to that the 2.3 million with emphysema and more than twice as many with chronic bronchitis.
Much of the country experienced record and near-record warm weather. It was enough to make us forget how hot the previous summer was for much of the United States. That hot spell led to dangerous levels of ground-level ozone.
Now let’s get back to the idea of global warming for the foreseeable future. Let’s pretend that the general forecasts from climate scientists are in the ballpark. If ozone (a harmful form of oxygen molecules) levels increase by a mere two parts per billion (ppb) by 2020, respiratory ailments like asthma attacks, severe coughing, wheezing and chest tightness could increase by 2.8 million. Add to that, 944,000 missed school days, and 3,700 senior citizens and 1,400 hospitalized infants. Now let’s project out to 2050. If an anticipated increase of seven parts of ozone per billion in the atmosphere were to reach fruition, we would likely crank up the numbers to more than 4 million missed school days and the hospitalizations of 24,000 seniors and 5,700 infants.
Think of how those numbers would affect family finances, whether the impact comes from medical bills or some type of government financed healthcare. Just the 2020 figures could result in an additional $5.4 billion in additional expenses (2008 dollars). Ozone increases, as well as global warming, are at least partly due to power generation involving fossil fuels like petroleum and coal.
Those most affected by ozone pollution are seniors, outdoor workers (e.g. police, farmers, lifeguards, amateur and professional athletes), and infants and children, who themselves will be the source of the subsequent generation of victims.
While the Catalyst article proposes solutions to the predicament that include Environmental Protection Agency regulations that limit the production of nitrogen oxides (NOx) which lead to ozone formation, President Obama has delayed such implementation until at least next year. Catalyst also supports President Obama’s rules that require passenger vehicles to achieve 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 and the generation of electricity from renewable resources.
However, we believe that such measures, while important, fall far short of the most important choices we need to make. As long as human population rushes headlong past eight, nine and probably 10 billion of us by century’s end, can we realistically afford to think locally – meaning just the United States – while we humans infect our global atmosphere? As long as Third World populations proliferate while transmuting into consumer societies – along with the Asian mega-nations – U.S. efforts to become less polluting will produce modest global results at best.
In addition to the efforts described above, the U.S. must act like a world leader in the realm of family planning. While global population balloons willy-nilly, the challenge to not poison ourselves with the air we breathe must involve open, loud and persistent dialog about the need to think twice before making children. We must set an example in our own house and then proselytize to the rest of the world. Wind farms, 54.5 mpg, solar generation, and fluorescent bulbs alone just ain’t going to do it.