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By Binyamin Appelbaum
Mr. Appelbaum is a member of the editorial board.
In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, doctors noticed a surprising silver lining: Americans were having fewer heart attacks.
One likely reason, according to an analysis published last month by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, is that people were inhaling less air pollution.
Millions of workers were staying home instead of driving to work. Americans were suddenly burning a lot less gas. And across the country, the researchers found that regions with larger drops in pollution also had larger drops in heart attacks.
The menace of air pollution doesn’t command public attention as it did in the 1960s, when thick smog yellowed urban skies. But evidence has piled up in recent years that the real progress the United States has made in reducing air pollution isn’t nearly good enough. Air pollution is a lot deadlier than we previously understood — and, in particular, studies like the analysis of heart attacks during the pandemic show that the concentrations of air pollution currently permitted by federal policy are still far too high.
In an assessment of recent research, the World Health Organization concluded last year that air pollution is “the single largest environmental threat to human health and well-being.”
The low quality of the air that we breathe should be regarded as a crisis. It also presents an opportunity. The existential threat of climate change has come to dominate debates about environmental regulation. Proposals to curb emissions, once presented as public health measures, are now billed as efforts to limit global warming.
The solution to both threats is the same: We need to stop burning fossil fuels, preferably yesterday. But there is cause to wonder whether a greater focus on the immediate dangers posed by air pollution, rather than the more distant specter of global warming, might help to muster the necessary support for changes that are going to be expensive and disruptive.
There are many reasons the world is failing to respond adequately to climate change. But surely one factor, one difference between this crisis and, for example, the global effort to close the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, is the motivating value of clear and present danger.
Some effects of climate change already are palpable, of course. But the worst is still in the future. Warnings about climate change are predictions, and even if they are taken seriously, people may be indifferent to the quality of life in 2100, or at least unwilling to do anything about it. They might be more motivated to save their own lives.
There are practical reasons, too, why it may be easier to curb emissions in the name of public health than in the name of climate change. The laws authorizing environmental regulation, including the Clean Air Act of 1963, were written as public health measures. Conservative federal judges are seeking to use that history to limit the government’s ability to address climate change. When the Supreme Court in February heard arguments in a case challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, several members of the court’s conservative majority were openly skeptical that the agency has the legal authority to require the kinds of sweeping changes necessary to slow global warming.
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