Saturday, October 27, 2018

My Log 656 October 27 2018: Chronicles from the Tenth Decade: 92; What is a pollutant? A ludicrous argument of the conservative-minded to obfuscate a serious issue

A brief argument --- an argument that I believe could reasonably be called “ludicrous” --- has been going on across the country about what should be or should not be called pollution.
This is a subject on which I can claim a limited amount of expertise if
only because I was present in Britain when the last two of that country’s famous “peasouper” smogs occurred, in 1952, and 1962. The 1952 event (a daylight shot shown here) is now recognized as the greatest smog ever recorded in London --- and by extension, I would argue, anywhere else in the world. London is a city that has known its fair share of smogs since the first one was experienced in  the thirteenth century, their severity rising as Britain’s industrial revolution occurred in the 19th century. “You see that smoke,” said Thomas Gradgrind, a school board superintendent in Hard Times, a Dickens novel published in 1854, a teacher who treats his pupils as pitchers waiting to be stuffed full of facts, and who is dedicated above all to the pursuit of profitable enterprise, “You see that smoke, that is meat and drink to us.”
Well, I can testify that by 1952 that meat and drink had become a choking air mass that was as likely to kill as to nourish. It is not something I could ever forget. Living as we did in North Kensington, the impoverished end of the Royal Borough, we had a visitor during that smog, a fellow teacher at my wife’s school, and I remember saying goodnight to him, accompanying him out on to the sidewalk, where it was impossible to see more than a yard ahead through the smog. He cheerfully headed off along the sidewalk, disappearing after the first few steps, heading for the London Underground, the only transport agency still working.
Wikipedia explains: “On 4 December 1952, an anti-cyclone settled over a windless London, causing a temperature inversion with cold, stagnant air trapped under a layer (or ‘lid’) of warm air.”  Not only that, but it was estimated that during each of the following four days “1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds, and 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide which may have been converted to 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid,”   were emitted in London from its millions of low-grade household fires, its four huge coal-burning power plants, and the usual culprits, such as heavy industry and vehicle emissions.
It was eventually estimated that 4000 people were killed immediately by the worsening of respiratory diseases, but over the following months the death toll was fixed at as high as 12,000.  This drastic event stimulated the need for urgent action, and four years later --- I kid you not! --- the first Clean Air Act was passed by Britain’s Churchill-led Conservative government.
By the time this Act came into force I had scurried off to Canada, where I began to work in journalism that resulted in my being sent back to Britain in 1960 as London correspondent of The Montreal Star, the ponderous, deeply conservative journal for which I worked.  They established me at the other end of Kensington, the fabled, wealthy South Kensington, home of such establishments as the majestic department store for the rich,  Harrod’s, and such tony addresses as Eaton square, Knightsbridge, Queen’s Gate (on which I lived), where I was able to experience the flip side of the Britain I had known in North Kensington.
The air quality quickly began to improve under the influence of the new legislation, but not enough to escape another, less severe smog in 1962 that was credited with killing only 750 people, but that has apparently been the last such event recorded in London.
Now, in relation to the current controversy in Canada about what is pollution, I have to pronounce a victory on points  for  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's assertion  that his carbon tax represents “a price on pollution” in Canada, over  that of the dissident leader Maxime Bernier who has said  that “CO2 is NOT pollution. It’s what comes out of your mouth when you breathe and what nourishes plants….We can debate the effects of too much CO2 in the atmosphere on climate. That doesn’t make CO2 a form of pollution.”
Admittedly, when one hears the word pollution one thinks of the London smog of 1952, which was eventually abolished by strict legislation, or even of the yellow pall that one used to see hanging over the city as one flew into Los Angeles, the result of vehicle emissions that appear to have been somewhat reduced by legislative action. But what has replaced the coal-burning stoves and fires as the source of household heat in Britain is a new system of oil-burning heaters which no longer  enshroud us in unbreathable smog, but have instead emitted the invisible CO2 gas (and others) that have simply since then gathered in the stratosphere to formed a heat-trapping shield that is resulting in a much more serious challenge than did the old form of pollution (which, incidentally, is still alive and kicking in such places as New Delhi, Beijing, Shanghai and many other cities in the so-called developing world.)
This new form of pollution, to use the Prime Minister’s description, being invisible, has been much slower to impose itself on the human psyche than was the old visibly dangerous smog. The first warning came from a former NASA climate scientist James Hansen in June 1988.  The United Nations established in that year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that has gathered scientific knowledge on the subject until nowadays it is commonly said that 97 per cent of climate scientists are agreed on the responsibility of human action for the gradual heating of the planet. The other three per cent appear to have been mostly employed by the oil industry to deny any human responsibility.
The Paris accord of 2015 was generally believed to at least hold out hope that the world’s nations might take the issue seriously, but the action of the United States in threatening to withdraw from the accord has changed the calculus about the probability of effective action.
If anything, the speed with which climate change is happening has taken the concerned scientists by surprise. Globally significant climate events, such as hurricanes, huge storms, changed rainfall patterns, damaging droughts, massive floods, even earthquakes and tsunamis, are becoming increasingly severe with every year that passes. Significant evidence of warming especially in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where ice cover dating from thousands of years back has begun to melt, exposes the possibility of huge releases of climate-influencing gasses as, for example, that the vast areas of permafrost have begun to melt across the north of the planet.
In face of challenges like this, it can surely be said that our current debate about what might or might not be called pollution is idiotic, and no more than a mechanism of the conservative-minded to evade the difficult problem of deciding upon responsible action.
Says Douw Steyn, professor in the department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric sciences at University of British Columbia:  “That’s a silly argument around minutiae and definitions to avoid the fact that carbon dioxide seriously disrupts the climate and therefore all ecosystems.” He adds that natural substances in the atmosphere become pollutants when their concentrations rise above their natural concentration.
Simple enough to understand, if guess, unless you are trying to obfuscate matters.

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