Fight climate change so we don't all choke to death

Like breathing? Get rid of greenhouse gases

The Golden Gate Bridge.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

In the American West, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.

These deeply unsettling images are thanks to gargantuan smoke plumes erupting across the region, which blocked out all but red light. California has already had its worst year of fires on record, and the season is not even close to over. Two whole towns in Oregon were burned to the ground in a matter of minutes.

Climate change is deeply implicated in these wildfires, of course, but the cursed blood-red skies raise one of the most underrated reasons to attack the problem: air quality. If for no other reason, nations around the world should slash greenhouse gas emissions because the associated air pollution is killing people by the millions. It would quite literally pay for itself.

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As David Roberts writes at Vox, the most recent science has found a dramatically higher toll of sickness, death, and economic damage caused by air pollution. Most of this comes from carbon fuel of some kind — burning natural gas or especially coal for electricity, or oil for transportation, or biomass for home heating and cooking. The resulting smoke and smog contains all kinds of poisonous and carcinogenic compounds, plus very tiny particles can get lodged in tissues and cause a slew of different chronic diseases. Climate scientist Drew Shindell has found something like 250,000 Americans are killed by air pollution annually, and all that sickness and death adds up to a staggering economic cost of perhaps $700 billion per year.

Most research on air pollution has focused on human activities, not wildfires. We know for a fact that climate change worsens wildfires in the American West by increasing temperatures, causing alternately extreme precipitation that fuels an explosion of undergrowth and severe drought that dries it out, and so on. (All that is made more dangerous to people by the constant creep of sprawl into dangerous tinderbox country.)

Now, the science on wildfire smoke is as yet somewhat equivocal. Researchers are confident that it is bad for you, but as yet there is not conclusive proof that lots of people are getting sick from it now. But it basically has to be the case that enough consistent wildfire smoke exposure will cause similar health problems. It's got even more of the same toxic compounds and tiny particles as other air pollution — and after all, unlike smog, enough smoke inhalation can kill you in minutes.

At any rate, an eerie red sky like something out of the Book of Revelations is not so much a presentation of a novel new danger as a gripping illustration of an existing one. Even if wildfire smoke somehow turns out to be not that bad (which it won't), it is still the case that all those other sources of air pollution are killing millions of people and giving tens of millions chronic diseases every year.

Importantly, as Roberts writes, the case for completely decarbonizing the economy pencils out just on air cleanliness grounds, because air pollution is so toxic, and because the local air will mostly clear up if local pollution is ceased even if other countries don't do the same:

The air quality benefits arrive much sooner than the climate benefits. They are, at least for the next several decades, much larger. They can be secured without the cooperation of other countries. And, by generating an average of $700 billion a year in avoided health and labor costs, they will more than pay for the energy transition on their own. Climate change or no climate change, it’s worth ditching fossil fuels. [Vox]

Indeed, renewable power has gotten so cheap in many areas that it is out-competing legacy coal power without any kind of subsidies. For instance, the FBI recently arrested the Ohio Speaker of the House, Larry Householder, for allegedly accepting bribes from the private utility FirstEnergy to pass a huge bailout of its uneconomical coal power plants.

That's where Big Carbon is today: swindling American citizens out of billions of dollars so it can continue to poison and kill them with a deadly plume of pollution. A side effect of that pollution, even more dangerous over the long run, is also dry-roasting half the American states so that several months of each year is smoke-and-fiery-apocalypse season. Every time lightning strikes, or someone drops a cigarette, or a gender reveal grenade goes awry, towering flames consume yet more tens of thousands of acres, and often hundreds of homes, smothering half a continent under a dome of choking haze.

If you like breathing, it's time to attack climate change.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.