Climate change has become exclusively synonymous with greenhouse gas warming. Make no mistake, warming is a critically important problem that threatens Civilization and calls for dramatic, urgent action. But an exclusive focus on warming misses the many other major changes that also affect our health, economy, and quality of life, and (erroneously) leaves the impression that the consequences of human emissions will unfold far enough in the future to be ignored. In fact, particulates, sulfates, nitrous oxides, ground-level ozone, toxic metals, radionuclides, and much more are—like greenhouse warming—also having significant consequences right now, many of which—unlike warming—would clear up quickly with effective policies.
One example is the economic and health costs of respiratory diseases—including asthma and cancer—attributed to increases in sulfate, nitrous oxides, particulates from diesel and cooking fires, hydrocarbons, and the ozone and smog produced by them.
Further, many of us take for granted that we must accept brown and hazy skies in urban areas, and that we must travel to remote areas to find the enjoyment that clear air brings; but clean air is within our reach where we live too.
We first learned that our policy efforts could be a great success from our 1984 Greenland ice core which showed the decreased pollution with economic growth resulting from the Clean Air Act (Mayewski et al., 1984 Science 232, 975-977; 1990 Nature 346, 258-260).
We continue to see progress where effective policies have been implemented. A recent NOAA study from Carsten Warneke, et. al., show policies requiring reduced emissions from cars have successfully reduced volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—an important precursor to disease-causing, ground-level ozone—by 50-fold since 1960 even though gasoline consumption increased two-and-a-half times.
We have a great opportunity to take this progress further if we implement today’s equivalent of the Clean Air Act. With such efforts, view-obscuring, disease-causing urban air could be replaced with clear, fresh air over the course of only a few years. And, we might even reduce warming in the bargain.