The climate and tax bill expected to pass on Friday afternoon has a huge benefit that you might not have thought about: It’ll go a long way toward improving health throughout the United States.
The package — which, when signed by President Biden, will be America’s first major climate law — is an important step in the fight against global warming. But even if all countries take fast, decisive action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it’ll take some time for the planet’s temperatures to stabilize.
Public health gains from the measure, on the other hand, should be much more immediate. Today, I’ll explain the various benefits and why they matter.
Fewer premature deaths
The burning of fossil fuels emits dangerous air pollutants like fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, that can penetrate deep into our lungs and even enter our bloodstreams.
This microscopic pollution, named because each particle is smaller than 2.5 micrometers across, has been shown to worsen asthma and other lung disorders, and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. It’s also been linked to developmental problems in children…
The benefits of the law could be especially felt by communities of color, which are often near big sources of pollution like busy roads, industrial sites and power plants. As my colleagues Hiroko Tabuchi and Nadja Popovich wrote last year, Black Americans are exposed to higher concentrations of PM 2.5 from all sources.
These communities sometimes fall through the cracks of air quality monitoring networks in the United States. Those systems are some of the best in the world, but more granular data could make a huge difference, said Christa Hasenkopf, who leads air quality programs at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.
She explained to me that a city may have several air quality monitors spread out that are reporting an average level of pollution that isn’t harmful, but the system could still miss the few blocks where levels are extremely high…
Building global momentum
Raising American ambition to tackle global warming could also help build momentum for renewable energy investments in other countries, Hasenkopf said. That would be a big step forward in addressing air pollution on a global level.
“Outdoor air pollution, specifically PM 2.5 pollution, decreases the average life span of a human on the planet more than road injuries, H.I.V.-AIDS, malaria and war combined,” she said.
A recent study in The Lancet estimated that more than 6.5 million people worldwide die from air pollution every year, and fossil fuel emissions are a primary cause. And more than 90 percent of deaths caused by pollution happen in low and middle-income countries.
In India, air pollution is estimated to shave five years, on average, from people’s lives. Americans lose an average of about two months.
But the invisibility of air pollution makes the problem hard to tackle, Hasenkopf said. According to a recent assessment that she helped coordinate, just 0.1 percent of grants each year by philanthropic groups are focused on air quality.
“It’s a huge burden on our public health globally,” she said. “But it really flies under the radar. It’s neglected.”