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Fighting for air 

Our battle against contamination

We've fought this fight before. Our battle against contaminants in our air goes back 75 years, when there were days in Southern California when the smog was so thick you couldn't see to drive and ozone burned people's eyes and throats. The ozone levels were so high that they caused rubber to crack.

Even after we learned that the source of all these contaminants was smoke from manufacturing, automobile exhaust, and backyard incinerators, attempts to curb smog were stiffly opposed by oil companies, chambers of commerce, and residents who wanted to continue burning their trash. It required the creation of air pollution control districts to reduce smog from industry and trash collection programs to stop backyard trash burning. We created agencies to reduce tailpipe emissions and prevent fuel leakages from storage tanks, filling stations, and auto engines. We regulated smog production with the Pollution Control Act of 1955 and the Clean Air Act of 1963. Within three decades, we dropped smog carbon monoxide levels from 35 parts per million in 1979 to below the national standard level of 9 parts per million throughout the region, despite adding 3 million residents.

Our fight against air pollution actually goes back centuries to the choking black coal smoke of early industrial England. So thick was it that transportation sometimes had to be shut down for lack of visibility. It wasn't until the Great Smog of 1952 killed 12,000 people that government was forced to act with the Clean Air Act of 1956.

Thanks to such aggressive public health measures, we on the Central Coast enjoy clear skies and air that doesn't burn our eyes and throats, despite billions of vehicle miles traveled within and through San Luis Obispo County, and several hundred thousand residents who otherwise might be burning rubbish in their backyards.

Now we have a new contaminant to contend with—carbon dioxide. It is far more insidious than ozone or the black sulfurous smoke of days gone by. Initially rising slowly from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times, CO2 has rapidly accelerated to its current level of 420 parts per million. Should we allow it to rise above 1,000, people would sense "poor air quality" or feel drowsy. In a scenario of high CO2 emissions, we could well exceed that by the year 2100, within the lifetimes of children born today.

We are suffering the consequences of CO2-induced global warming already. The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record. In August, a heat dome over the southern and central U.S. exposed more than 100 million people to dangerous levels of heat and humidity. It was so hot in Chicago that commuter trains had to run slower due to heat-related stress on the tracks. The heat and its drying effect fueled massive wildfires in Canada, while Europe and Asia suffered extreme floods. The drastic swings from drought to flooding are giving us what's called "weather whiplash."

Then there are the economic consequences. Global warming-induced extreme climate events are now costing us an estimated $150 billion each year. Individual disasters can cost a billion or more dollars. Twenty years ago, we were suffering 6.7 such disasters per year. In the 2010s, that increased to 12.8 per year. For the last three years, we have been suffering 20 of these billion-dollar disasters every year.

Sadly, we can expect this trend to worsen with each increment of warming. To make matters worse, climate-related storms and high temperatures lower our country's GDP, leaving us with fewer resources to fight the problem. It's critical that we pull out all the stops to prevent further warming, without delay.

Fortunately, we have a proud history of successfully fighting against contaminants in our air, even while others—those with vested financial interests, resistant to change, or just for the sake of convenience—fought to continue polluting it. It's time we take on the mantle of those who fought to give us clear, noncorrosive air, and continue the battle against this new invisible threat.

We can electrify our homes, businesses, and cars, and we can encourage and support our friends and institutions to do the same. We can put on those attractive sweaters we got for Christmas instead of turning up the thermostat. We can drive smarter, shorter, fuel-efficient, combined trips. We can reserve meat for tasty side dishes, and cut way back on beef.

We can multiply our efforts by joining organizations like Citizens' Climate Education or the SLO Climate Coalition. On a national level, we can support the improvements in infrastructure needed to deliver clean energy where it's needed, and advocate for a fee on coal, oil, and gas producers to help shift us toward better and cleaner sources of energy.

We can win this fight. It's what we do. Δ

George Hansen writes to New Times from Arroyo Grande. Send a response for publication to [email protected].

Readers Poll

Do you support the local fishermen's decision to sue over wind farms? 

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