Can Deadly Urban Smog Save The Planet?

London Smog

London Smog

Support for emission limits on carbon, sulphur, methane etc. is often difficult to obtain because many voters believe that (1) The costs are certain and happen immediately but the benefits are probabilistic and occur far in the future, and (2) The benefits go to other people, even those who didn’t make any sacrifices of their own. As in many other policy areas, such voters therefore reward politicians who tell them that the can may be safely be kicked down the road.

However, a spate of horrific illness and death could help overcome these facts of human psychology. The Economist [gated] reports that air pollution has reduced average life expectancy in Northern China by 5.5 years and has knocked a stunning 2.1 billion aggregate years off of life expectancy in the Indian population. Such widespread morbidity and mortality is tragic, but this public health disaster could have a positive political effect by making the costs of uncontrolled emissions evident in the present moment and also showing voters that they themselves would benefit from emission controls.

It’s happened before. London was plagued by horrific smog after the war. The worst incident, in 1952, killed over 10,000 people in just 4 days. The coal ash-laden pea soup caused deaths from asphyxiation, accidents (e.g., stumbling blindly in front of moving buses and trains) and aggravation of pre-existing heart/lung ailments. The public outcry led Parliament to ban coal fires in urban homes, at a time when no voter had even heard of climate change.

Granted, the emissions that cause the most health damage and those that contribute the most to global warming do not overlap completely. But once visible and immediate health damage creates a broad constituency in a society for the principle of reduced emissions, it should be much easier for climate-minded advocates to place limits on emissions even in cases where the link to immediate health damage in less strong.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.