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New Yorker Earth Day

They Wore Surgical Masks for the First Earth Day, Too

Even as we’ve learned more about the threat of particulate air pollution, the Trump Administration last week blocked rules that would have tightened standards on particulates. (Air pollution reportedly kills more than fifty thousand Americans a year—more people than the country has lost so far to the coronavirus.) Lobbyists turned bureaucrats are rushing to gut whatever environmental regulations they can, and not just in the U.S.—also last week, a memo surfaced in Ottawa showing the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers making the same kind of demands.

But the bigger problem is that, after 1970, we chose to do the easy and obvious stuff, and we didn’t transform our systems—or our outlooks—in fundamental ways. Instead of pollution that you can see (and smell), in this century we’re increasingly dealing with what the President might call an “invisible enemy”: the carbon-dioxide molecule, with its devilish determination to trap heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. The damage it does is far greater than, say, carbon with one oxygen atom. Carbon monoxide was a component of that L.A. smog, but you could control it with a catalytic converter; indeed, a catalytic converter turns some of that carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. This time, there’s no easy technical fix, just turning off the fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable energy. But that means turning off the giant companies that dominate the hydrocarbon economy. That’s not an argument about science—that’s a fight about power. […]

One response to that shock comes from Oil Change International and the Democracy Collaborative, who released a report outlining in readable detail the prospects for a public takeover of the fossil-fuel industry. Since we’re handing firms bailouts, the logic goes, why not take ownership, and begin the process of winding down the industry before it can do more damage? The report lists the possible mechanisms, and concludes that “public ownership of the fossil fuel industry can halt its volatile boom-bust cycles, provide short- and long-term security for workers and communities, and implement a managed phase-out of oil, gas, and coal extraction to keep global warming under 1.5°C.”

Read the entire article at the New Yorker.

Publication date: 2020-04-22
Parent publication: New Yorker
Publication URL: https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-a-warming-planet/they-wore-surgical-masks-for-the-first-earth-day-too

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