Make the Invisible Costs Visible

by Aaron Hersum

Smog: a cloud of dirty air from cars, factories, etc., that is usually found in cities. It’s brown, thick, and easy to see. Smog is a clear villain. I can point to it and say “See, that’s what why we need to reduce emissions.” Unfortunately, carcinogens and radiation from natural gas, ultra-fine particles, and the like are not visible. I can’t point to benzene and say “That is literally killing you and your family.” Perhaps the single most pressing question that arose from the Boston Area Sustainability Group’s Clearing the Air: Carbon and Health event is: How do we, as environmentalists, make these invisible pollutants “visible” beyond our own sustainability circles to motivate enough people and to create systemic change?

I ran through the emergency room parking lot to the hospital entrance. The midnight air was cold, but I hardly noticed. My son was having trouble breathing again and I could hear a distinct wheezing as he inhaled.

After a night in the ER, an ambulance ride to the pediatric intensive care unit, and two nights in the ICU, I learned that my son has asthma. Not an ideal way to find out your child has an inflammatory disease, the type of disease that can be triggered by various forms of air pollutants. These pollutants are known to cause a variety of inflammatory responses including asthma, as well as more severe conditions such as cancer, congenital heart defects, and pre-term labor, to name a few.

Benzene might not be visible, but my son’s face is. As environmentalists, perhaps the mechanism to make the invisible costs of pollution visible is through storytelling. For example, parents, children and individuals tell their stories on camera, similar to the stories of individuals living near mountain top removal zones in The Last Mountain. But let’s go beyond making a documentary. We take the videos and create a campaign, like the campaigns against smoking, or for feeding starving children, or those gut-wrenching ASPCA ads with forlorn dogs and cats staring despondently into the camera. The recent ALS ice bucket challenge is a perfect example. What if the next video or news story you saw in your social media feed had the faces of two children affected by poor air quality from natural gas leaks or a mother talking about her baby that was born pre-term. That would make the impact of carbon emissions visible to everyone.

Why is it so difficult to create systemic change on a critical issue such as air quality in the first place? According to Jonathan Buonocore of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and one of three speakers at the event, air pollution is a “commons problem.” To use Jonathan’s example, if we think about the Boston Common’s original purpose as a place for the community to graze sheep, what happens when everyone tries to graze their sheep simultaneously? Eventually, the Commons cannot sustain the grazing and we lose our shared resource. Jonathan continued by saying there are four broad methods for solving a commons problem: 1) privatize, 2) pay the full cost, including the externalities, 3) regulate, and 4) use cooperative restraint, i.e. we all graze 2 out of 3 sheep at a time instead of all 3. Can we apply these methods to help address air pollution? Well, air is difficult to privatize. I don’t foresee polluters (individuals and companies) paying the externalized costs of their own free will. Regulation requires political will, which at its best is openly debated and at its worst is completely missing. And, cooperative restraint seems to have a similar problem as paying the full cost. To quote Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The challenge of the commons problem of air pollution represents a microcosm of the larger challenge of mitigating climate change. The health effects of air pollution, along with their externalized costs, have been researched, quantified, and enumerated. They are data, not postulation, just as climate change is fact, not a hypothesis. The advantage of framing climate change in terms of health, however, is that we all understand our health very intimately, which makes health a visible catalyst for change.

Health, therefore, enables us to build upon the good news that U.S. state and local governments, the business community, and people everywhere are stepping up to honor the Paris climate agreement, despite the administration’s stance. We can foster this cooperative restraint that already transcends economic, cultural and geographic borders.

Health is a great motivator – greater than the environment – for reducing emissions through policy. We have the evidence and a strong catalyst. Once we use that to make the problem more visible, we will have the motivation of the people.



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