The air we breathe is becoming ever more degraded. Sometimes it is visible: for example, in the smog shrouding the most populated cities around the world. Sometimes, the problem is invisible, but no less deadly, such as with the higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the associated surge in extreme weather events.
The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimated in 2019 that air pollution contributes to 8.3 million premature deaths every year. The impact of air pollution can also be measured partly through the economic costs. In a report published in February, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an environmental NGO, estimated the cost of air pollution to be US$2.9 trillion annually. The report breaks down this mind-boggling headline figure as follows: “Disability from chronic diseases: US$200 billion. Asthma: $17 billion. Preterm births: $90 billion. Sick leave: $100 billion. Child deaths: $50 billion. Adult deaths: $2,400 billion”.
The Indian capital New Delhi is a case in point. On average days, thick smog obscures buildings and renders the sun a blood red ball. In 2019, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal likened the city to a “gas chamber”. The COVID-19 lockdown briefly reduced the concentration of toxic fine particulates in the atmosphere to “satisfactory” levels. By November, however, increased emissions from Diwali—the Festival of Lights—combined with a delayed crop-burning season, again subjected the city’s 17 million residents to a cloud of hazardous air.
India is believed to account for 2 million of the world’s total annual deaths attributable to air pollution. The toxic air also subjects its residents to diseases virtually eradicated in the West. The airborne bacteria that cause tuberculosis spread easily in India, where they kill an estimated 450,000 people a year in what has been described as a “silent pandemic”. In highly polluted megacities such as New Delhi, where masses of the poor live beyond the reach of statisticians, it’s likely that many more are killed or impaired, unknown and unaccounted for.
Exposure to air pollution compromises the immune systems of healthy people, and can debilitate the sick, both in underdeveloped countries such as India and in the West. Separate studies from Stanford, Cambridge and Harvard universities, undertaken during the early stages of the pandemic, found a correlation between poverty, exposure to pollution and COVID-19 mortality.
“Our study adds to growing evidence from northern Italy and the USA that high levels of air pollution are linked to deadlier cases of COVID-19”, reported Dr Miguel Martins, senior author of the Cambridge study. “This is something we saw during the previous SARS outbreak back in 2003, where long-term exposure to air pollutants had a detrimental effect on the prognosis of SARS patients in China. This highlights the importance of reducing air pollution for the protection of human health, both in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”
Deadly particulate matter isn’t the only danger lurking in the skies. While greenhouse gases don’t settle as sediment in human lungs, the clogging of air with carbon dioxide and methane threatens even greater catastrophe. Driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, the increasing concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is causing previously “once in a century” extremely destructive weather events to become almost an annual phenomenon.
Australia’s State of the Climate 2020 report, produced by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, paints a grim picture of our future. According to the report, “the last time that atmospheric C02 concentrations were the same or higher than today was the Pliocene epoch, over 2.6 million years ago, when mean global temperatures were 2-3 degrees warmer than today”. In that epoch, Antarctica was home to great rainforests, and global sea-levels were 10-20 metres above where they are now.
The decade from 2010 was the hottest on record. On current trends, it will also be the coolest for decades to come. Heatwaves and droughts are more frequent and severe. Cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are increasing in intensity. Areas prone to severe thunderstorms and floods are being battered more regularly. And no matter how rapidly we manage to reduce emissions from here, these changes are locked in for the foreseeable future: the report notes, “[T]he amount of climate change expected in the next decade is similar under all plausible global emissions scenarios”.
Temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius threaten human life. The World Health Organization warns that exposure to extreme heat can result in “a cascade of illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke and hyperthermia”. Already, heatwaves are the leading cause of death among environmental factors. A 2003 European heatwave was responsible for the deaths of more than 70,000 people; in 2010, a similar heatwave in Russia killed 55,000.
The possibility that unpredictable and damaging climate “feedback loops” will be triggered also looms. On 28 October, the Guardian reported that scientists on the Russian research ship R/V Akademik Mstislav Keldysh found that “huge” deposits of frozen methane off the Arctic coast are beginning to melt. Methane is a vastly more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—more than 80 times as potent during the first twenty years after its release into the atmosphere. For now, much of the methane in the frozen Arctic deposits is dissolving into the surrounding seawater. But over time, it will seep into the atmosphere. This process could supercharge global warming and counteract any efforts made to reduce emissions from other sources.
Civilisation as we know it is under threat. A May 2020 paper, published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes the narrow range of temperatures humans have lived in for millennia as a “climate niche” that is being thrown wildly off balance by rising emissions. According to the paper’s authors, a team of scientists from around the world, “over the coming 50 years, 1 to 3 billion people are projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 years”.
If emissions continue unabated, large areas of the world will become uninhabitable: simply too hot for humans to survive in. Highly populated areas in the subtropics and already hot areas in the Sahara will be most impacted. The paper estimates that 3.5 billion people will be exposed to average temperatures above 29 degree Celsius, “a situation found in the present climate only in 0.8 percent of the global land surface ... but in 2070 projected to cover 19 percent of the global land”.
The wealthy will fare better than the poor in such conditions. Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest person, made his immense wealth selling petrochemicals. His Mumbai residence is a 27-storey building that has 168 car parks and is decked out not only with air-conditioning but also a room producing artificial snow. Mumbai, meanwhile, is home to the world’s largest slum network, which is regularly flooded by monsoon rains and faces being submerged beneath rising seas.
The United Nations estimates that 1.23 million people died as a result of natural disasters between 2000 and 2019. These deaths have disproportionately occurred among the poorest of the world’s population. More than 700 people were killed in monsoons that raged through South-East Asia this year, something that passed almost completely unnoticed by the majority of the world’s media.
Workers and the poor are not only disproportionately affected by weather-related climate impacts, but also face greater difficulties rebuilding their lives once crisis strikes. In 2017, 64 people were killed when category five Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. In the following five months, however, a further 2,975 people died—many due to the lack of electricity, which, according to Global Citizen, an anti-poverty organisation, prevented people with “treatable chronic illnesses ... from getting antibiotics, insulin and other medical care”.
The global elite responsible for this environmental vandalism can stay cool in air-conditioned mansions and office buildings, fortified, climate-controlled bunkers or on private islands. For workers and the poor—the vast majority of the world’s population—there is no chance of escape, and no choice but to fight for the future.