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Column: Dirty air and foul water know no borders

BY   July 26, 2016 at 10:23 AM EST
The sun is seen behind smoke billowing from a chimney of a heating plant in Taiyuan, Shanxi province in China on December 9, 2013. Photo by Stringer /REUTERS

The sun is seen behind smoke billowing from a chimney of a heating plant in Taiyuan, Shanxi province in China on December 9, 2013. Photo by Stringer /REUTERS

Is 2016 the worst year ever? There’s terrorism, economic stagnation, inequality — and even environmental woes such as the utter transformation of the air we all breathe. Yes, the pollution responsible for global warming has reached concentrations never before inhaled by any member of our species, Homo sapiens. And the list of 2016 woes goes on.

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The next president of the United States will have to confront all these issues, and more. In particular, our next president will have to grapple with the tension between the ongoing and seemingly inexorable globalization of the world and the real interests of America and Americans. This is nothing new, as the U.S. has been grappling with how to deal with the rest of the world since its inception and even more so over the course of the last century.

Our environmental challenges are global in scope, whether we like it or not.

There is plenty of good news on the environmental front. U.S. air is being cleansed of the pollution behind smog, acid rain and lung disease. Raw sewage and industrial effluent no longer course into every major river, lake or stream, as happened regularly half a century ago. Lead is no longer added to gasoline, and though we will be living with that legacy for decades, the long, slow work of recovery is underway.

Laws have helped with this transition from a polluting past to a cleaner future. But so too has the ongoing and wrenching economic transition, whereby heavily polluting factories and other job sources have been outsourced to China, among other places. As a result, the Chinese enjoy choking smog, searing rain and enough tiny particles of soot to obscure the sky and ensure a hacking cough for those forced to breathe that air.

But this Great Pall of China doesn’t stay in China.

Air pollution reaches the U.S. west coast along with all those imported goods. China’s hunger for food helps drive the corn and soy monoculture that spreads from North Dakota down to Oklahoma and from Kansas back east as far as Ohio, and all that fertilizer runoff from farming feeds toxic algae blooms like the one that shut down Toledo’s water supply, among other ill effects. And a molecule of carbon dioxide or methane emitted in China does just as much to change the climate as a molecule emitted in California.

The challenge for our next president is not to choose between embracing globalization or focusing at home but to realize that the two are inextricably intertwined.

In other words, our environmental challenges are global in scope, whether we like it or not. Humanity writ large has transformed the planet, more so than any glacier or asteroid impact– the changes responsible for previous transitions in the geologic record of the planet’s history. That has led some geologists to propose a new epoch to recognize this novel change, provisionally called the Anthropocene.

To thrive in this Anthropocene and ameliorate its worst impacts — whether those be the extinction of plants and animals or the children around the world stunted or sickened by pollution — the next president of the United States will need to continue the good work of cleaning up our mess here at home but also recognize that dirty air and foul water know no borders.

Take an example from the world of global health, not always associated with global environmental change. Ebola burst forth from the jungle thanks to new interactions between people and wildlife. Driven into the forest to make a living or to find food, people brought a new and deadly disease out of the forest—and that disease did not stay near the forest in a world united by planes, trains and automobiles. Ebola is not an outlier, but another version of the same story, the same warning offered by SARS, bird flu and now Zika virus. And it’s not just disease, a hotter world makes it harder for people to cool off, among other public health threats from climate change; heat waves have killed hundreds in Chicago and thousands in Europe.

The challenge for our next president is not to choose between embracing globalization or focusing at home but to realize that the two are inextricably intertwined. The globalization of environmental problems affects us all and requires a renewed focus on home while also working to address global problems like climate change at the planetary scale.

There is precedent for such scale and scope. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration helped lead the charge to phase out the chemicals responsible for a growing and global environmental problem: the ozone hole. In 2016, the Obama administration has helped lead the charge to phase out the replacement chemicals which, while helping heal the ozone hole, are exacerbating global warming. 2016 may often feel like the worst year ever but it may also be the beginning of a growing and accelerating effort to make the U.S. and the world environmentally cleaner and economically stronger. I hope our next president embraces that.


Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour is hosting a series of columns to run during both of the 2016 national political conventions.

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