Pollution and Global Warming: Nowhere to Run

January 07, 2016
Polar Bear
The U.S. is the largest producer of carbon dioxide, but the most extreme global warming effects are happening in other parts of the world, like the Arctic Sea, where this polar bear is abandoned on a slab of ice. Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ 1000photosofnewyorkcity/5550872824

By Shem Opolot, first-year MSc-GH student

Stop smoking and you will lower your chances of getting lung cancer.

Drink less, and more often than not, your liver will stand the test of time

Practice safe sex and hopefully you won't get AIDS. 

In a simpler world, simple behavioral changes such as these would alleviate many of the ailments that plague our existence. But what do we do when the very air we breathe will kill us if we're exposed to it long enough? Where do we run? 

Air pollution is a difficult problem to solve for several reasons.

We've caught on very late in the game. In the times of the London smog, during the boom of the industrial revolution, we were none the wiser to the price we pay for "progress." All we saw were bigger engines, faster cars, bigger buildings and huge clouds of smoke signifying the fruits of our labor as we inched towards the modern era. 

It has taken a number of years for global warming and its causes to become a mainstay in our media and research, and despite the overwhelming evidence of global warming out there, we still have many skeptics. And unfortunately, some of these skeptics are tax payers and legislators who are serious impediments to the mission to create policy that can protect our world.

The negative consequences of the pollution problem are experienced disproportionately around the world; hence, it has been difficult to prioritize attempts to abate the issue. 

For example, per the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the United States is the largest source of global warming pollution, emitting more carbon dioxide than China, Japan and India combined. However, the crux of extreme global warming effects are being experienced outside the borders of the United States, like the scorching heat waves in India last year. As polar bears lose their homes in the arctic regions, or people's houses get wrecked by floods in Asia, others burn fossil fuels and manufacture cars with built-in software to cheat on emissions tests (yes Volkswagen, I'm talking to you). We willfully suspend our concern for these tragedies and our role in them only until we have to tweet #PrayForCountryX, or until we have an excuse to go serve overseas, whenever our guilt and compassion meet opportunity.

How can we get ahead of this trend? Who polices the police of global greenhouse gas emissions? Should some countries start demanding reparations from other countries that produce much more emissions? Also, have we really failed to engineer and distribute clean energy? Or are we simply complacent? Or are our hands tied by the powers that be—the large corporations with lots of money that continue to benefit from burning coal fuels and other activities that are harmful to our environment? 

This issue is reminiscent of the battle that raged on over the banishment of the usage of lead in gasoline for cars in the 1980s. I hope the implementation and translation into policy of the scientific evidence available now can result in swifter action to preserve Mother Earth.

This blog post was originally published on the class blog for the Fall 2015 Global Health Challenges class and was republished with permission from the author.