Every day our climate changes more and more as we pump more and more CO2 into our air. One thing we don’t often think about is that climate change also means unbreathable air. Our earth is not only getting hotter and hotter but the air we breath is harming us more and more. The more carbon we burn the worse our air gets. This happens in several ways.

In the first place, the more CO2 in our air, the less oxygen there is.   As CO2 concentration goes up, oxygen concentration goes down.  And this is very bad for humans.  For one thing, the less oxygen in our air the more our cognitive ability goes down.

Right now CO2 is at 414 parts per million (PPM) in our air.  When this rises to 930 PPM, human cognitive ability will decline by 21%.  

With the invention of the internal combustion engine and the first cars, climate change began to transform the world faster and faster.
With the invention of the internal combustion engine and the first cars, climate change began to transform the world faster and faster.

If we go on as we are now, basically doing nothing to lower CO2 emissions, there will be about 560 PPM of CO2 by midcentury and close to 1000 PPM by the end of the century.  

It sounds like the end of the century is a long ways away and its hard to think about such distant problems. But our CO2 levels are rising every day, and every day our thinking gets worse and worse. This is the last thing we need right now.

  And there are also some very serious problems with low oxygen levels right now, today.  Several studies have shown that indoor levels of CO2 are extremely high right now.

According to one study, many elementary classrooms already average 1000 PPM of CO2.  Almost a quarter of Texas classrooms average over 3000 PPM.  

But classrooms are not where we find the most CO2.  The worst offenders are airplanes which show even higher levels of CO2.  No wonder we feel so groggy after a long trip in a big plane. Climate change means unbreathable air.

Brown fox in the winter
Brown fox in the winter

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.  

Air pollution is the really dangerous problem.  Right now, today, more that 10,000 people around the world die from air pollution every single day.  This fact comes from David Wallace Wells book “The Uninhabitable Earth” in the chapter titled “Unbreathable Air.” (2)

Air pollution is something of a catch-all term.  Basically air pollution is a mixture of tiny foreign particles and gases in the air. Our industrial society and mainly our cars and trucks and buses pump all kinds of stuff into our air. Car emissions, chemicals from factories, dust, pollen and mold spores are all be suspended in the air as tiny particles. 

What we call smog is part of air pollution.  Smog is basically ozone.  Ozone protects humans when it is at high altitudes where it blocks ultraviolet rays.  But at ground level ozone is a harmful air pollutant.  

Ground level ozone, or smog, is formed from a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of heat and sunlight. These compounds are emitted into the atmosphere by places like power plants, refineries, and chemical plants, by mobile sources like cars, trucks, and trains, and by activities like lawnmowing, open burning, and the use of woodstoves.” (1)

The headwaters of the Green River high in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.  Few people realize how dangerous air pollution is and how many people it kills every year, right now.  Even in places like this the air is full of invisible small particulate matter.  Climate change means unbreathable air
The headwaters of the Green River high in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming

Without strong sunlight you don’t get smog. This is one of the reasons there is so much smog in Los Angeles: lots of cars and lots of sunlight. We have much less smog now-a-days because of emission regulations and catalytic converters on cars.

The lead in leaded gasoline was once a horrendous part of air pollution.  Cars that burned leaded gas ended up injecting lead and lead oxides into the atmosphere.  The consequences were awful.  Lead didn’t cause visible air pollution, ozone does that. But many studies have shown that breathing lead dramatically increases rates of intellectual disability and criminality, and” dramatically decreased educational attainment and lifetime earnings, wherever they were introduced.” (2).

There is still some lead in the air we breath but nothing like it once was before it was banned.

Now-a-days the worst part air pollution is small-particulate pollution. 

Snowy sunset in Grand Canyon,  Arizona.   Few people realize how dangerous air pollution is and how many people it kills every year, right now.  Even in places like this the air is full of small particulate matter.  Climate change means unbreathable air.
Snowy sunset in Grand Canyon, Arizona

Even though dust and agricultural activity puts small particle pollution into the air, most of it comes from burning any kind of carbon fuel. Forest fires, wood burning stoves, all kinds of internal combustion engines, industrial operations, jet engines, diesel engines, home heating all pump zillions of small particles into the air every minute of every day.

This fine particulate matter is often called PM 2.5. This means particulate matter less that 2.5 microns in size. This stuff is drawn deep into our lungs. If you inhale enough of it, you die from various lung diseases including cancer.

Bill McKibben in his book Falter says that “Around the world, air pollution kills 9 million people a year, far more than AIDS, malaria, TB, and warfare combined. In the worst years, a third of the deaths in China can be blamed on air pollution, and by 2030, it may claim 100 million victims worldwide.” Climate change means unbreathable air

Old fashioned pollution is now almost unknown is much of America thanks to the pollution controls that were put into place in the 1960's with the Clear Air Act
Pollution is now much better in much of America thanks to the pollution controls that were put into place in the 1960’s with the Clear Air Act. However there is still a lot of air pollution in even places like Los Angeles.

In his book The Great Acceleration, JR McNeill says the same thing:

Both coal and oil turned out to be mass killers in the world’s cities. In Western Europe around 2000, vehicle exhausts killed people at roughly the same rate as vehicle accidents.  

Meanwhile, in China air pollution from all sources killed about five hundred thousand Chinese annually and, due to pollutants wafting eastward with the winds, another eleven thousand in Japan and Korea together.  

In the 1990s, estimates had put the global annual death toll attributable to air pollution at about half a million. One study from 2002 put it at eight hundred thousand per year.  

From 1950 to 2015, air pollution probably killed about thirty to forty million people, lately most of them  have been Chinese.   This is roughly equal to the death toll from all wars around the world since 1950.  Many millions more have suffered intensified asthma and other ailments as a result of the pollution they inhaled. “

In a November 14, 2019 article Paul Krugman says that air pollution is deadly and that Trump and the Republican Party is making it much worse. He says that, based on widely accepted research, particle pollution led to 10,000 extra deaths in the US last year. And there is an economic toll also. A recent study puts the cost of pollution at $89 billion a year.

Small particle pollution not only kills lots and lots of people but it also lowers cognitive performance.  That is to say it makes people stupider

For instance, careful studies have shown that “Reducing Chinese pollution to the EPA standard would improve the country’s verbal test scores by 13 percent and its math scores by 8 percent.  (2)

And small particle pollution from cars has other serious health effects you would never suspect:  

Toll booths force cars to stop to pay the toll and then drive off again.  This causes extra exhaust.  Just introducing E-Z Pass, which lets cars drive right past toll booths without stopping changed life completely in surrounding neighborhood.  It reduced premature births by 10.8 % and low birth weight babies by 11.8 %.  Pretty amazing!

A high camp in the Wind Rivers at dawn.  That yellow spot in the middle of the picture is my tent.   Few people realize how dangerous air pollution is and how many people it kills every year, right now.  Even in places like this the air is full of invisible small particulate matter.  Climate change means unbreathable air
A high camp in the Wind Rivers at dawn. That yellow spot in the middle of the picture is my tent.

And this is minor when you look at some of the major threats of burning carbon fuels.  As I’ve been mentioning all thru this article, Climate change means unbreathable air and pollution is killing large numbers of people right now.

Another example, in 2013 melting Arctic ice changed the Asian weather.  It caused atmospheric conditions that ended the winds in China that once blew away most of the air pollution produced by Chinese factories and cars.  China’s air has long been  at the top end of the Air Quality Index.  But after the winds quit, air pollution in parts of China doubled, reaching a peak Air Quality Index of 993.

As a result, in 2013 air pollution was responsible for 1.37 million deaths in China. 

And similar air conditions have been happeneing in the last few years in the US, mainly because of forest fires.  In Northern California in 2017 during the fire season, the air was just as bad as the air in China.  In Napa the Air Quality Index hit 486, the same as it was in Beijing that day.

The air is really, really bad in Delhi, India though.  In Delhi,  the Air Quality Index reached 999 in 2017 and it is usually this bad.   “Simply breathing its air was the equivalent of smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day, and local hospitals saw a patient surge of 20 percent.”  (2)

In 2017, the Lancet reported that small-particulate pollution cause nine million premature deaths globally.  More that a quarter of these were from India.  And that was before the final figures of the year were in. Climate change means unbreathable air

Grizzly Peak at dawn.  Near Durango, Colorado.   Few people realize how dangerous air pollution is and how many people it kills every year, right now.  Even in places like this the air is full of invisible small particulate matter.  Climate change means unbreathable air
Grizzly Peak at dawn. Near Durango, Colorado

Small particle air pollutions is mainly caused by diesel and gas exhausts and the industrial burning of carbon fuels.  The actual deaths are caused by all kinds of things:  stroke, heart disease, cancer of all kinds, acute and chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, and adverse pregnancy outcomes, including premature birth.”

And this isn’t the end of the damage.  Small particulate air pollution has also been linked to “worse memory, attention loss, vocabulary loss, and to ADHD and autism spectrum disorders. Pollution has been shown to damage the development of neurons in the brain, and proximity to a coal burning plant can deform your DNA.”  (2).

Climate change not only means a hotter earth.  Climate change means unbreathable air.   Burning carbon based fuels is destroying our earth and killing us faster than most of us realize.

Long's Peak at Dawn, Rocky Mountain National Park.   Few people realize how dangerous air pollution is and how many people it kills every year, right now.  Even in places like this the air is full of invisible small particulate matter.  Climate change means unbreathable air
Long’s Peak at Dawn, Rocky Mountain National Park
Boreas Pass near Breckenridge, Colorado,  Few people realize how dangerous air pollution is and how many people it kills every year, right now.  Even in places like this the air is full of invisible small particulate matter.   Climate change means unbreathable air
Boreas Pass near Breckenridge, Colorado
Dawn highway along the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier National Park in Montana.   Few people realize how dangerous air pollution is and how many people it kills every year, right now.  Even in places like this the air is full of invisible small particulate matter.  Climate change means unbreathable air
Dawn highway along the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier National Park in Montana
Delhi, India has the worst air pollution in the world.

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Notes and more reading on this subject

(1) Ground level Ozone

(2) The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells

Another look at small particle air pollution

“Falter” by Bill McKibben

The Great Acceleration, by JR McNeill


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