Along with climate-killing CO2, there are a lot of people-killing pollutants. Perhaps we should change our message.
It is really hard to get people to care about climate change. A Gallup poll earlier this year found that less than half of Americans believe it will affect them personally: "57% of Republicans think it will not happen in their lifetime (25%) or will 'never happen' (32%)."
Perhaps more would care if they realized that it was killing them at worst, and shortening their lives at minimum. According to a report from the World Health Organization released at COP24, there is a direct correlation between the climate change and health.Of course, there are many who deny that Carbon Dioxide should be classed as a pollutant, but all those fossil fuel eating machines that spew it out also put out particulates and other pollutants that are affecting us personally right now. Perhaps we are delivering the wrong message. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum of WHO says, "We should no longer be talking about the cost of [cutting emissions], we should talk about the benefits to people’s health of investing in what needs to be done."
The drivers of climate change – principally fossil fuel combustion – pose a heavy burden of disease, including a major contribution to the 7 million deaths from outdoor and indoor air pollution annually. The air pollutants which are causing ill-health, and the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are causing climate change, are emitted from many of the same sectors, including energy, housing, transport and agriculture. Short-lived climate pollutants (including black carbon, methane and ozone) have important impacts on both climate and health.
Maria Neira, the WHO director of public and environmental health, is quoted in the Guardian:
“If you don’t think you need to take action for the sake of climate change, make sure when you think about the planet you incorporate a couple of lungs, a brain and a heart. It is not just about saving the planet in the future, it is about protecting the health of the people right now.”
Twenty-five percent of fine particulate matter pollution comes from traffic, 15 percent from industry, 20 percent from fuel burning and 22 percent from "unspecified sources of human origin" like Montreal bagels and wood-fired pizza.
A warming climate will worsen air quality. If current emissions continue, ground-level ozone events are expected to intensify, especially in densely populated areas, leading to more respiratory illness. In certain areas, the frequency and extent of wildfires – and with them, emissions of particulate matter and other pollutants – are projected to increase.
Perhaps this will move the needle for people who do not believe in climate change. Perhaps when they realize how harmful these pollutants are, they will stop buying heavy SUVs, building houses in wildfire country, or burning coal. Or perhaps they will just put on vests, protest against carbon taxes, and pretend none of this matters.