As the Trump administration moves to dismantle clean air regulations, a landmark study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that existing air quality rules do not go far enough.
The nationwide investigation, published last week, finds that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone, even at levels deemed safe by federal rules, can lead to early mortality. Among the groups most at risk, researchers singled out men, people eligible for Medicaid, and especially African Americans. “Do we really want to breathe air that kills?” Jeffrey M. Drazen, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, wrote in an editorial outlining the paper.
The results of the study are backed by a 12-year data set that examines health outcomes of more than 60 million Medicare beneficiaries from 2000 to 2012. It found that fine particulate matter (any combination of dust, dirt, soot, or smoke) at levels the National Ambient Air Quality Standard deems permissible increases poor health outcomes and the likelihood of premature death—particularly among marginalized communities. Currently, that federal standard deems levels below 12 micrograms per cubic meter and ozone concentrations at 50 parts per billion to be safe.
This report adds to an emerging body of climate research that considers vectors such as race, age, class, and income and how each separately—and also all at once—reduce one’s quality of life. In an article published in TheInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the authors note higher cancer and other health risks linked to “ambient exposure to industrial and on-road mobile source emissions of air toxics” in racially and ethnically diverse areas. The researchers also note that black men and women have a much higher perception of risk than their white and Hispanic counterparts of both sexes. The analysis stresses that black people are not only at greater risk of dying due to air pollution exposure, but black people are also the most aware that they are dying due to exposure.
“I think any place where brown people and poor people are in high concentration, you’re not going to get clean air,” says Olinka Green, a Dallas resident and community clean air advocate. Structural racism has long played a direct role in how climate change affects different groups and communities. In particular, the construction of coal-fire power plants and other toxic facilities in minority neighborhoods across the country has a direct impact on health outcomes for nonwhite residents. A 2016 analysis from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club cites that 97 premature deaths, mostly those of children, the elderly, and outdoor workers, could be avoided each year if the largest coal mines in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas reduced their carbon emissions by implementing “common sense” safeguards.
In his editorial outlining the air quality study, Drazen outlines two urgent actions: first, the need to lower the annual National Ambient Air Quality Standard, and second, to raise awareness of an attack upon one of life’s most basic necessities—air. The Trump administration’s neglect of environmental problems represents a “headlong” move in the “opposite direction,” Drazen warns. As of late, we have seen Trump share his enthusiasm for reviving the coal industry by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and eliminating Obama-era environmental regulations despite market indicators suggesting that such policy is not in our best economic interest.
Will this report, and its recommendations, go unnoticed by the Trump administration’s efforts to disregard facts? As more black people die from inhaling toxic air, only time will tell.
“You’re going back to work,” President Donald Trump promised a group of coal miners who came to EPA headquarters in Washington to witness the signing of a March executive order on energy independence and economic growth.
The president’s declaration takes his promises to coal country full circle. During the 2016 election campaign, he claimed that the Obama administration had waged a “war on coal,” arguing that stricter environmental regulations led to job losses in coal-producing states.
However, Trump chose to ignore other important forces at work that have hastened the demise of coal. A recent report from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy found that significant changes in global energy markets contributed to the U.S. coal industry’s decline more than the Obama-era climate initiatives, including a decrease in demand for coal from China which, in turn, produced a major drop in U.S. coal exports. Stateside, cheaper natural gas contributed to about half of the decline in domestic coal consumption, while a decrease in the demand for electricity and an increase in renewable energy usage were also factors.
The overall result? From 2011 to 2016, U.S. coal production declined 27 percent, 1.096 billion tons to 730 million, the steepest five-year postwar decline in U.S. history, according to the report.
Despite these market signals, the Trump administration continues to call for increased coal production—and American companies have responded. In Raleigh County, West Virginia, the Tennessee-based Alpha Natural Resources plans to open the Panther Eagle Coal mine next month. Charlie Bearse, the company’s vice president for operations said in a statement, “Recent improvement in the [coal] market has created more demand for our coal and strategically increasing production will help meet that need.”
Yet the report’s authors’ noted that in 2011, when Alpha acquired Massey Energy Co. for $7.1 billion, the Chinese demand for coal was expected to remain steady. Five years later, that demand has declined: China now relies on its own coal reserves and plans to invest at least $360 billion in renewable energy sources.
The transition to cheaper natural gas and the ascendance of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs has done little to quell the coal-fixations of the climate-denier in chief. It’s yet another example how the dissonance between Trump’s worldview and the reality of the global energy sector play out.
Exactly one week after Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, a new film from director Michael Bonfiglio premiered at National Geographic’s Washington, D.C.’s headquarters. From the Ashes closely examines the repercussions—environmental, health, economic—of something the Trump administration has not only denied, but has gone to great lengths to ignore.
Gary Knell, president and CEO of National Geographic, welcomed the crowd on June 8 by praising From the Ashes as a film about a “future solution, and how to get there.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also spoke to the audience about her city’s commitment to going green, mentioning her administration's “Climate Ready DC” plan and the proposed creation of a “green bank,” which would finance the expansion of renewable energy while lowering energy costs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating jobs.
From the Ashes delves into the perceived conflict between environmentalism and economics, acknowledging that coal has been an economic backbone for many rural, middle-class-aspiring parts of the country. Bonfiglio gives screen time to many of those who work or knew someone who has worked in coal, who would suffer from the attrition of coal jobs in their communities.
However, Bonfiglio essentially rejects the cry of there being a “war on coal” by highlighting a number of strategies and programs in multiple states to train dislocated coal workers. The film also discusses how the implementation of these programs as well as robust organizing have together helped some towns avoid the abyss of joblessness. Not once does From the Ashes imply that the shift from coal to clean energy will be easy, but Bonfiglio argues that a post-coal 21st century is at least possible.
In less than an hour and a half, From the Ashes shows how the high stakes of coal production and climate change are not only a problem for the future, but how coal has contributed to a rise in health disparities over the last half-century. A segment on how poor air quality precipitated by coal ash is linked to severe asthma in children is shocking, and seeing how Duke Energy’s unscrupulous practices leave people in North Carolina with questionable drinking water strikes the viewer as criminal. “I’m just trying to keep them breathing,” Misti O’Quinn, a mother from Texas coal country whose children have asthma, says during one of the film’s most poignant moments. O’Quinn spoke on a panel after the film’s premiere, and said that she considered “organizing and education” to be instrumental in the fight against climate change and the coal industry.
Ultimately, what the film, which premieres on June 25 on the National Geographic Channel, drives home is that while we may not be able to solve climate change in one sitting, we stand to lose our planet if national collective action is not taken.