AB 32 Opponents Vulnerable on Pollution's Health Hazards

04/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jonathan Kim Gentleman farmer, film critic for ReThink Reviews

Imagine if Toyota made this statement: "It has come to our attention that, due to faulty gas pedals, a small number of our cars have killed or injured a small percentage of our customers. However, to recall and repair our cars to address this problem would simply be too costly, especially in this difficult economy. So we are delaying a recall for one year, after which time we will re-evaluate the economic climate and decide whether conditions are favorable enough to initiate a recall. We ask for your patience and understanding during this time."

Naturally, there would be a furious uproar. How dare a company attempt to put short-term economic interests ahead of people's health and safety? Yet this is essentially what the opponents of AB 32, California's nation-leading environmental legislation that seeks to reduce greenhouse gases in California to 1990 levels by 2020, are asking Californians to do. And since there is ample evidence that AB 32 would actually provide a needed boost to California's economy without harming small businesses, what AB 32 opponents are attempting to do is arguably worse.

Not wanting to appear pro-pollution or tone deaf to Californians' concerns about the environment, opponents of AB 32 -- like Meg Whitman and dirty energy astroturf front the AB 32 Implementation Group (an especially Orwellian moniker for a group that doesn't want AB 32 implemented) -- claim they are deeply concerned about the state of the environment in California. And they should -- Californians breathe some of the worst air in the nation, with 95% of Californians living in areas with unhealthy air. The top four most polluted cities in America when it comes to ozone (the primary ingredient in smog) are in California, with six California cities in the top ten. When it comes to the most polluted cities ranked by particulates in the air, the top three cities are in California, with six in the top ten.

According to the American Lung Association, "numerous studies have linked air pollution to lung cancer, asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and early death as well as increased hospitalizations for breathing problems." There is also growing evidence that air pollution actually causes asthma in otherwise healthy children, whose smaller lungs require kids to breath at a faster rate. In addition, a study by the University of Massachusetts and the University of Southern California found that the effects of air pollution fall disproportionately on poor and minority communities. A report by the NRDC determined that if emissions in California are not reduced to 1990 levels, over 700 Californians will die prematurely in 2020 alone, along with thousands of cases of asthma and other respiratory illnesses aggravated by pollution.

The response by AB 32 opponents? "Sucks to be them."

Am I exaggerating? Not really. That's because by acknowledging that air pollution is a serious problem, AB 32 opponents are also acknowledging that the health risks caused by pollution are real and serious. If they want to dispute that, they can take it up with the American Lung Association. That's a fight I'd like to see, and one AB 32 supporters should make them have.

With the economy polling as the #1 concern of Californians, I understand why AB 32 is largely being looked at through the prism of job creation. And AB 32 supporters should be winning easily on this front -- the non-profit Center for Resource Solutions (CRS) found that three reports undertaken by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), University of California researchers and Charles River Associates/Electric Power Research Institute using very conservative estimates were correct in their conclusion that implementing AB 32 would generate robust economic growth. By contrast, CRS found that the report by Varshney and Tootelian that AB 32 opponents use to justify their job-loss scaremongering relies on outdated models and takes the perplexing step of ignoring any possible savings or benefits from adopting AB 32.

However, I worry that the media, striving for "balance," will conclude that one discredited report somehow cancels out three vetted ones, and Californians who will never read the CRS analysis will conclude the same. So Californians, influenced by gobs of advertising and lobbying money from the dirty energy industry, will probably go with their gut instinct, which will tell them that upgrading and changing things (like cars, computers or TVs) usually costs money, and when you're in debt (like California is) or worried about losing your job, it makes sense to hold off on new purchases. Besides, it's easier to be scared of making a bad thing worse (job loss) than of losing something you've never seen (the green tech economy). It's unfair, but there's a good chance it'll happen.

That's why supporters of AB 32 would be wise not to put all their strategic eggs in the job creation basket. Because by acknowledging the health risks caused by air pollution, opponents of AB 32 are essentially confirming one of the best reasons why waiting to implement AB 32, like Toyota delaying a recall, is simply unacceptable.