Preventing Sea Level Rise in New York City While Cleaning the Air in India and China

02/23/2015 08:37 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Last week, the New York City Panel on Climate Change predicted a hot and stormy future for the city that never sleeps. Apparently, by the end of the century New Yorkers will have ample reason to lose sleep. I view these projections as possible yet avoidable scenarios. New York City is spending $20 billion to help ensure it can adapt to a more difficult future, but if the panel's prediction of two feet of sea level rise comes to pass, we will need many multiples of $20 billion to protect New York. These projections should be seen as probabilistic warnings, not certain predictions of the future. There is little question that we must adapt to a changing climate, but we still have the ability to mitigate climate change and reduce the impacts of humans on the planet's ecological and climate systems.

Some of the change will need to come in the developed world, as we transition to a fossil fuel-free economy. But much of the change will need to come in the developing world as they hopefully leapfrog over our technological path to a new one that avoids some of the mistakes made by developed nations. Currently the key nations to watch are India and China, and while we have moved backward over the past decade, there are signs of change in the air--especially the air in Beijing and Delhi.

China and India's rapid economic development has been accompanied by a massive increase in coal-fired power plant construction and a dramatic increase in air pollution. While many scientists are focused on the relationship of coal to greenhouse gases, many decision makers worry about the growing impact of air pollution on public health. Last week, in an effort to provide data and focus attention on air pollution, the U.S. EPA and State Department announced they would build on the air quality monitoring program implemented in our embassy in Beijing by adding air monitors to U.S. embassies and consulates in India, Vietnam and Mongolia.

In an excellent piece on air pollution in New Delhi, New York Times reporter Gardiner Harris observed that:

For years, this sprawling city on the Yamuna River had the dirtiest air in the world, but few who lived here seemed conscious of the problem or worried about its consequences. Now, suddenly, that has begun to change...The increased awareness of the depth of India's air problems even led Indian diplomats, who had long expressed little interest in climate and pollution discussions with United States officials, to suddenly ask the Americans for help in cleaning India's air late last year, according to participants in the talks. So when President Obama left Delhi after a visit last month, he could point to a series of pollution agreements, including one to bring the United States system for measuring pollution levels to many Indian cities and another to help study ways to reduce exhaust from trucks, a major source of urban pollution.

Harris' story reported on the health effects of India's toxic air and noted that according to the World Health Organization, India has "the world's highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases, and more deaths from asthma than any other nation." As in China, the growing awareness of the health impacts of air pollution is beginning to move air pollution from the fringe of the national political agenda to the center.

While both the economic development process and the movement to control air pollution rolled out slower here in the United States, the process we are seeing in India and China mirrors the one we saw in this country between 1950 and 1970. In the U.S., it culminated in an era of creative environmental legislation starting with the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, and continuing with the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972, and laws regulating solid and toxic waste through the 1970s and 1980s. Pollution control then was seen as an issue of public health. In today's highly mobile global economy, a clean environment is also a prerequisite of economic growth. People and businesses faced with a toxic environment will move to places that are less toxic. We also live on a crowded, more resource-stressed planet today than we did forty or fifty years ago. The environment was an important issue in 1970 America, but it is a central issue in today's global economy.

Moreover, the elite in the developing world can fall victim to the same diseases that afflict poor people. No one--rich or poor--wants to see his or her children harmed by a toxic environment. And the people who run China and India cannot run away from their capital cities and still continue to exercise power.

While controlling conventional pollutants is not the same as reducing greenhouse gases, there is a strong correlation between these two forms of pollution. When fuel switching is used to control pollution and switch from coal to pretty much anything else, greenhouse gases are reduced. More importantly, the awareness of the health impacts of conventional pollutants helps increase awareness of other forms of environmental damage caused by fossil fuel use. This includes climate change, as well as ecosystem damage and loss of biodiversity. The best hope for bringing these pollutants under control is increased awareness and understanding of the total cost of fossil fuel use.

In the United States, visible environmental destruction of the land, air and water helped build a deeper public understanding of the causes and effects of environmental damage. One might call this a stage of development. Once basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter are assured, people start to think about issues that once might have seen like luxuries. Intellectual stimulation, culture and entertainment become important; as does nutrition, physical fitness, health and psychological well-being. When a developing nation's elite travels to the United States and Europe and sees wealth without pollution, their tolerance for environmental insults is reduced. The argument that pollution is the price of development seems less plausible, and in any case, the fear of disease and death increases political support for environmental protection.

Measuring and disclosing pollution levels is a critical element of air pollution control. In the United States, the web site provides daily reports of over 4,000 air-monitoring stations throughout the United States. According to the Airnow site:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, tribal, state, and local agencies developed the AirNow system to provide the public with easy access to national air quality information. State and local agencies report the air quality index (AQI) for cities across the US and parts of Canada and Mexico.

This resource ensures that journalists and the public have real time access to air quality data at all times. This access helps drive accountability and provides motivation for government vigilance and enforcement. Airnow International is now under development, and a growing number of international air monitoring stations are posting their data on this site.

The growing movement to control air pollution in China and India gives us reason to hope that the dire projections of New York City's sea level rise released last week may not come to pass. New York is not the only coastal city that is under threat. Most coastal cities face similar challenges. Most cities are located by coasts and, as of 2007, most of the planet's population resided in cities. This trend is expected to accelerate throughout the 21st century. I know that New Yorkers will never abandon their city. To continue to live here we will need to reduce the amount of global warming that scientists now project, and adapt to the climate change that is already here. I am confident that we will somehow manage to accomplish these goals. Humans are an ingenious species and we somehow always find a way to stumble forward.