As Washington figures ways to fix the economy and pump capital into the financial system, a fix that amounts to tens of billions of dollars a year is all around them: air.
The drag of poor air quality on the economy is mounting, costing the state of California alone close to $30 billion per year and, if my own reckoning is somewhat accurate, about six percent of total U.S. gross domestic product, or about $700 billion, a figure that should sound pretty familiar. China, which just this year surpassed the U.S. in carbon emissions, or pollution, on a total tonnage basis, figures its poor air quality costs it 5.8% of GDP due to healthcare costs and lost days of labor. Extend that same formula of associated costs to the U.S. and you get hundreds of billions of dollars in losses, losses we can ill afford, especially now.
California alone, which has the nation's worst air quality, according to the American Lung Asssociation, loses $28 billion due to smog-related deaths each year; work and school absences; emergency room visits; and asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses, says a new university study by Cal State Fullerton.
What's killing people comes from largely from automobile emissions and smoke stacks. The Los Angeles Times explains that "microscopic particulates expelled from tailpipes, factory smoke stacks, diesel trucks and equipment can penetrate through the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Exposure to these fine particles has been linked to severe asthma, cancer and premature deaths from heart and lung disease."
These are the hard facts of pollution and environmental degradation. We can talk nicety nice about policy and politics and programs, but it's the affects on people to which we should be most concerned. Those are losses we should not stand for. Increasing fuel efficiency, mitigating pollution, and demanding better air quality standards are actions that should be undertaken immediately, as a first order of business; they are life saving as well as cost saving.
So here's where Barack Obama can become a genius: link any auto industry bailout to increased fuel efficiency and therefore better pollution standards. Not only will he save an industry and jobs, he will set an example for other business sectors.
The power to operate businesses and manufacture goods is one of the biggest contributors to pollution because it largely relies on the burning of coal to produce the electricity it needs. After coal burning, transportation is the biggest cause of pollution. Therefore the auto industry is in a very unique position to not only clean up its own act through cleaner, more energy efficient operations, but to produce more energy efficient vehicles.
Ignore the proposition if you want of pollution leading to climate change and all the catastrophes that may bring. But just look at the problem of pollution on health: Asthma is the leading serious chronic illness of children in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association. And that means long-term healthcare costs through adulthood.
Even just one solution to the nation's myriad problems would be welcome these days as Washington scrambles to find cures.
Healthcare is a promise that Obama pledged to fulfill when he takes office. He can make good on that by also attacking the causes as well as the system.
We need a healthier economy, and that can be defined in more ways than one. Better air quality standards and a bailout package for the auto industry with caveats on fuel efficiency can reshape America. Wouldn't that be a breath of fresh air.
Kostigen is the author of You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet (HarperOne). www.readyouarehere.com