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Questions / Over that last 50 years Los Angeles has made vast improvements in air pollution. That has happened even as Los Angeles more than tripled in population. Even with those improvements, Los Angeles still has difficulties meeting ozone and particulate standards.

The US is putting pressure on country’s like China and India to reduce pollution, even as they continue to struggle to build their economies. The US has be accused of not allowing developing country to have the same opportunity to meet environmental challenges, over as long a period of time, as the US itself took. Of course, the global concern over air pollution is different today than it was 50 years ago. Discuss the issues of fairness? Some cities, like Beijing are much more polluted than any US city ever was. Air quality is actually dangerous. Discuss the conflict between development and pollution.

You can live weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air. We are vulnerable to the air we breathe in ways that differ from other necessities. Like drugs, the fastest way for pollutants to enter our bloodstream is through air. We can heat our food to 165° F, and we can boil or filter our water, but there’s no equivalent way to clean our air. With air, we lack individual control. We can, however, choose where we live and we recognize that it makes a huge difference. Anywhere in the world, if we choose to live in an urban environment, it will shorten our lifespan. But it makes a difference whether we choose Beijing, Mexico City, or Los Angeles. In terms of air quality, Mexico City is similar today to what Los Angeles was 50 years ago. While it’s true that food, water, and air are all existential threats, air is probably the most immediate. However, in this age of CoVid, we tire of existential threats.California has made significant progress to reduce our exposure to harmful air pollutants, the result of regulations and programs based on sound science. These achievements reflect a collective effort over the past half century that involves government, air districts, regulated industries, and the public. We have come a long way, but many in our state still breathe unhealthful air, and childhood asthma rates are above the national average. There is far more work to be done. But today, air is a different kind of threat. The threat we face from air pollution is more than simply COPD, asthma, and lung cancer. It is apparently changing the weather itself. And the weather is directly connected to the water supply which is directly connected to the food supply. Fifty years ago we worried about the health impacts from poor air quality — today we worry about the future existence of our species. We are, of course, still concerned about short and long-term health impacts, but those concerns pale against the various threats from climate change.But here’s the real problem. If you were to ask me, “Are you absolutely positive and can you prove that increasing man-made CO2 is causing climate change”? I would say, “No”. If you were to ask me, “Are you absolutely positive that efforts we make now to reduce man-made CO2 will alter future climate change”? I would say, “No”. There is inherent uncertainty in these questions.And this is what creates the moral dilemma of our age. These outcomes are catastrophic for millions of people who live in places where the impact is most severe. But they are still a small minority of the world’s billions of people.The greatest potential harm will be experienced by future generations. Our actions today, are impacting people who are not yet born. Forcing future generations to clean-up our mess violates a sense of fairness. But hasn’t this always been the way of the world? We all inherit the problems the past generation was unable to foresee or prevent. Preventing climate change might require significant investment today to benefit people far into the future. It’s like asking teenagers today to save for their grandchildren’s retirement. How much concern should we have for future generations? Generations that don’t currently exist. People find it difficult to save and plan for their own retirement, much less to save and plan for their or other people’s grandchildren. During times of war, average people make significant sacrifices for a collective good. We place more value on the future of humanity perhaps than our own future. We will probably find that climate change may be less disastrous than the environmental community espouses, and more impactful than the business community acknowledges. How much should we invest in that kind of uncertainty?
CLIMATE CHANGE WILL BE GRADUAL, MULTIGENERATIONAL AND WORLD-ALTERING. HOWEVER, IT MAY NOT BE PROVABLE UNTIL A LINE HAS ALREADY BEEN CROSSED FROM WHICH WE CANNOT RETREAT. WE MAY IN FACT, ALREADY HAVE CROSSED THAT LINE. THAT MEANS THAT THERE MAY BE LITTLE OR NO GAIN FROM THE INVESTMENTS WE MIGHT MAKE NOW.
I believe that the kinds of investments we need to make today in an attempt to stave-off the worst effects of climate change are the sorts of things we should be doing even if they fail. It’s a little like the moon launch. It created a need for micro-electronics decades before we might have otherwise discovered it. Our efforts to seek non-carbon technologies for generating energy might lead to technologies we can’t currently imagine. Ultimately, this problem is just the sort of thing that only humans are capable of even noticing. Deciding what do about it, if we do anything, will inform the history of our character. Besides, cleaning up our own mess – just feels like the right thing to do. See you in Class

RISK OF DEATH FROM AIR POLLUTION

In 2019, air pollution moved up from the 5th to the 4th leading risk factor for death globally, surpassed only by high blood pressure, tobacco use, and poor diet. Air Pollution exceeds the impacts of chronic disease risk factors like obesity and high cholesterol. Although air quality has improved in many high-income countries over the past several decades, dangerous levels of air pollution persist in low- and middle-income countries. Major disparities continue to exist and despite all that is known about the effects of air pollution on health, little or no progress has been made in many parts of the world. Evidence is mounting that air pollution can cause harm at much lower levels than previously thought.

Table showing various risk factors and causes of death COVID-19 AND AIR QUALITY
Two images of New Delhi before and after CoVid-19 lockdown now Delhi before and after CoVid lockdown
The COVID-19 pandemic led to unprecedented restrictions that dramatically reduced global and local travel, shut down schools and businesses, and halted some industrial activity. This has, of course, come at enormous societal and personal costs. However, many countries around the world have experienced blue skies and starry nights, often for the first time in many years. Satellite and ground-based air quality monitoring data have shown substantial reductions in concentrations of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and, in some cases, modest reductions for other pollutants such as PM2.5.

Clearly, these changes are only temporary. As restrictions have lifted, emissions have risen. Nevertheless, the blue skies are a reminder of what pollution takes away.

AIR POLLUTION RISK ACROSS THE GLOBE

The risk of death from air pollution isn’t equal around the globe. Air pollution is often most severe where economic growth is expanding rapidly. However, the specific health risk is due to both fossil fuel burning and indoor cooking and differs considerably from place to place.

Map showing global Death Per 100k of the population due to air pollution current Deaths per 100,000 due to Air Pollution
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