Archive for February, 2009

Simultaneously attacking global warming and air pollution: economy of scale that makes green sense, according to CICERO, a.k.a. Oslo’s Center for International Climate and Environmental Research

Thursday, February 19th, 2009


From a recent post that also mentions our book, and this blog.

Whenever I visit Los Angeles, I consider the sprawl and congestion, but also the amazing vistas and architecture, and think it must have been amazing back in the 1950s. But the book Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, stands as a reminder that well before the famously smoggy 70s, the air there was already blighted. In fact, the Smogtown authors, Chip Jacobs and William Kelly, maintain a great blog on the topic.

Unless you’re a native Los Angelean with at least a few decades under your belt, you probably can’t appreciate how much air quality in the LA basin has improved since the city first started being blanketed in smog in the late 1940s …

The Clean Air Act, and a general frustration over the degradation of quality of life in smog-filled areas, ushered in California’s air quality improvements. Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be harder to see or capture on film, and their impacts are less immediately blatant, but the state had become the 12th largest emitter of carbon in the world when Governor Schwarzenegger signed the State’s landmark 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32, in 2006.

Will climate change be harder to fight than air pollution? Maybe the better question to ask is: Why should we address the two problems separately?

Researchers at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO), say that combining air pollution in tandem with reducing carbon emissions, rather than battling them separately, could “help save cash and encourage developing nations such as China to do more to curb global warming,” according to a Reuters report issued on Wednesday.

International treaties address air quality and climate change as separate issues, even though some substances are both air pollutants and greenhouse gases. During Hillary Clinton’s trip to China next week, climate change is one of the top issues she is expected to address, and in fact she’ll visit an energy-efficient power plant near Beijing that is a joint venture of General Electric and a Chinese partner. This is a great opportunity for her to begin a dialogue with China on how it and the US can begin working together to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in tandem.

Petter Tollefsen, a CICERO researcher, told Rueters that by combining efforts to improve air quality with those aimed on emissions reductions, countries stand to gain financially through efficiency gains. CICERO claims that the European Union alone could make efficiency gains of 2.8 billion euros ($3.62 billion) a year by 2020 by simultaneously addressing air pollution and climate change …”There’s even more overlap, a subject we take up in Smogtown and in future stories! If nothing else, it’s food for thought as we try to revive the moribund global economy while trying to make sure the globe is around in 3009.

Some Friday catch-up: an interview, a trip to Caltech, an accolade, and a kick in the teeth for the AQMD

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Ladies and gents, let’s get right down to business. He have a full agenda.


First, Capitol Weekly, the publication that covers California state government and politics, printed a recent interview with us about our book (insert rolling of eyes at shameless plug), Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.

Here’s the opening section

Capitol Weekly: How did you get the idea to write a book about smog in LA?

Jacobs: “A few years back, I was reading yet another newspaper series about the onslaught of global warming. Amidst all the debate, (I realized) nobody had written a social history about one of America’s most epic and teachable environmental crises. Having grown up in fume-choked Pasadena, where playing outdoor sports almost merited hazard pay, I vividly remembered the vanishing mountains, smog alerts, civic depression and the overwhelming zeitgeist that the situation would never improve. When I put together those childhood recollections with the glaring absence of a compelling book about the L.A. air pollution caper, I knew I had a chance to retell a pretty seminal ecological narrative.”

Kelly: “Los Angeles was the original laboratory for studying smog and devising solutions. The war on smog here has brought the world lower polluting cars, cleaner ways of making products, and even cleaner consumer products—from house paints to barbecues and even hair sprays and nail polish. But for every two steps forward through cleaner technology, growth has forced the region to take a step back. This is nowhere more evident than at the region’s huge ports, which many call the driveway to the nation. During the economic downturn of the early 1990s when the aerospace industry shrunk, political leaders were looking for a substitute to fuel growth. It was the time of free trade agreements and they seized on capturing imports through the ports of LA and Long Beach. It worked. But one of the consequences was the growing use of diesel trucks, trains, and huge ships spouting smoke and soot to move all those goods. Since the diesel soot is carcinogenic, the risk of cancer along the routes for the goods flowing through the ports is quite high. There is a plan to clean it up, but at a big cost. The current economic troubles will make it difficult and are likely to slow the plan.”


Now for a little university appeciation. As you’ll see when you read the book, Caltech, dawning back from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, was the intellectual center of the smog-discovery galaxy when nobody in all of Southern California could definitely say what was causing Los Angeles’s stinging air-pollution or explain the biochemical and metereological behaviors fanning it. Yesterday, we had the honor of speaking to a roomful of Caltech professors, students and others about what we learned from a social history vantage point. It was exhilirating and appropos, and the folks there asked the insightful questions you’d figure they would. Organing our little trip down there was graduate student Arthur Chan and one of his terrific professors, Dr. Paul Wennberg. After our talk, we were sky-high (and these days you can actually see the sky, not the brown overhang of yesteryear), and doubled our pleasure when we were invited to see a university laboratory housing a modern-day smog chamber. Eyeballing all that shiney equipment measuring and probing particulate matter got your brain buzzing. Yet it was speaking to the bright-eyed, sharp-minded students who help run it that was the most impressive. Our environment will be in fine hands, if the Caltech kids have their moment.


Booklist magazine, which had graced us with a starred review earlier in our launch, recently named Smogtown one of 2009′s best environmental books. We’re humbled to be in the company of such other great books, including Thomas Friedman’s. From the publication:

“A fun book about smog? Jacobs and Kelly capture the aura of 1950s sci-fi movies in this lively history of Los Angeles’ monstrous smog.”


Finally, Los Angeles’ smog-control agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, had its legal hat handed to it after a judge ruled one of its pollution-trading programs, known as Emission Reduction Credits, cannot move forward as planned without further analysis. In Smogtown, we delve fairly deeply, though not exhaustively, into the AQMD’s cornerstone pollution market for large manufacturers commonly referred to as RECLAIM. Stay tuned for a lot more about this!

From one newspaper account about the ERC-defeat, and its background:

“A little-noticed three-month-old Los Angeles court ruling is destined to cause big headaches for Southern California businesses and bring a pair of critical major mountain projects to a halt.

The ruling, issued Nov. 3 by Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones, forbids the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) from issuing air-quality permits for thousands of business expansion projects for at least a year, a district spokesman said.

The AQMD has appealed the ruling, but officials predict it will take at least a year to resolve …

“This is a terrible time for this kind of thing to happen,” said Sam Atwood, public information officer for the Diamond Bar-based four-county air quality agency. “In this economy it will end development,” added Charis Larson, public information officer at LACSD.”

… Emission offsets, which AQMD calls emission reduction credits (ERC), counterbalance increased emissions from new pollution sources and provide a net air-quality benefit. They allow polluted areas to improve air quality while allowing industrial growth.

… In the past, (Atwood) said, AQMD provided ERCs to critical public facilities such as utilities, sewage-treatment plants, hospitals and police stations, at no charge from the district’s internal bank.

It also gave them to businesses that annually emit less than four tons of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, oxides or nitrogen or sulfur, particulate matter and lead, he said. Such businesses include gas stations and dry cleaners …

The ruling came in a lawsuit by four environmental groups—the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Communities for a Better Environment, Coalition for a Safe Environment and California Communities Against Toxics. They challenged the environmental review AQMD performed before adopting Rule 1309.1, pertaining to new power plants, and Rule 1315, which set up the emissions bank …

Here’s the Feb. 2 Los Angeles Times story about the situation.

When L.A.’s smog fumes ran like Seattle rainwater, and the chaos and science that erupted from it,

Monday, February 9th, 2009


is the focus, of course, of our book, our raison d’etre for running this blog in a cavalcade of environmental blogs. Sometimes, a run of the mill news story from today echoes the slapdash, episodic, and generally hunch-filled quest to keep early Los Angeles air pollution out of sensitive edifices, hosptials in particular. It proved harder to stop than grabbing a fistfull of smoke, the dirty particles penetrating medicial facilities, courtrooms, schools, homes, office buildings, bunkers, airplanes and other places where humans probably reckoned they were safe.

Recently the L.A. Times published a news feature about fumes from medical helicopters infiltrating hospitals, and it quite literally a blast from the past. When you read our book, Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, you’ll see just what we mean. A bad smog assault spurred a clattering of heels and an outbreaking of sweat inside just about any health facility you can imagine. People operating sanitariums that treated emphysemacs and people with tuberculosis didn’t sleep much with a toxic forecast in the papers. They knew they’d be spending hours sealing windows and door frames and whatnot, and even then there was no assurances the brown crud wouldn’t get in.

Take a gander at this story and you’ll get a scintilla feel for Smogtown of the late 1940s and 1950s.

“… Significant problems with helicopter exhaust seeping into hospitals have been well-documented in recent years — with pilots groups warning those building new facilities not to locate vents too close to helipads — raising questions about why the issue has occurred at the county’s newest facility.

County-USC’s ventilation system problems were apparent soon after the hospital opened in November, said Pete Delgado, the hospital’s chief executive.

Fumes from helicopters landing on the roof with critically ill patients triggered fire alarms and caused fire protective doors to automatically close in the hospital, he said …”

The more we hear about global warming, the more it sounds like deja vu from Los Angeles’ tangle with the smog beast.

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009


President Obama’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner, is now talking about the loss of California’s billion-dollar agricultural industry should temperatures from greenhouses cases continue to climb. As we remind people in our book, Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, air pollution pretty much obliterated the county’s once-robust farming world that produced bumper crops of vegetables, fruits and cut flowers.

From today’s L.A. Times:

“Chu warned of water shortages plaguing the West and Upper Midwest and particularly dire consequences for California, his home state, the nation’s leading agricultural producer.

In a worst case, Chu said, up to 90% of the Sierra snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture.

“I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he said. “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.” And, he added, “I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going” either.

A pair of recent studies raise similar warnings. One, published in January in the journal Science, raised the specter of worldwide crop shortages as temperatures rise. Another, penned by UC Berkeley researchers last year, estimated California has about $2.5 trillion in real estate assets — including agriculture — endangered by warming.”
If the shaky future of the Central California food basket doesn’t get you thinking about lessons learned from the Southland’s uneasy coexistence with air pollution, check out who’s running for governor again. Jerry Brown once was so aggressive (or progressive) on matters environmental it helped crush his presidential hopes as critics defined him as “Governor Moonbeam.” Today, many of his ideas about emission reductions, sprawl control, conservation and that “smaller is beautiful” mindet are urgent orthodoxy. His beliefs, so different than his infrastructure, build-build-build father, are highlighted in our book, as well.