mccain lost in the ozone

ozone creation

It’s so outrageous, I can only write in simple fragments.

Gas tax holiday. In summer. Our high ozone season. You know, when hot air meets dirty air and makes dangerous air — that stuff the EPA just said we needed to keep cutting down on.

I know we’re entering the dirty season (of politics) when a presidential contender drops this sort of drivel on an economically cringing public.

Just a few weeks ago, TCEQ Commissioner Buddy Garcia demonstrated the impermeability of his particular ideological bubble in an op-ed column carried by several state papers when he crowed:

The Beaumont-Port Arthur area scored a major victory by attaining the eight-hour ozone standard earlier this year. And the Austin, San Antonio and Longview areas all met their air quality improvement goals by the end of 2007…

Many Texas officials, including myself, were opposed to the EPA’s lowering the ozone standard from the current level of 85 parts per billion to 75 ppb. It’s not that we don’t want further air quality improvements, but the health benefits of lowering the current standard are debatable.

Of course, local officials in San Antonio know that we made the slip last year because of strangely cool and cloudy weather conditions. And we’re beside ourselves now wondering how to meet the tougher standards now at hand.

Since it is weighted on three-year averages, the San Antonio area likely will scoot through again in 2008, but it will catch up with us. That is the larger prediction of climate change.

As the earth warms, more ozone will be forming. Reason to be doubly cautious and progressive in our rise to this public health challenge.

An often-debated point of this combined warming and increase of CO2 is the likely impact on agriculture. The biz-as-usual and denier crowd assert we are in for massive crop increases.

Here’s an interesting interview with MIT researcher John Reilly and Living on Earth host Steve Curwood that seems to dispel that notion:

REILLY: Well, the increase in CO2 is generally beneficial for plants. But changes in climate are, you know, sometimes good and sometimes bad. You know warming in northern areas tends to kind of increase the growing season and actually increase productivity. A lot of warming in the tropics can actually damage productivity. But ozone is damaging.

So we found that as a result of increasing ozone levels, the combination of these could be as much as a 50 to 60 or 70 percent yield decline in temperate regions in China, the U.S., and Europe. So that was a large net effect on crops, so the ozone effect was dominating there.

CURWOOD: How surprised were you by the results of your study?

REILLY: Well I was, you know, dramatically surprised that the results were so negative, and we checked them several times. There is a threshold, 40 parts per billion of ozone in the atmosphere, above which damage starts occurring. What really happened here is that the actual ozone levels only increased 50 percent, but when measured above this threshold, the amount of ozone increased by six-fold. So that was a dramatic increase and led to this high damage.

CURWOOD: So we’re in a time now when we’re seeing rising prices for food already, I guess in part due to the American dollar not being worth as much as it is and the price of oil going up. And now ozone is another factor to limit crop production?

Reilly’s analysis shows that warmer temperatures and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the future could boost crop yields (top curve), but when the effect of rising levels of ground-level OZONE is taken into account, global yields could drop by 40 percent (bottom curve).

REILLY: Yeah, and so I think, I mean ozone, and then our study actually found that climate change was largely beneficial, but we’re not sure of that, because the climate predictions are so uncertain. So high variability in climate could be another negative effect on crops.

And then one of the answers to some of these problems are biofuels. And if you had a substantial biofuels program, that would still put more pressure on land resources and food prices.

CURWOOD: What’s to be done?

REILLY: Well, it is possible to select plants that are less sensitive to ozone. But I think one of the key results of this study is this global or hemispheric transport of ozone. So while now individual countries can set standards for their own areas and hope to achieve them, in the future if we don’t control emissions elsewhere, then we will find it difficult to achieve those in our own backyard.

If there is a silver lining to the cloud, it’s that China is also going to experience crop damage from ozone, and it will be very much in their interest to reduce these pollution levels as well.

crop growth
Graphic courtesy of MIT Energy Initiative.

It’s comforting and easy to fall back on what we know and say everything will be okay, as Buddy would have us do.

I was happy to see that Jim Marston of Environmental Defense Fund countered such misguided logic in an excellent piece of his own. But who will dare to call McCain out for playing on the hopes of a bitter public that continues to rally around gun rights, religion, and affordable gas, to carry Obama’s accurate observation a step further?

Who among the candidates will tell the hard truth of the challenges we are entering into. Automotive immunity, one of the least significant.

NOTE: Remember, the ozone layer protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Ground-level ozone, or smog, is the bad stuff.

If you’re lost on ozone about ozone: consider that John Hopkins did one of the most thorough study to date and found that ozone kills. That knowledge allows us to choose to save, as well.

The researchers found that an increase of 10 parts per billion (ppb) in weekly ozone levels was associated with a 0.52 percent daily increase in deaths the following week. The rate of daily cardiovascular and respiratory deaths increased 0.64 percent with each 10 ppb increase of weekly ozone. The average daily ozone level for the cities surveyed was 26 ppb. The EPA’s maximum for ground-level ozone over an 8-hour period is 80 ppb. The researchers calculated that a 10 ppb reduction in daily ozone, which is roughly 35 percent of the average daily ozone level, could save nearly 4,000 lives throughout the 95 urban communities included in the study.

“Our study shows that ground-level ozone is a national problem, which is not limited to a small number of cities or one region. Everyone needs to be aware of the potential health risks of ozone pollution,” said Francesca Dominici, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The data and statistical models used to complete the study are available on the Health and Air Pollution Surveillance System website at The site is maintained by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and sponsored by the Health Effects Institute.

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2 responses to “mccain lost in the ozone

  1. Greg, does it seem that local officials are more worried about the costs of cleaning up our air than they are about the serious health problems that air pollution is causing? It seems like any reprieve from EPA non-attainment designation is cause for celebration, and that they’ve turned to demonizing the EPA for lowering the threshold.

    Local officials, and AACOG, have known about this for years. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any *effective* action either of these groups have taken to clean up our air. Their focus has been on avoiding tailpipe testing and emissions controls, *not* on public health.

    Their latest hand-wringing is over pollution coming from other regions and how it’s “out of our control”. But it seems to be OK in their book if San Antonio sends its pollution to other cities.


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