And it’s both thrilling and depressing.
– From environmental writer/professor/activist Jon Christensen in LA Observed’s piece: “From ‘Smogtown’ to Model for the World?”
“It’s a tantalizing idea, isn’t it?” Jacobs responded when I asked him what he thinks of California as an example. It’s true, he said, that Chinese officials have been visiting California for years to learn how to monitor and reduce air pollution. In some cases they’ve implemented solutions in a few years that took California several decades.
But Jacobs offers some important caveats. Most of LA’s smog came from cars, but some of it came from manufacturing that has gone overseas in recent decades. “Be careful when you ship something off to another country: you’re exporting pollution,” he said. “We allowed corporations to go and set up in cheaper more authoritarian places,” he added. “They don’t have to build in costs for pollution control. But the discount you’re getting is at somebody else’s expense.”
As much as 20 percent of China’s pollution is caused by exports to the United States, Jacobs said. Some of that pollution drifts back over the West Coast on the prevailing winds, and the carbon dioxide China pumps into the atmosphere adds to global warming.
Jacobs also said that while Chinese officials–and officials from other governments as well–are often eager to learn about scientific and technological solutions, they’re not as quick to embrace another element of California’s success: the ability of citizens to get access to information and to sue the government to take action. Some technocrats here have sometimes publicly wished that they could have the power of authorities in China just for a day.
But if the history of Smogtown is any guide, the power of the people is key to success. Public protests, environmental organizers, nonprofit lawyers, investigative scientists, crusading journalists, dedicated public officials, and democratically elected leaders all contributed to enacting laws and policies that have steadily ratcheted down pollution levels through regulations, taxes, and incentives.
Perversely, that success now leaves Jacobs worried about his hometown, too. “My biggest fear is public complacency,” he said. We’ve paid our way out of our biggest problems, and we no longer “have an active, zesty engagement,” he said. Aside from the hardcore activists and Prius drivers, “I’m not convinced Californians are dynamite environmentalists. People hate smog but they love their cars more. It’s a passive environmentalism,” he said.
“We’ve improved technology. We haven’t changed the culture,” Jacobs concluded. “We’re a stabilized pollution island.”
– Then there’s good, old Jerry Brown, as visionary and sweepingly rhetorical as ever. So what if he embellished about L.A. inventing smog to make a point? From Politifact California …
First, it’s clear L.A. has no ownership over the term smog. Brown sounds like he was having some
fun with the “invented in Los Angeles” portion, from listening to him speak. Still, he was literally and blatantly wrong.
News articles from as early as 1905 credit London doctor Harold Des Veaux with coining the word smog to describe natural fog contaminated by smoke, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Great Britain’s affliction with foul air is referenced in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written in 1606. But its soot-choked skies date as far back as the 12th century, when wood became scarce and residents turned to burning coal to keep warm, according to a history of the country’s air pollution by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
It’s clear that other urban centers fought the effects of smog long before anyone imagined the metropolis we call Los Angeles.
So, what kind of smoke was the governor blowing?
“Jerry Brown — brilliant as he is — is confusing some facts,” said Chip Jacobs, author of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. “We didn’t invent smog. Smog has been known to arise in many parts of the world well before he was born.”
We were headed for a False or Pants On Fire!
Then, Jacobs added this comment: “Brown did have something right in his jumbled pronouncement — the Caltech professor.”