Globally, air pollution cuts life expectancy by nearly 2.2 years – more than alcohol, cigarettes, and even war. Four in 10 Americans live in areas where the air is so polluted it poses serious health risks. The worst air pollution in the country is consistently found in Black communities, which are 75% more likely to be located near a facility that produces hazardous waste.
The most dangerous air pollutants are the fine particles emitted by cars, factories, and wildfires. When inhaled, these particles can travel deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream. Breathing them year after year can lead to increased risk of asthma, heart attack, strokes, and lung cancer.
60% of fine particle pollution is created by burning fossil fuels. But even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, air pollution would continue to linger. Scientists know this because of studies done during the first months of the pandemic when air and car traffic slowed to a crawl. While lockdowns reduced levels of primary pollutants like nitrogen dioxide – which is produced by burning fossil fuels – the level of secondary pollutants like fine particles – which are formed by complex chemical reactions in the atmosphere – actually stayed the same or increased in many places.
This means air pollution will continue to wreak havoc on countless communities even if the U.S. transitions to fully renewable energy (to be clear, we’re nowhere close to achieving this). Communities impacted by air pollution should immediately be granted Medicare coverage for life, and their medical debts should be erased. This will require a massive investment in Medicare, which has been chipped away by Democrats and Republicans alike. Joe Biden could even grant everyone living in high-risk zones immediate Medicare coverage by declaring a state of environmental emergency.
Homes, small businesses, schools, and other public buildings should be outfitted with high-quality ventilation systems which should be regularly replaced for free. The bills for installing, replacing, and running these systems should be footed by polluting industries.
To improve air quality outside, many cities have installed enormous outdoor air purifiers. But the volume of air these purifiers would need to filter in order to make a dent is immense, especially in densely-populated urban areas, or during wildfire season. On top of that, these systems require electricity. In 2022, 60% of electricity in the U.S. was generated by burning fossil fuels. Installing outdoor purifiers to solve air pollution is like using air conditioners to solve the climate crisis. Instead, we need to do things like massively expand public transit, and electrify it with renewable energy.
While we should fight for all of these immediate measures, the only way to guarantee clean, safe air in the long-term – not to mention a future free of climate calamity – is to transition fully to renewable energy. But we can’t rely on the Democratic Party to get us there. It is working people who have both the interest and the power to put an end to rampant air pollution. Communities impacted by air pollution need to link up with workers in polluting industries, and organize around a set of concrete demands and a strategy to escalate and spread the movement nationally, including protesting, taking direct action, and especially going on strike.
Ultimately, we will need to bring polluting industries into the democratic control of workers and communities. This would allow for the transition of these industries on a sustainable basis, creating millions of union jobs in the process. The assets of these companies could be used to pay for the clean-up of industrial wastes and free, high-quality healthcare and mass public transit. The billionaire class will fiercely oppose removing these industries from private ownership, meaning it will only happen on the basis of a titanic, multi-racial, working-class movement. A key tool in this fight will be a new working-class party that doesn’t answer to the billionaire class.