Hurricane Harvey has Boston’s mayor thinking about preparing for mega-storms.   As quoted –

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh warned the city of Boston would be “wiped out” if a storm like Hurricane Harvey hit the Hub, and said he is open to discussing top-dollar preventive measures to limit the damage of future mega-storms.

In the light of Hurricane Harvey, the 1 million granted by the state of MA for communities to prepare for climate hazards seems rather too little.

WAREHAM – June 8, 2017 – The Baker-Polito Administration today announced over $1 million in grant funding and designation status has been awarded to 71 towns and cities across the Commonwealth through the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) Program. The new grant and designation program, which builds on Governor Baker’s Executive Order 569 as well as other administration-led state and local partnerships, will provide communities with technical support, climate change data and planning tools to identify hazards and develop strategies to improve resilience. The grant awardees, announced by Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton during a tour of the Wareham coastline, represent 20 percent of the state’s municipalities.




This is the first in a series of posts on the ethics of climate science, and the science of climate ethics. Comments and suggestions encouraged.

Who owns the air?

The most frequent answers to this question- “no one” or “all of us”-  are oddly similar, and of course polar opposites. Courts in the US are equally confused by the question, with courts in different states making different decisions regarding governments’ responsibility to caring for its citizens’ atmosphere. In May of 2015, Judge Karsten H. Rasmussen of the Oregon Circuit Court questioned whether the atmosphere is a “natural resource” at all, much less one to which the “state had any responsibility” (see source 1). The state Appeals Court of New Mexico (source 2) found that the state government is responsible for the atmosphere’s care, but decided that those responsibilities were limited (3). Clearly something about the atmosphere-its size, its transience, its ubiquity-distinguishes it from something as small, permanent and personal as a cell phone. I mean, come on, answering the question “Who owns your iPhone?” is pretty simple. So too is answering the question “Who is harmed if I break your iPhone?” But can you, personally, be aggrieved if some one “harms” your atmosphere? Is it unethical for someone else to harm your atmosphere?


Nobody owns the air, but everybody can use it

Killer smog…in the US and Great Britain

You’ve probably never lived through the type of killer smog that settled over Donora, Pennsylvania in October, 1948. For a few days before Halloween, an atmospheric temperature inversion created a “lid” over the valley, trapping the exhaust from the mills lining the town’s river. Over 4 days the concentrated pollutants from those mills killed 20 mostly elderly people and sickened nearly half the residents (4). A similar event in London in December of 1952 killed over 4000 people in just one week (5). These types are essentially absent now in the United States and other developed nations because of laws, such as the US Clean Air Act (6), that limit the type and quantity of pollution emitted into the atmosphere. Since its original passage in 1963, and a visionary strengthening signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the CAA has saved thousands of lives (7),  billions of dollars in health care costs and increased American’s productivity to the tune of over $100 billion (8).

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has even devised an Air Quality Index (AQI), which indicates the relative unhealthiness of polluted air, as determined from the concentrations of five pollutants regulated (in the U.S.) by the Clean Air Act. An AQI of less than 50 is considered “good” quality air, while a reading over 300 indicates that the air is harmful to everyone, even healthy adults. The US Environmental Protection Agency AQI scale ends at 500.

Killer smog… in Eastern China

The residents of developing nations aren’t as lucky as those in wealthier countries. Rohde and Muller report that “Air pollution is a problem for much of the developing world and is believed to kill more people worldwide than AIDS, malaria, breast cancer, or tuberculosis” (9). Residents of eastern China suffer from air pollution so thick and pervasive it is visible from Earth orbit and can easily be mistaken for fog. Just as in Donora and London, the air in Beijing is filled with the byproducts of combustion and industrial production. Filled to wildly unhealthy levels

Local issues

On January 12, 2013, AQI in Beijing was an astonishing 775. Air pollution in Beijing is literary off-scale awful. Recall the London “killer fog” which contributed to the death of 4000 Londoners in just one week? Over 4000 Chinese citizens die every day from the pollution in Chinese skies (10). This is equivalent to roughly 1.6 million Chinese deaths per year, at least during the period of Rhode and Muller’s study in 2012. This mortality is largely due to microscopic particulate matter less than 10 µm (approximately 4/10000 inches) across. Such particles, common in the exhaust plumes emitted by accelerating diesel-powered buses or trucks, lodge in the lungs and increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases (11). Over 80% of all Chinese people are exposed to particulate matter concentrations that exceed the levels healthy for “sensitive groups” in the population, such as the elderly and the young. Almost 40% of Chinese people are subjected to air in which the concentration of particulate material is dangerous to all people.

Local causes

The source of all this pollution is combustion of fuels, largely coal and wood, in China. The energy released by this burning is used to generate power for industrial production, to generate electrical power, to heat homes and to provide transportation. Coal burning alone is responsible for about 40% of all air pollution-related deaths in China (12), and accounts for approximately one quarter of all the pollution-related premature deaths in China in recent years. While the Chinese government has announced plans to strike “heavy blows” in the efforts to reduce air pollution (13), China still burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Chinese industries are also far less efficient than their western counterparts, emitting 6-30 times more pollution when accounting for the total value of goods made in each country (14). This reflects a fundamental difference between the Chinese economy and that of the United States. In the United States, manufacturing creates only 12% of the country’s annual wealth, while in China this value is 3 times higher, approximately 38% (15). This dominance is hardly surprising. China has become the largest manufacturer in the world, surpassing the United States in 2009. What might be surprising is that only 1/3 of all this manufacturing is actually consumed by the Chinese people: the rest is exported across the world (16), mostly to the well-developed countries of Europe and North America, including the United States.

Transport to North America

Manufactured goods aren’t the only thing China exports to the United States. Winds carry significant quantities of the pollution in Chinese skies to Western North America.

Local issues

This “Chinese” pollution has measurably worsened air quality in the western United States, and even forced cities in California to pay fines for violating the Clean Air Act (17)! The precise pollutant responsible for this was not PM, but ozone, O<sub>3</sub>, generated by industrial activity in China. The magnitude of this transport is remarkable. In the 20 years from 1990 to 2010, atmospheric O<sub>3</sub> concentrations dropped extensively across rural areas of the eastern United States, reflecting the successful limitation of local O<sub>3</sub> sources. In the western United States, 5 times fewer rural stations recorded decreases in O<sub>3</sub>  than in the eastern US. Why?

Distant Causes

Approximately 40% of the difference between eastern and western stations is due to O<sub>3</sub> or its precursors produced in China and borne to the United States by westerly winds blowing across the Pacific Ocean. Despite an indirect trajectory, air from China reaches the coast of North America in just days; ozone and other pollutants produced in China can last weeks in the lower atmosphere (18). Once they wash over North America, those pollutants inflict costs on the local residents, both financial and personal. Chinese pollution is an hemispheric problem, not just a local one, an hypothesis well described as early as 2003 (19).

Trade pollution and why the distinction between local and distant is no longer obvious

The residents of Donora, Pennsylvania suffered a terrible tragedy in 1948. Both the immediate cause and the suffering of that disaster were “local” by any standard: emissions in one small town caused death and injury in that one small town. By 1952, the scale of the problem had grown: the entire city of London was bathed in smog, but still the cause of the pollution was well within the affected area. If you can order a phone charger on Monday, and have it shipped from the Chinese manufacturer in a few days to your house in North America, how is China “distant?” If the pollution generated by the manufacture of that charger reaches your house a few days later, how is your “local” environment not effected by “local” decisions? As modern transportation and communication infrastructure allows intercontinental ordering, manufacturing and shipping to flourish, we find that “local” and “distant” have become fuzzy concepts. And so too have the ideas of harm and responsibility. Who’s to blame for pollution in your backyard caused by a Chinese manufacturing plant making a phone charger for you? Can it be that anyone and everyone owns the atmosphere, but no one is responsible for taking care of it? That no one is liable for degrading it? Is this really anyway to run an atmosphere?

Next blog: Global problem, individual causes.



1. Chernaik v. Brown, Circuit Court of The State of Oregon For Lane County, case Case No. 16-11-09273, 2015

2. Sanders-Reed v. Martinez, Court of Appeals of the State of New Mexico, 2015

3. Ibid, pg 10, lines 14-21

4. Hamill, S. D. (2008). Unveiling a museum, a Pennsylvania town remembers the smog that killed 20. New York Times, page A22, November 1, 2008

5. The Great Smog of 1952, http://www.metoce.gov.uk/learning/learn-about-the-weather/weatherphenomena/case-studies/great-smog, accessed 05 September 2016.

6. Title 42 U.S.C., ch. 85, subch. I x7401 et seq.

7. Chay and Greenstone, M. (2003). Air quality, infant mortality, and the Clean Air Act of 1970. Working Paper 10053, National Bureau of Economic Research

8. Isen, A., Rossin-Slater, M., & Walker, W. R. (2014). Every Breath You Take-Every Dollar You’ll Make: The Long-Term Consequences of the Clean Air Act of 1970 (No. w19858).  National Bureau of Economic Research, page 30

9. Rohde, R. A., & Muller, R. A. (2015). Air pollution in China: Mapping of concentrations and sources. PloSone, 10(8), e0135749

10. Rhode and Muller, op cit.

11. Rhode and Muller, op cit.

12. Wong, Edward. Burned Coal Is Deadliest Part of China’s Polluted Air, Study Says. The New York Times, Thursday August 18, 2016 Thursday, page 8, 805 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2016/09/13

13. Liu, Qui. 13th Five-Year Plan is the rst to include PM2.5 targets,ChinaDialogue, link, accessed 2016/11/01.

14. Lin, J., Pan, D., Davis, S. J., Zhang, Q., He, K., Wang, C., … & Guan, D. (2014). Chinas international trade and air pollution in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(5), 1736-1741. Table S1.

15. Lin et al. quote 43% in 2006. The World Bank Data Bank has substantially lower values of 33% in 2007. I quote the average.

16. Berger, B., & Martin, R. F. (2011). The growth of Chinese exports: An examination of the detailed trade data. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, International Finance discussion papers, 1033.

17. Hand, E. (2014). China blamed for US ozone. Science, 345(6202), 1233-1233.

18. Monks, P. S., Archibald, A. T., Colette, A., Cooper, O., Coyle, M., Derwent, R., … & Stevenson, D. S. (2015). Tropospheric ozone and its precursors from the urban to the global scale from air quality to short-lived climate forcer. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 15(15), 8889-8973.

19. Akimoto, H.: Global air quality and pollution, Science, 302, 1716 1719, 2003.

© Larry McKenna, 2017



Wednesday, June 7, 2017 Washington, D.C. – Senator Edward J. Markey joined Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in writing to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos today to highlight bogus materials sent by the Heartland Institute, a group with a long record of climate denial, to more than 300,000 public school science teachers across the country.  Heartland’s 11-minute DVD and 135-page book, which are made to look like typical curriculum materials for science teachers, are explicitly designed to call into question the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.  Among other claims, they push teachers to “consider the possibility” that climate science is not settled and “students would be better served by letting them know a vibrant debate is taking place among scientists.”

Thank you Senators Markey and Warren

2017-06-07 Senators letter to DeVos re Heartland phony science




We Are Still In


We Are Still In Press Release — 06/05/2017


Leaders in U.S. Economy Say “We Are Still In’ on Paris Climate Agreement

Climate Declaration Represents 120 Million Americans and $6.2 Trillion of the U.S. Economy

Washington DC – A grand total of 1,219 governors, mayors, businesses, investors, and colleges and universities from across the U.S. or with significant operations in the U.S., representing the broadest cross section of the American economy yet assembled in pursuit of climate action, today declared their intent to continue to ensure the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing carbon emissions.

Together, these leaders are sending a strong signal to the international community and the 194 other parties to the Paris Agreement about the continued commitment of the U.S. to ambitious action on climate change absent leadership at the federal level. In the aggregate, the signatories are delivering concrete emissions reductions that will help meet America’s emissions pledge under the Paris Agreement.

Signatories include leaders from 125 cities, 9 states, 902 businesses and investors, and 183 colleges and universities.



  • F. Javier Cevallos, President of Framingham State University

City of Chicago Saves EPA Climate Change Site

C3E in the news

C3E in the news – Bristol County Air Quality receives failing grade

“It’s not a question of is there less, it’s a question of is there little enough,” said McKenna, co-director of Framingham state university’s Center for Climate Change Education.

New Visions for a Changing World: Towards a Pedagogy of Climate Change at FSU

July 10-14, 2017

2017 Summer Professional Development Institute for Middle and High School EducationEngaging Your Students in Science and Engineering Practices Using Inquiry

Sponsored by

Museum Institute for Teaching Science
Framingham State University
McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science and Learning