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No Continent is an Island


Seth Zuckerman
December 17, 2006


Americans' aspirations for clean air and water may require attention to
pollution coming from the other side of the Pacific, according to a recent
package of articles in Oregon's leading newspaper. Turns out Asian emissions are
responsible for about one-fifth of the mercury deposited in the rivers of that
Pacific state, according to a study by atmospheric scientists -- twice as much
as come from local air- and water-borne emissions. (The rest is a result of
natural background levels, local pollution from previous eras, and erosion.)
Other pollutants are implicated, too, with the effects especially obvious in
areas remote from major cities.

Mercury and other airborne contaminants collect over China during the winter
and spring until Siberian winds arrive bearing dust from expanding Chinese and
Mongolian deserts. Every five or six days, the winds flush out eastern China,
sending dust and pollutants such as ozone precursors high over the Pacific,
says Russ Schnell, observatory and global network operations director for the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration....

At least one-third of California's fine particulate pollution -- known as
aerosol -- has floated across from Asia, says Steve Cliff, an atmospheric
scientist at the University of California at Davis. "In May this year, almost
all the fine aerosol present at Lake Tahoe [300 km east of San Francisco] came
from China," says Tom Cahill, a UC Davis emeritus professor of atmospheric
sciences. "So the haze that you see in spring at Crater Lake [Oregon] or other
remote areas is in fact Chinese in origin."

It isn't news that dust from China wafts across the Pacific and sifts down onto
North America, incidentally accelerating snowmelt at least as far east as the
Rocky Mountains. But these findings suggest that even Americans will now have to
concede that environmental quality is inherently an cross-border endeavor. This
fact will not come as news to residents of Europe, but it challenges the way
most pollution issues have been addressed in the United States. Generally, caps
on U.S. emissions are based on the theory that any pollutants beyond background
levels have come from domestic sources. Significant foreign sources of crud will
demolish that premise.

The irony of finding Chinese mercury in American rivers, of course, is that much
of it was emitted to produce goods being consumed in the United States. There's
been a growing awareness that importing commodities from the rest of the world
displaces pollution from the U.S. onto other countries; this story brings it
full circle and demonstrates yet again that in this fishbowl called Earth,
pollution can't be displaced "elsewhere" for long.

So what's a net importer of goods to do? The first step is to stop pretending
that it doesn't matter to Americans what it takes to load up those
Los-Angeles-bound container ships in Guangdong. Next, that concern needs to be
translated into action through some tangible mechanism such as

* Side-agreements to trade pacts that commit both countries to standards of
environmental protection. If the environmental (and labor) standards that had
been applied in the manufacture of exported widgets were part of what qualified
them for favorable tariff treatment, world trade would be a climb to the top
instead of a race to the bottom.

* Pressure from buyers and consumer groups, demanding that the goods they
purchase have a decent environmental pedigree.

* Major American firms could invest in pollution control at the Chinese
production facilities that manufacture their merchandise.

Parachutes, like minds, may work best when open. But feedback loops work best
when closed.

 

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