How China’s air pollution actually helps the rest of humanity

The planet’s climate system is insanely complicated. There are many unintended consequences and illogical connections between environmental impacts and human activities. Scientists often find themselves see-sawing between shock and awe, although for me, it’s more of the former, and less of the latter.

Much like the bizarre relationship between a (too) hot planet and an Ice Age, air pollution’s place in the climate “puzzle” isn’t obvious from first glance. What is crystal clear is that the Chinese people are choking to death on the air they breathe, which is causing political upheaval. THIS is something the Chinese government doesn’t want. Social unrest on a scale of that size is difficult, if not impossible, to control. And since the air we breathe is fairly democratic/indiscriminate in who breathes it, the Chinese elite are also fairly up in arms about the situation. Water can be bought, food can be carefully selected and bought in its purest form. Air…not so much.

As I’ve written before, China and the Chinese take a heavy hit for the United States and our rapacious consumerism. All that manufacturing comes at a high price, in human terms and in environmental devastation. The resulting air pollution, which is so thick you can taste it, is causing lung cancer in children of 8 years old, for example. You know, stuff that isn’t supposed to happen. The Chinese know that they’re sitting on a (coal powered) powder keg and if they don’t do something about their filthy air, no amount of communal labor is going to stuff that Genie back into the bottle. This all seems correct, logical, and like something obviously needs to be done to fix the (air) pollution problem, right? But that air pollution is masking just how damn hot the planet is…just how much “heat” is already baked into the (climate) system. No one seems to be saying too much about that. 

In fact, I’m pretty sure the average person would have to peek behind a paywall to read the hard science about how air pollution affects climate change, or maybe they just need to know where to look.

One of my favorite papers is not behind a paywall. It can be read here. It has the boring & unsexy title, “On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead,” by V. Ramanathan and Y. Feng. As some of you know, I call it my “Aww shit PNAS paper” because, if you really read that paper, and let it sink in, you know how totally screwed we are. It’s not an easy paper to digest…very technically dense but it’s only 4 pages long and if you read it through a few times, you’ll get it’s implications. So while it might take you a while to get through it,  it’s worth the effort, I promise. The scientists even make a joke in it. Keep in mind that it’s obtuse and not “laugh out loud” funny, but for these kinds of people, it’s a rarely allowed bit of dry humor [if you’re curious about what I’m referring to, it can be found here, on the middle top paragraph beginning with the word “study” on page 14248 referring to OECD countries].

Europe deliberately cut back its sulfate emissions decades ago in order to reduce air pollution. Sulfate emissions (aerosols) absorb no sunlight, so they only reflect sunlight (heat) back out into space. Additionally, such aerosols also increase cloud reflectivity, cloud height (which keeps the clouds higher), and the “lifetime,” or longevity of clouds. Without anthropogenic (human caused) aerosols in the atmosphere, we’d have “felt” the full effect, or brunt, of our burning of fossil fuels, much, much sooner. As it is, there is a delay, which scientists are well aware of, and which policymakers and governments are just ignoring. During this precious gift of time (borrowed time, really), what SHOULD be happening is that we stop burning fossil fuels and switch over (rapidly) to renewables, in addition to other ass-saving emergency procedures.

Here is a map I’ve swiped borrowed from a 1993 paper by Kiehl and Brieglab which I read behind a paywall (but then subsequently found another copy of, which can be freely accessed here.)  This map shows where the human-caused aerosol forcings were strongest:

1993 map aerosols

So, what you’re seeing (in blue, and to a lesser extent, in white) are the “GOOD” and helpful sulfate aerosols, which have been keeping our global temperatures (artificially) low since we began burning fossil fuels. Keep in mind that when I say “good,” it’s only in the context of global warming. Referring back to my map above, you can see large blue segments of the planet where the sulfate aerosols were emitted in the United States, Europe, and China (which is to the far right).

Sulfate aerosols, which are part of the crap we emit when we burn fossil fuels, contribute to something referred to as, “global dimming,” meaning that they dim the sunlight and heat entering our atmosphere and reaching the surface. The planet has had two distinct periods of manmade warming. The first is from 1900 –  1940. The second is from 1970 to the present day. In fact, during the 1940’s – 1970’s, the Earth’s climate did not warm to a considerable degree because of the aerosols being spewed into the atmosphere along with the carbon dioxide, etc., during World War II and the rebuilding that took place directly afterwards. Once Western countries decided that all that gross air pollution was a bad thing (which it is, of course), measures were taken to reduce certain emissions, and the Earth’s temperature began to steadily increase (because of less sulfate aerosols floating around to cool the planet in the atmosphere).

My favorite climate scientist, James Hansen, puts it best:

Hansen describes the global dimming effect of human-emitted aerosols as a “Faustian bargain”—a deal with the devil. “Eventually you get to a point where you don’t want aerosols in the atmosphere because they’re harmful to human health, harmful to agriculture, and harmful to natural resources,” he stated. “So in the U.S. and much of Europe, we’ve been reducing aerosol emissions.”

To recap: sulfate aerosols reflect sunlight back OUT into space. It’s all about the albedo (sounds like a good song title, doesn’t it?). I’ve written about albedo levels and their importance before, most recently regarding roads and rooftops. Snow, for example, has a high albedo level, which means that it’s highly reflective. Snow’s albedo level is .95. Fresh asphalt roadways, in sharp contrast to snow, have an albedo level of .04, which means that they just soak up the heat and store it, instead of reflecting it back away from the Earth and out into space. This is why cities are hot, which is called the urban heat island effect. But I digress.

Despite the fact that sulfate aerosols aren’t something you’d want to breathe, they help us by (bizarrely) “escrowing” the heat we’ve already invested dumped into our climate system. The sulfate aerosols quickly reflect sunlight back out to space instead of letting it come through to the surface of the Earth which would make it even hotter.

As noted in a 2008 article appearing in Yale Climate Connections:

Aerosols are the primary reason why Earth is still at around 380 parts per million CO2-equivilent (CO2e), rather than the 460 ppm CO2e projected if all the positive forcings were added together. Conveniently enough, aerosols pretty much cancel out the warming from all the non-CO2 greenhouse gases.

(Remember that in scientific terms, positive forcings, like positive feedbacks, are a bad thing, and negative forcings are actually a good thing)

Roughly 0.60 degrees Celsius (1.08 degrees Fahrenheit) of additional heat is already “baked” into our climate system and will inevitably be released (due to Earth’s thermal inertia, which creates a sort of “lag time” between when a greenhouse gas is emitted vs. when it’s felt) and if aerosol emissions are further reduced by even 50%, that would increase global temperatures by 1.34 degrees Celsius (2.41 degrees Fahrenheit), leaving us with a suddenly hotter planet by roughly 1.7 degrees Celsius (3.06 degrees Fahrenheit). And by “suddenly,” I mean in the span of a few years, which, in geologic time, is the blink of an eye. Manmade aerosols that “mask” the effects of our burning of fossil fuels, have a very, very short life “span,” unlike carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They only stay in the atmosphere for about a week, as opposed to staying in the environment for centuries, in the case of carbon dioxide.

Ramanathan and Feng, in their “Aww shit” article, differentiate manmade aerosols, which they call atmospheric brown clouds (ABC’s), which is air pollution, from greenhouse gas (GHG)  emissions. In trying to explain these concepts, I will borrow heavily (and partially excerpt) their excellent metaphorical description (they call it Box 1):

GHG’s act like the blanket that keeps us (the planet) warm on a cold night by trapping our body heat (the heat radiation from the planet). This heat (the heat radiation) would have otherwise escaped to the surrounding room (outer space). The build up of GHGs caused by human activities has thickened this “blanket” considerably, and for the long term.

Parts of the aerosols in ABCs actually reflect visible solar radiation back out into space. These ABCs give rise to the hazy skies seen in China and India which look, more familiarly to the rest of us, like typical air pollution, and which absorbs solar radiation; however, the reflecting bits in ABCs act like tiny (tens of nanometers to a few micrometers in size) mirrors and make the planet brighter, which has a cooling effect (thus artificially masking the heat we’ve cooked into the climate system). The global cooling effect of the “mirrors” is much larger than the warming “blanket” effect of the soot and the GHG emissions.

This artificial and deceptively fake “cooling” can be yanked out from under us at any time. Ramanathan and Feng point out:

“…for when air pollution laws succeed in eliminating the emissions (from manmade aerosols), aerosols and their negative climate forcings will disappear immediately given their much shorter life times of weeks…The fundamental deduction (subject to the assumption of IPCC climate sensitivity) is that we get rid of the ABC’s today, the Earth could warm another 1.6 degrees C.”

Take a look at this graph from their paper (which I’ve marked up a bit):

PNAS graph

As you can see (above), from 1995 to 2005, China and India’s sulfate aerosol emissions have risen (as has their air pollution, right?), and the United States and European levels of sulfate aerosol emissions have dropped as air pollution regulations have been implemented.

I should point out that I’m not saying that air pollution is a good thing. People, especially the most vulnerable (children, those who are unwell, the elderly) are suffering horribly. And because of public pressure on the Chinese government to clean up the air pollution that rapid industrialization has created, promises have been made to improve air quality. This is essentially Sophie’s Choice, having to choose between two unbearable options, with both choices resulting in a “no-win” situation. On the one hand, the human misery attached to such poor air quality cannot be easily measured. It’s horrific. On the other hand, the aerosol’s “cooling effect” on the planet is buying us time to make appropriate changes (which aren’t happening anyway) to save ourselves before the full impact of a (too) hot planet become painfully apparent even to the biggest climate-change deniers on Earth. Okay, maybe not to Senator James “Snowball Chucker” Inhofe, who recently complained that he had to “un-brainwash” (yes, his words) his granddaughter about the existence of climate change…

Bad Grandpa

The pace of climate changes is accelerating. Tipping points have been dubiously “achieved,” and are now in our rear view mirror; however, even mass extinction-level changes remain somewhat beyond the gaze of those who don’t really want to know what’s going on. We are locked in to horrendously bad levels of warming already. That is to say that, literally, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels TODAY, we’d still see at least 2.4 degrees Celsius of warming of the planet. But these are just numbers, and in Celsius, no less, and so Americans don’t really even understand the scope of what we’re looking at, devastation-wise. And let’s be honest: America and Americans are the problem and the primary obstacle to anything being done to reverse the trend.

Let’s recap the “accomplishments” of our species: From 1905 to 2005, we warmed the near-surface air and the oceans by 0.74 degrees Celsius, which is 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is almost useless except that they’re all we’ve got to refer to, estimates, conservatively, that we are in for an additional 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius (that’s 2.0 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit for my fellow Americans) of warming in the next 100 years or so. And that’s only if we survive the upward trend, which is increasingly doubtful. I’m not even kidding.

With less than one degree (Fahrenheit) of full warming properly exhibited before 2005, we’d already begun the irreversible melting of our glaciers, mass species-wide extinctions, a change in the Earth’s gravity, and all other kinds of environmental fury. Just recently, we let loose Anthrax (from a previously-frozen and now melting dead reindeer in Siberia) and we’re about to further open the Gates of Hell to another entirely manmade mess we conjured up and then just walked away from in Greenland, which, of course, is melting. This one’s innocuously called, “Camp Century.” The 1960’s era US military site was meant to provide a launching-point for American nuclear weapons and other such stuff to attack the Soviet Union. When it became a (presumably) “bad idea,” they literally just locked the door behind themselves (and the enormous underground tunnels/facility), and hoped for lots of snow fall and ice to cover it up. It now appears that the always-fun-to-stumble-upon radiation, chemical weapons, and untold buckets of yuck that the US cooked up during the Cold War and then tried to forget about will be coming to an apocalyptic event near you. No. That was not meant as “gallows humor” because the gallows would be much quicker than what lies ahead of us.

I’d just like to say for the record (and keep in mind that there probably won’t be a) a record, or, for that matter, b) anyone left to read the record), that if anyone asks whether the Chinese are to blame for ending the human species by eradicating their air pollution, my answer is “no, they are not to blame.” I don’t blame them at all. We have known the dangers and damage we’ve caused to the environment for decades, and we’ve not only done nothing, but, conversely, we’ve sped up the march, like lemmings, off the cliff. If you’re American, like I am, go no further than your bathroom mirror to see who is truly to blame.


Further reading
“Can poor air quality mask global warming’s effects?” August 7, 2017, NASA Climate Change.
This is what it’s going to take to save humanity, June 12, 2015, Schatzie’s Earth Project.
Wikipedia Global Warming Portal (good general information).
Earth is cooling…no it’s warming, NASA Earth Observatory.
Aerosol particle size, NASA Earth Observatory.

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