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No Continent is an Island
Seth Zuckerman, 17 Dec 06
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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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Are there any importers/exporters and container shipping companies that are already interested in taking on these problems?

Posted by: matt waxman on 17 Dec 06

I wonder how long it will be until we have a war based on pollution. "Hey! You're sending all your muck across the ocean to us! Stop, or we'll come over there and level your factories."

Posted by: Kim on 19 Dec 06

Most SEASONAL illnesses MISSED Diagnosed. Canaries in a chicken coup. C02. Carbon monoxide poisioning. Gas heaters. Space heaters. Propane heaters and FARMS and kerosene.

Posted by: r l on 19 Dec 06

No continent is an island?
Tell that to Australia!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: rick on 19 Dec 06

Rabbit lives on a continent which is an Island. Australia is indeed both a Continent and an Island, but while much of our rainfall comes from the Antarctic our atmosphere is linked to the rest of the planet. Neville Shute's book, "O The Beach" is based on the senario of nuclear pollution from Nuclear War fallout reaching us in the shift of air currents which goes on across the equator once a year.

So allegorically speaking no one of us live on an Island all the same.

Posted by: Rabbit on 19 Dec 06

Oops, spelling error. Please don't kill the rabbit, he is not a troll. Neville Shute's haunting novel is called On The Beach.

Not sure if we get pollution from Asia, or anywhere, but our own even if it goes into the sea, still ends up back on our dinner tables since the fish we eat swim in the sea until they enter our food chain. The bottom line and the point of this article remains that we are all in this together.

fat chance of getting together to solve it though, we are still largely engaged in killing each other, how the hell do we turn that into co-operation on environmental matters? I know the obvious answer is that we will be forced too, but by the time we notice and respond to necessicty it will be too late. It may already be too late, but if it isn't then it soon will be.

Posted by: Rabbit on 19 Dec 06

Ecologically-based birth control would have prevented all this grief long ago, yet to this day it's rarely even paid lip service.

And all the while, everything's getting worse.

Getting serious about overpopulation is just too scary, isn't it?

Posted by: Pat Kittle on 19 Dec 06



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