lunedì, luglio 19, 2004

A Foggy View

Following on from my thoughts about the weather some while back, I was caught up in a discussion about pollution and the effects that pollution causes - as well as the common understanding of pollution as an issue.

A very typical misunderstanding that is often proposed and believed by 'the man in the street' with regard to pollution and pollutants is that of 'dirty' air. Popular myth has it that 'dirty' air is something that you can see, touch and, therefore, clean. It is based on the idea that pollution is dirty.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The pollutants that are causing concern these days are not ones that can be washed off, thereby returning the world to its pre-industrialised cleanliness. Of course, great strides were made post-war to reduce the soot and sulphur deposits that, until then, were being happily pumped into our atmosphere with impunity, causing the very obvious soot deposits and sulphur erosion of our national buildings and monuments. The most obvious result of this kind of pollution was the formation of the infamous London Smog - still shown as a reality in many US made films portraying London. I was a young boy in the last great London Smog, in the 50's and can vouch for the fact that you couldn't see your hand held in front of your face. Everyone wore a handkerchief over their mouths and noses and they very quickly turned black with the filtered soot. Public opinion was strongly in favour of pollution control to stop this form of pollution - and it was stopped.

The problems were not solved, however, as we were moving into a different kind of industrialised pollution - chemical pollution. Chemicals released into the atmosphere from the increasingly complex processes to manufacture synthetic chemical compounds, including the new plastics that were becoming very quickly an important part of our lives now. Cars were increasing exponentially on the roads of every country, with barely any controls on emissions as, in the most part, the car manufacturers themselves were in the seat of power of their respective country's.

So, dirty buildings were becoming a thing of the past. Coal burning Smog was reducing and it was possible to pour scorn on Hollywood in its portrayal of London. But, that was barely even the tip of the iceberg.

San Francisco in the US gives a ready view of how pollution is affecting that area of the world. It has a smog which is not black - you can't wear a hankie to filter it out. It is a common phenomenon there. But, even that is not showing the true picture. The worst of the polluting gases rise in the atmosphere for the simple reason of their being lighter than oxygen. They rise into the highest parts of our protective atmosphere and bind together to create a kind of a shield - the result of what are popularly known as 'greenhouse gases' forming a one-way mirror in the upper atmosphere that allows solar energy to penetrate into the atmosphere, but not allow a release of the energy, resulting in a slow, inexorable rise in the temperature of the earth, causing changes in both air and sea currents, that are the cause of the weather systems on earth.

These gases cannot be washed out. They are responsible for more irreversible damage to the upper atmosphere by diminishing the ozone protection layer as well. Ozone is another highly important protection for the earth that we live in insofar as it is responsible for the screening of the more damaging UV rays that would, otherwise, burn us and increase the risks of skin cancer by a large factor. The results of this can be seen already as a measurable 'hole' in the ozone layer is close to New Zealand. The skin burn factors there are, in the summer, in the order of minutes. I can vouch for the effect of unwise exposure to the sun as my nose actually blistered in the sun there, despite the air temperature at the time being only about 24c.

It amazes me that there are still people around that believe that there is nothing wrong with how we are presently acting with regard pollution matters. They still view the Kyoto Protocol as being only something to feel concerned about because it might cost some of the largest polluters substantial amounts of money. They obviously only feel the issue is important if it is going to affect the cost of their next Playstation.