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Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 63: Airmageddon

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host Jared Blumenfeld.


NEWS: And now under increasing international pressure, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, late today, signed an order deploying federal troops finally to battle the fires. This comes amid dire warnings from scientists that say losing just 20% of Brazil's rainforests could accelerate global warming. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: This week, as fires rage in the Amazon, we talk about air pollution, smog, soot, and a host of air contaminants will lead to 7 million people dying prematurely in 2019 alone.


NEWS: In recent days, the air in California has been the dirtiest in the world. Health officials say breathing it in is the same as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. India is home to 14 out of the 20 world's most polluted cities, and that is the latest from the World Health Organization. Nine out of 10 people across the world breathe highly polluted air. Pollution isn't only a problem for South Korea. Cities in China and India are famously polluted, and this week, Thailand has seen extreme levels as well. It's especially a problem in the winter. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Foul air is nothing new. In fact, way back in Roman times, Emperor Justinian proclaimed the importance of clean air as a birth right. But for me, it was Kermit the Frog who way back in the 1970’s first brought my attention to this issue. Kermit, take it away. 

KERMIT THE FROG (song): When the air is bad, you have to take it easy. You can't run or skip or hop outside all day. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I meet up with an environmental journalist and author Beth Gardiner, whose recent book Choked: Life and Death in the Age of Air Pollution was recently published. Beth traveled around the world to tell the story of this modern-day plague. She went from the diesel-laden streets of London, to Poland's coal heartland, to California’s Central Valley, and all the way to Beijing to witness their battle to reign back “airmageddon.” I start by asking Beth how she got into environmental journalism in the first place. 


BETH GARDINER: I worked for the Associated Press for 10 years in New York and then in London. And you know, at AP, you kind of write about anything and everything, whatever gets thrown at you that day that happens to be in the headlines. But I always found that what I gravitated to as a writer was how can I write about, you know, politics and what's happening sort of in the arenas of power, but not in a way that's like the horse race of who's up and who's down what are these decisions being made that are affecting in their real lives and how can I try to show that? And I wrote about all different kinds of issues, but I became a freelancer about 12 or 13 years ago now. And that was when I really had the opportunity to start choosing my own topics rather than sort of having stuff mostly be assigned to me. And I found that the environment was a subject where these decisions being made that people are not necessarily aware of in whether it's big government agencies or legislative bodies are really affecting us, and particularly our health that I felt like there was a gap there of all these stories needing to be told. I think people tend to think of the environment as kind of like a little bit of an abstraction. It's like about polar bears and the oceans and it's not about me, but I think actually to me the most powerful environment stories are the ones that are about health and human beings, and that was sort of how I came to environmental writing and it was particularly how I came to air pollution as a topic. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, in that juncture where you've been working for the AP and you're going to go out on your own. I know a lot of people think it’s an instant thing, but was it a terrifying moment? Like how is it like going out on your own and deciding you're going to become focused on environmental journalism? 

BETH GARDINER: Yeah, it was really scary, and I loved working for the AP. I mean it was such a great experience. I got to cover anything and everything and you get entree in London, whether it's 10 Downing street or you know, New York City, the mayor's office, you have access to everything. But at a certain point I felt like I had kind of hit a certain limit in terms of the writing and in terms of being able to sort of chart my own course. And both of those were things that, you know, I wanted to go deeper and be able to write longer stories and to choose my own topics. So, it was really scary to quit a staff job for freelance kind of nothing. At the beginning, as a freelancer, I was just writing anything and everything, whatever work I could get. I would do real estate stories or tech or whatever things I really had very little background or interest in. But after a while I hit a certain point where I thought, all right, if I'm going to continue to do this and deal with all the challenges that do come with freelancing, financial and otherwise, it needs to be because I'm writing about things that I care about. And so, that was when I really started focusing in on environmental journalism and that was where I found my niche. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And if you have a story idea, do you go and pitch a magazine or people coming to you? Like how does that even work as a freelance journalist on the environment? 

BETH GARDINER: So, it sort of varies and it's nice to have a little bit of both. So, I've built up over the years relationships with editors who now know me and know my work and sometimes they'll come to me and ask for something or they'll come to me and say I’m doing a section themed around a certain topic, whether it's, you know, energy or plastics or something specific, do you want to pitch to that? So then, you have pretty good odds of placing something and getting a yes. But then there's the stories where I have an idea and I need to match it with an editor or a publication that it might fit with. Those tend to take more legwork and more time to sort of get it somewhere, you know, get it assigned. But they're more satisfying because those are my ideas, and I'm able to bring them to fruition. But it's nice to have both. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Over the last 10 years, what are some of your favorite stories that you've written on? 


BETH GARDINER: Yeah, so I mean, I think there's a challenge here because clearly to me as an environmental journalist, the overwhelming story of our times is climate change, but it's a very hard story to write and it's a hard story to write day after day after day. You know, this is a problem I think that's very well understood. The way that climate change intersects with the way our news media set up is set up is not good because the media is always looking for something new, something breaking. So, with with climate change I really found that, always sort of looking for new angles and the new way to tell the story was really important. You know, I remember one time I was pitching something to a section that was themed around education and I did a piece about how climate is taught in school, what are the different approaches you'd use with older students, younger students, bringing them out into the forest or whatever. You know, food waste was a story I did where I feel like that's something that people can relate to. It's part of our lives, the food we buy, the food we waste. And most people don't realize that actually has a big climate impact if we're wasting a lot of food. So, stuff like that where I felt like I've been able to sort of illustrate something but bring it down to a more human level has been really important for me. And then that was also how I found the air pollution story because I feel like that's a huge place where something that is very deeply interconnected with climate actually is also a story about something that's affecting people's health in the here and now. Obviously, climate change is going to have huge impacts on public health and already is in many places. But air pollution is sort of a more tangible way I think to get a hold of that, journalistically speaking. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, do you feel old school in, in being someone that really is fastidious and making sure you get it right, and having objectivity, is that like a dying part of the trade? 


BETH GARDINER: I mean I don't know if it's dying, but it's definitely very contested and we are seeing the sands shift underneath us partly because we are in this very, very highly charged political moment. And also, because as you say, the news industry is changing and in many ways sort of disintegrating where we're seeing publications that have to sustain so many jobs and so much coverage just shrink, and in many cases, disappear. I guess I am sort of old school. I spent 10 years at the AP, that's as much of just the facts as it gets. And I think that's really important. And to me, one of the reasons why environmental journalism is so fruitful as an area of reporting and reportage is that it does often tend to be very, very contested territory. You know, you have concerns about regulation; there's always a lot of ideological viewpoints around regulation. You have concerns about economy and jobs budding up against worries about people's health and the future habitability of our planet. So, it, it feels to me like a place where all these tensions that we see in other parts of our society really are coming to a head sort of. And that's why I find it to be very fruitful journalistically and fascinating cause I think that those places are where the good stories are.  I don't come at it as an advocate or an activist other people do. And that is a debate going on in a conversation within the journalistic world now. But I think it's important to tell these stories fully and to sort of tell them in the round without saying, one side is right, or one is wrong or giving any kind of equivalency. There's very valid and important perspectives and stories and voices on all sides of those kinds of issues. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Writing a book sounds like such a daunting proposition, but now that it's out in print, and you're getting lots of positive feedback, it must be amazing. 


BETH GARDINER: It was very daunting. I mean, I think I always thought I want to write a book someday, but at a certain point you start to reach an age where you think, all right, I guess that needs to happen soon if it's going to happen. Now that it's out, it’s such an incredible thing to see this book out in the world. I started thinking about it, and then of course you need to find a topic and for reasons we can talk about, I came to air pollution a little bit through my personal experience of living in London, which is a very polluted place. And contrasting it when I came home to the States to visit and realizing the air quality in America is a lot cleaner. But I did also really chart and create this very, I think I didn't quite realize at the time how ambitious the itinerary I was creating for myself was, because I came to California. I got chapters from the San Joaquin Valley in Los Angeles. I went to Poland and India and China and Washington. You know, it did become a little bit overwhelming.  I think I've always been the kind of writer who always wrote too long. So, when I started working on the book and I had all this material and then I started sitting down to write it, I think part of me sort of felt like, oh great, it's a book now I can just put everything in. But I pretty quickly realized that no, actually in a book you have to be even more disciplined because you're asking someone…if I wrote an AP story, I'm asking someone to stay with me for, I don't know, five minutes, eight minutes. If I'm writing a book, I'm asking them to stay with me for maybe five or eight or ten hours to read the whole thing. So, you need to be really respectful of your reader and their time and what they're giving to you, and that means working really hard to make the writing engaging and keep people turning pages. And it meant that I couldn't put everything in. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: Maybe just read the first paragraph for your book because it is super cool and it kind of tells us what it's all about. 


BETH GARDINER: Sure. “A human breath begins in the deepest reaches of the brain where, far beneath consciousness, the body's most basic and essential functions are regulated. Just above the point where the spine meets the skull, tiny receptors detect rising levels of carbon dioxide, then stimulate nearby clumps of neurons. Between 12 and 20 times a minute, perhaps 20,000 times a day, millions of times a year, over and over and over again, from the first cry of birth until the very last moment of life, those neurons fire signals ordering the muscles of the diaphragm and rib cage to contract. Message received, the dome shaped diaphragm flattens and the ribs move upward and out. As the chest cavity expands, the pressure within drops, drawing air through the nose and mouth. Down the back of the throat, over the voicebox, it follows its path deeper and deeper into the body.”


JARED BLUMENFELD: I like how poetic it is. We do it all day long, all night long, but we just don't think about breathing. 


BETH GARDINER: This idea of breathing and the breath, it's just really the most fundamental activity there is in life. And you will realize that if you try to stop for a minute or two.


JARED BLUMENFELD: I just like sometimes just forget to breathe. Do you ever do that? 


BETH GARDINER: Yes, sometimes. And I think your body won't let you forget, right? It's just the thing you need more than anything else. You can't live without air for more than a couple of minutes. And one thing I learned is definitely that the effects of air pollution on our bodies go way, way beyond our lungs. So, I don't mean by focusing on the breath to suggest that it's only about breath and breathing, but that's where it starts. And I think that is a way to help us sort of start thinking about how powerful air is and how powerful pollution is. 


JARED BLUMENFELD: So, I completely agree with you. For me it was a very similar, I went to college in London and I bike to school every day to college. And I mean I'd come home, and I'd be coughing up dirt and Europe was addicted to diesel and somehow the clean air act in the U.S. and kind of the trajectory that we took was not a diesel one. And it wasn't until the VW scandal that the Europeans were kind of forced to face the reality that this clean diesel was a myth. 


BETH GARDINER: Yes. So, the European air quality problem is about diesel, but I actually think that there's a bigger cause larger than just the choice of a particular fuel diesel over gasoline. I think the root cause of the European air quality really crisis is a failure of enforcement. And that was something that I realized very gradually because I started by telling the diesel story, which as you know, as a sort of long and tragic tale, but the sort of lesser told piece of it as the VW scandal illustrated is that Europe does not have a empowered, well-resourced, centralized enforcement agency on a par with the U.S. EPA. And it's also why VW got caught and prosecuted here in the U.S., well before they were caught in Europe, even though there's so many more cheating diesels on the road in Europe and therefore the health impact was much worse over there. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And now you have the, the mayor of Paris and others talking about having a ban of diesel within the next decade by 2030. No more diesel in Paris City Center. And I know similar things are happening in London and I was just in Amsterdam where they're getting rid of all the diesel in boats on the canals and moving towards electric. Like somehow, their realization seems to have kicked them into a gear. We still have a lot of diesel as you know in the San Joaquin Valley and South Coast and all our trucks and somehow it seems like maybe they are leapfrogging us. 


BETH GARDINER: Yes. I don't think they are leapfrogging. I actually just did a piece about this for The Guardian because I think that measures like what Paris is doing, London has something similar now called the ultra-low emission zone. I think that those things are helpful, and they will bring incremental improvement in local air quality. And that literally we know translates into saving people's lives and health. But I actually think the fact that Paris and London and other cities are taking these steps is not showing that they're leapfrogging us, but it's pointing to this much larger failure. So, what European cities are now trying to do is control exactly where these incredibly polluting diesels can go. And when I say incredibly polluting, I'm not just saying that diesel is more polluting than gas, but the cars are cheating the rules and they are polluting eight, ten, twelve times more nitrogen dioxide than is legally allowed. So, the question that I think is really more important than whether that diesel is allowed over a certain line into the center of London or Paris or Madrid, is why are these cars allowed on the road in the first place that are way in violation of the rules that currently exist? So, I think the fact that it's sort of falling onto cities to take these measures is pointing you back again to this much larger failure at the higher level of European governments and the EU, which is that they have failed to enforce the law. And that's a real contrast to the U.S. and particularly to the state of California, which has had much more effective enforcement. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When I talk to my European counterparts, it's a very academic and kind of philosophical discussion about environmental issues. Whereas here, it's very kind of brass tax. How are we going to enforce this law, this regulation? Whereas in Europe, it's kind of just like we wrote the law and that's enough intention. It's a weird cultural difference. 

BETH GARDINER: Yeah. Well I met someone from the international council on clean transportation, which is the small NGO that actually helped to uncover the VW diesel cheating scandal. And he explained to me that when the EPA creates a regulation, then they write all these letters and they issue all these circulars and advisories and they literally define every single, almost a word in that regulation. Because if you don't do that, then industry will choose their own interpretation and their own definition, and they will create and find and exploit loopholes. Europe has never done that. So, they have laws on the books, but the companies that are polluting, in this case, the car companies, are just finding these enormous loopholes. VW in the UK actually argued that they did put these defeat devices to detect when they were being tested in the cars, but that it didn't violate the law. So, they basically admitted what they were doing and what they've been criminally prosecuted for in the U.S., but they said it didn't violate British or European law. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What was your personal physical reaction to the air quality in China? 

BETH GARDINER: Well, China was a really interesting story and I did not want to go there and just write about how dirty the air is because I think we all know that already. I did buy a mask. I did wear a mask when I walked out of the airport. It was horrendous and I could hardly see buildings that were a couple of hundred yards away and I wore the mask most of the time I was there in winter. That's a particularly polluted time because of all the coal burning. But having said that, China is actually dealing with their problem, and they are taking steps and they are doing the things you need to do. It's not just one single bullet sort of fix that you can bring in. You need to do a whole sort of range of things, some of which are pretty boring and unsexy like you know, better regulation of fewer fuel quality and engines and things like that. They are starting to do those things and they are also starting to cap their coal usage. And we've seen in the course of even one or two years, double digit reductions in the levels of particulate matter in big cities like Beijing. And that is literally saving tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives almost immediately. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And maybe talk a little bit about the kind of underlying political motivation for that with a rising middle class in China. I mean this is an issue that yes, they are dealing with it, but why they are dealing with it? 

BETH GARDINER: Yeah, it's really hard to know exactly why they're dealing with it. But we do know that the action on air pollution followed what was really pretty significant and remarkable kind of social media uprising in 2013 and 2014. That was a time when Chinese people, particularly the urban middle classes who obviously no one in China can vote, but if anyone has any political power, that's who has it. Those people began to understand that pollution was happening all around them. And in fact, China has had bad air pollution for many years, but no one used to talk about it. It would get reported on the news as there's bad fog today, bad weather today. But around 2013, 2014, 2015, Chinese people really started to understand that this was happening. And they started sharing pollution readings from the U.S. embassy rooftop air quality monitor. And people started to get very concerned and very angry. And one thing that we do know about Chinese politics is that the government is very concerned with maintaining stability sort of at all costs because that is key to their maintaining their hold on power. And I think that the government started to see that this was something where public anger was brewing and bubbling. And that was something that became frightening to them. And in some ways air pollution may have given a kind of political cover to economic reformers within the government who wanted to try to scale back excessive production by capping coal use and things like that. They're still a very long way to go. And by the way, it's also having the effect of putting China, it seems on course to capping and plateauing their carbon emissions by 2030 so that has repercussions for all of us. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, that connection between air quality and climate change that you just described in the U.S., it seems like starting with The Clean Air Act in 1970, LA led the charge, then the rest of California. We still have the worst air quality by far in the San Joaquin Valley and the South coast. And a lot of time and attention, especially in recent years, has been focused on climate change and yet upwards of 10,000 people a year die prematurely in California as a result of just PM 2.5, that very, very fine micro-particle pollution. How do you see all these things have kind of changed in the last 50 years? 

BETH GARDINER: I would say that California has seen more progress on air pollution than most any other part of the country, certainly than the country as a whole. But at the same time, it still has worse air quality than anywhere else in America. As you well know, the top, I think eight cities of for air pollution in America, on that terrible American Lung Association ranking that you don't want to be at the top of, the most polluted cities are all in California. So, it's sort of a story of extremes I think. And it's the reason why California started regulating so aggressively because it did have such a problem nationwide. It's 100,000 Americans every year still dying from the effects of air pollution. So, I think that we've come so far in this country and you know, there are EPA studies that show that The Clean Air Act of 1970 and the update in 1990 literally have saved millions of American lives and trillions of dollars in the past 50 years. So, that is an extraordinary achievement and I think it's an achievement that most of us are not really particularly aware of. I think The Clean Air Act is one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in modern American history. But there is still such a long way to go. And in part it's because we have made cars so much cleaner than they were. A car made today, even a fossil fuel,  gas car is 99% cleaner than a car made in 1970. But there are so many more of them on the roads and we're driving so many more miles. So, you know, to sort of stay ahead of that growth is difficult. And then the other thing is that while we've been making all this progress, both in California and nationally, the science has been moving forward too. And unfortunately, it is telling us that even at really what would have been seen years ago as great low levels of pollution, particularly PM 2.5, what scientists have realized is that those levels are still doing damage and still killing people. So, in that sense the goalposts are sort of moving and now we're intersecting as well with the climate issue and we're seeing sort of clean air and climate change intersect in the sense that there's a great deal of overlap between both the causes and the solutions. Because I think both of these problems pretty much boil down to fossil fuels. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It must be gratifying to finish a book.  I mean even like just the cover is so cool. How was that feedback and how does that kind of help you move onto the next story? How's that going?


BETH GARDINER: Well, it's funny, a lot of people when I  tell them I wrote a book about air pollution, people are like, Oh, that sounds really depressing.


JARED BLUMENFELD: :And it kind of is.

BETH GARDINER: Yeah, but it's kind of not because I mean, I think what we've just been talking about, The Clean Air Act, it's not a problem that can't be solved, you know, it's really fixable. So, I, I think the reaction is maybe partly what my reaction was when I first began to learn about how profoundly air pollution does affect us, which is that people are really surprised. I was really surprised because it is this thing that we kind of don't think about. I think on some level we're not aware, but on some level also, I think maybe there's this notion that it's just an inevitable byproduct of sort of modern life and progress. So I think people are sort of shocked by the variety of ways in which air pollution is linked to Alzheimer's disease and lost IQ points among kids. And, all these things I never thought of. I think it's really a political choice whether you want to take the steps necessary to deal with this or not. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Do people think now, oh Beth, she used to be a journalist, but now she came up with this book. Now she's just an advocate. Did people  reframe what it means to be Beth Gardiner based on the fact you've got a book in print about air pollution? 


BETH GARDINER: It's something that I think about because it is hard to write about air pollution without thinking that it would be better to have less of it. So does that make you an activist or does it just make you a journalist who sort of putting together the facts of, you know, this is what the science tells us?  It's killing people. It's making people sick; it's causing all these illnesses. I don't think journalism is about a balance of one side and the other side. And that's not what I've done in the book. I mean I think you need all the voices. And I've talked to industry and I've talked to people who work in polluting industries and I think those are really important perspectives. I do think I've tried to stick to the facts, but I think you have to follow the facts where they lead. And I certainly, you know, compared to my AP days have moved much further towards what I guess some people might interpret as advocacy because I do come down on saying we need to get off of fossil fuels. They are killing us right now and they're creating this planetary crisis that we're starting to I think understand a little bit more now, the depth and the ramifications of that. So, does that make me an advocate or an activist? I'm not sure. I still think of myself as a journalist, but it's true that it becomes more complicated.


JARED BLUMENFELD:  So, what does your daughter think of the book?


BETH GARDINER: She's 12, so I think she's a little bit torn between kind of wanting to brag about how her mom wrote a book and being like totally embarrassed. Mom, would you just stop talking about this already? It's so boring. Her favorite page is the one that has dedication to her and my husband. So yeah, she likes to turn to that one. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A big thank you to Beth Gardiner for talking with Podship Earth today about her book Choked: Life and Death in the Age of Air Pollution. The role of environmental journalists and authors is so critical at this juncture. Only by telling the story do we have a chance of changing the ending. In the next episode of Podship Earth, I kayaked down the LA River, which flows 51 miles from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. While most of us only know the LA River as an ugly concrete channel, I go in search of it's wild side and talk to people working to bring this waterway back to life. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, executive producer David Kahn, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a week filled with fresh air.

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