In the early years of the Second World War, my father was an air traffic controller at Lockheed's Burbank terminal, then one of the busiest airports in the U.S. In those pre-radar days, he and his colleagues could see the airplanes coming from miles away, gleaming in the clear air.
Then the controllers began to notice something they called "summer haze." They couldn't see the incoming planes, or the mountains the planes were over. Some pilots, realizing the control tower's blindness, began leapfrogging the planes ahead of them, trying to land a little sooner. My father grounded some pilots for this very hazardous behaviour.
Air pollution was no novelty in the U.S. in the 1940s (Pittsburgh was a running gag), but it was a consequence of burning coal. Los Angeles' crystalline air was thanks to hydroelectricity and oil, which was a big industry but still too small to create smog - the name eventually coined for "summer haze."
After the war, of course, smog became a curse in L.A. My family escaped its early days, ironically, by moving to Mexico City in 1950, when it was a sleepy village of three million and the air was clear. When we moved back in 1954, L.A. smog was literally eye-watering.
Out of sight, out of mind
Smog was such a problem, in fact, that most states and cities did something about it. We used to have backyard incinerators in L.A.; they vanished. Emission standards forced the auto industry to improve their engines. Gradually, air quality improved.
Out of sight, out of mind. North American air quality has improved, but our economy relies more than ever on burning fossil fuels. So does the world economy, and we all enjoy one important externality to maintain our prosperity: we pass the costs of burning fossil fuels on to the people who sicken and die from air pollution.
In Canada, the government cites a 2008 analysis by the Canadian Medical Association: "Some 21,000 deaths per year were associated with air pollution in Canada, along with tens of thousands of hospital visits, hundreds of thousands of asthma and respiratory symptom days and millions of minor illnesses and restricted-activity days."
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, reports a global catastrophe from burning fossil fuels: three million deaths every year from ambient air pollution, plus 4.3 million deaths from "household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels."
WHO also states that 36 per cent of lung cancer deaths, 34 per cent of stroke deaths and 27 per cent of deaths from heart disease are all attributable to air pollution, and says that "92 per cent of the world's population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits."
"Every year 12.6 million people die from diseases associated with environmental hazards, such as water, soil or air pollution and climate change," WHO says.
Someone else's problem
But as good as we think our air is, it's still killing 21,000 Canadians a year — about two every hour, day in and day out.
Now Kinder Morgan has blinked about its Trans Mountain expansion, and both Ottawa and Edmonton have risen in wrath to reprove British Columbia and its government. The Globe and Mail in an editorial has blamed B.C. for "an economic and constitutional disaster," topped off with a charge of "naked hypocrisy" as John Horgan's NDP government is worried about the environmental hazards to Burrard Inlet from shipping Alberta's dilbit to Asia, while also promoting LNG shipments to the same markets.
The hypocrisy charge is fair enough, especially in the light of air pollution deaths. Even if not a crumb of dilbit is ever spilled anywhere between Burnaby and Shanghai or Yokohama, when it's converted into fuel and burned it will poison the air. The same is true of LNG, and even truer of the coal we've been happily shipping out of Roberts Bank since 1970.
Well, as La Rochefoucauld famously observed, "We always find the strength to bear the misfortunes of others." Tough luck if the misfortunes shorten the lives of faraway people who are making stuff to sell us.
But sometimes "faraway" isn't so far at all. We all recall last summer's wildfires and the Fort McMurray wildfire the year before. In 2012, smoke from Siberian wildfires turned Vancouver into a good imitation of 1955 Los Angeles. They all added to our existing health burden from air pollution, whether we recognize it or not.
If we think about the consequences for countries like China, where air-pollution deaths rose from 800,000 in 2004 to over 1.2 million in 2012, we might be inclined to shrug it off: hey, it's an authoritarian country grimly determined to build its economy at any human cost. And as Stalin is supposed to have said, "One death is a tragedy. A millions deaths are a statistic."
But if we think we can sell China fossil fuels that will kill their own people, we're not morally any different from the Chinese drug makers who ship fentanyl to Canada. After all, there's a market for it, right? Whether it's dilbit to China or opioids to Canada, it grows the economy. If some people die, well, too bad. They were going to die anyway.