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California’s air quality is enduring a climate penalty

A recent study of the nation’s air quality finds climate change may be erasing years of progress in the fight for clean air.

The 10th National Risk Assessment, called Atrocious Air, is a study of the nation’s air quality from the First Street Foundation. The organization uses computer modeling to quantify and communicate climate risks.

The survey’s current air quality measurements predict how air quality might change in the near future.


The foundation’s report finds that climate change-related events could be clawing back the progress made to clean up pollution since the 1950s.

That’s when air quality was bad, really bad and it was also when the nation began turning things around.

“We implemented the Clean Air Act. A handful of amendments on the Clean Air Act,” said Jeremy Porter, a lead researcher at First Street Foundation. “We started the (Environmental Protection Agency) EPA. We instituted the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. And all of those things led to a sort of historical trend where we’ve really improved air quality.”

But the trend line is no longer going down in part because of climate change. The West has been seeing a reversal of that trend over the last 10 years or so.

The EPA says that 83 million people around the country are exposed to unhealthy air, 10 million people face exposure to very unhealthy air and 1.5 million are at risk of living in hazardous air quality.


The foundation’s peer reviewed computer models find that exposure to dirty air will only get worse in the near future.

Western states like California are already dealing with more frequent and more intense heat waves and wildfires.

Those climate-related events increase ozone pollution and inhalable particulate matter pollution known as PM 2.5.

“When you look at the really big PM 2.5 spikes. They come from wildfires. They’re not coming from those anthropogenic sources,” Porter said. “So we can put in all the regulatory restrictions we want but we are not going to control the spikes from PM 2.5 from wildfires.”

Porter called the increasing pollution a climate penalty and that means air quality will be poor more often.

“In some places, places where we’re prone to see increasing frequencies and increasing intensities of wildfire activity,” Porter said. “The air pollution, it can be bad, or we can expect to have poor air quality days, upwards of about 90 days out of the year.”

The report finds traditional regulation of polluting industries or tailpipes will become less effective as climate-related weather events increase in frequency and intensity.

“We have to, sort of, reorient the way that we’re thinking about addressing the pollution problem,” Porter said. “From one in which we ask businesses to regulate their emissions to one in which we’re now starting to think about fire suppression, and controlled burns and other mitigation techniques that actually take away the origin of the smoke which is producing those spikes in PM 2.5.”

The report finds effective pollution-reduction strategies should focus less on people and industries and more on ways to keep fire-related pollution spikes from happening.