Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Help! We Need Air Quality Heroes

January 27, 2013

Compare my photos this year from Greece and America to those from China and India, and you’ll notice a jarring difference. In nearly every photo from Europe and America, pristine blue sky smiles. Look at 90% of my India and China photos, however, and gray-white smog looms. 

Do you realize the enormity of world air inequality? 

“Ugh, Ms. Marshall!” one of the Boston students I chaperoned in China last February screamed. “When I blow my nose here in Beijing, black stuff comes out!” 

Our guide explained that in 2010 in Beijing, more than 2,000 new cars were added to the streets each DAY. Our nostrils were gathering pollution particles.

In New Delhi, India last month, we saw the black tissue phenomenon again. We also got bleary eyes from squinting to see more than twenty feet ahead in the murk, and developed persistent coughs. 

In this powerful air quality chart from Yale University you can see that India ranks as the worst air quality in the world, with China close behind. As my photos corroborated, the United States and Greece are tied for the world’s best air.

What is to be done about this breathing inequality? 

We need air quality heroes. 

You know that point in a disaster movie when everything is against the heroes? The aliens have landed and are exploding buildings... The dragons are multiplying at an exponential rate... The monsters have joined into a mega-beast that is stomping cities... Well, I had that same helpless feeling while shivering in an auto-rickshaw in New Delhi, gasping for air. 

“This hurts!” I coughed to my husband. “And in a country of 1.24 billion, how is even possible to fix something as huge as the air?” 

When watching disaster movies, we quiver in our seats at this point of the film, wondering, “How can the heroes POSSIBLY fix this disaster?” And yet, in the movies, they do. 

But right now in the real world, air heroes are scarce.

So what do we, the world citizens off screen, do to cultivate air quality heroes? 

1. Appreciate: Help people in “blue sky countries” realize how lucky they are to be able to breathe without coughing, see without squinting through smog, and blow their noses without black slime emerging. 

2. Educate: Raise awareness about air inequality by analyzing articles such as “Indian City Overwhelmed by Air Pollution” and “Beijing Air Pollution Off the Charts.” In U.S. education, the Common Core mandates more nonfiction reading, and articles on this topic are a perfect choice.

3. Celebrate: Laud as heroes the brave Scientists, Engineers, Politicians, Advocates, and Environmentalists who are making a difference in air quality. Share best practices, such as how Beijing cut air pollution before the Olympics, or how India is starting to use Compressed Natural Gas vehicles to cut down on emissions. 

4. Elevate: Glamorize the career of air quality hero. Encourage youth and career changers to pick a career improving what the world breathes. In colleges, create pathways and apprenticeships to channel individuals towards the clean air mission. This superhero task is worthy of the best minds and spirits around the world! 

Do you still think “saving the environment” is a fluffy afterthought best left to hippies or generally ignored? Before I breathed in India and China, that was what I thought. But listen: There isn’t much on Earth that’s more important than breathing. Once you see black gunk coming out of your nose, you’ll agree: We need air quality heroes to emerge... and succeed!

Readers, I am eager to hear from you in the comments section. What has been your experience with air quality around the world? What best practices or useful resources have you found on the topic? Do you agree or disagree that air quality must no longer be a side issue? Please share!

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