On the heels of a global climate change agreement in Paris, Californians are celebrating a new international consensus that the status quo shouldn’t fly anymore. California’s climate change leadership has placed us in the vanguard, and our record of achievement in reducing dangerous carbon emissions from vehicles and factories is laudable.
Yet we have barely begun to tackle some of the most potent heat-trapping gases, which also happen to be ones with enormous potential to reduce local air pollution and improve community health in Fresno and beyond.
This year, California leaders are shifting their attention to curbing what are called short-lived climate pollutants. “This is probably the most immediate challenge and the most important thing to do leaving this conference,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at the end of the global talks. “Short-lived climate pollutants are something we can tackle.”
It’s tempting to think we should not concern ourselves with pollution that is “short-lived,” but despite being fleeting, these pollutants pack a punch. Short-lived climate pollutants can be thousands of times as potent as carbon dioxide, the more well-known culprit, in terms of their contribution to climate change.
Worse yet, short-lived climate pollutants like methane, black carbon and fluorinated gases tend to gather in some of the most marginalized areas of California, causing health problems particularly for low-income people and communities of color. Black carbon is a top risk factor for premature death, and comes from sources including diesel trucks. Fluorinated gases can come from refrigerators and air conditioning systems, while methane can come from sources like factory-farm dairies, landfills and natural gas leaks.
As a respiratory therapist, I have witnessed firsthand the ugly impacts of polluted air. Fresno consistently fails to meet federal standards for clean air, and our health centers and hospitals represent the front lines of this war. Fresno County had nearly 7,200 ER visits for asthma in 2012 alone, at an average cost of over $19,000 per hospitalization. Between 2008 and 2010, 42 of our Fresno County neighbors died from asthma. These statistics are cause for alarm.
You may have noticed methane was all over the news recently. From October through February, the Aliso Canyon disaster in Los Angeles County served as a painful reminder of how methane pollution can disrupt California communities. It will go down in history as one of the largest natural-gas disasters on record. While this particular leak has now been capped, threats of a different nature from methane remain. One thing is clear: we must rein in methane pollution from various sources including transportation, oil and gas operations, and the dairy industry.
Curbing these dangerous pollutants will be a major focus for the governor and lawmakers in 2016. Brown’s proposed 2016-17 budget includes funds for tackling the problem. A 2014 law authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, tasked the California Air Resources Board with drafting a blueprint for reducing these fast-acting pollutants.
Though it calls on the California dairy industry to voluntarily slash methane pollution, the draft blueprint regrettably falls short. The industry has failed to reduce emissions voluntarily and remains the largest uncontrolled sector of California greenhouse gases. At least 45 percent of California methane emissions come from dairy operations.
Here in the Valley, it’s 87 percent. Every other major greenhouse gas emitter faces mandatory controls, yet large factory-style dairy facilities in the Valley continue to emit massive amounts of methane. Dairies not only emit the majority of the Valley’s methane, they are also among the leading sources of smog-forming volatile organic compounds and ammonia. When it comes to clean air, everyone should be a good neighbor.
Just as automakers added catalytic converters to fight air pollution and make us safer several decades ago, some agricultural companies could also shift gears in their practices to improve the health of our communities. Policymakers should use financial incentives to help farmers and ranchers make this transition.
Now that California’s climate leadership has attracted global attention, the California Air Resources Board plays an essential role in helping our state implement its forward-thinking objectives. In doing so, they should keep in mind the mantra that guides me in every interaction with my patients: “First, do no harm.”
Kevin Hamilton is the CEO of the Fresno-based Central California Asthma Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on mitigating the burdens of asthma and other chronic and acute respiratory conditions in the San Joaquin Valley.