You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

We Are Running Out of Air

The Atlantic logoThe Atlantic 6 days ago James Hamblin
a polar bear in the snow: A white foam of chemical pollution blankets New Delhi's Yamuna river. © Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters A white foam of chemical pollution blankets New Delhi's Yamuna river.

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

A special message from MSN:

Now is the time to take urgent action to protect our planet. We’re committed to stopping the devastating effects of the climate crisis on people and nature by supporting Friends of the Earth. Join us here.

Officials have implored the people of New Delhi to stay inside, indefinitely. Five million children in India’s capital have been handed face masks. Everyone is to keep windows closed. Contrary to the most fundamental medical advice, the city’s minister of health urged residents this week to “avoid outdoor physical activities.”

News images seem cut from an apocalyptic outbreak film. One of India’s holiest rivers is covered in toxic foam that looks like white cotton candy. Mid-day visibility is like a foggy dusk. The air reportedly causes people’s eyes to burn.

At the root is not some panic-inducing virus, though. The cause is simply the pollution from agriculture and transportation. And the city’s air crisis is unique only in degree. The same elements are accumulating in the air everywhere.

a group of people in a field: Adnan Abidi / Reuters © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Adnan Abidi / Reuters

More than a decade ago, a study by India’s government predicted the untenability of the air in New Delhi, warning that the crisis was primarily due to emissions from the city’s more than 8 million cars. Since then, New Delhi’s air has constantly been among the world’s most dangerous, and it has recently gone through phases of becoming simply uninhabitable. This happens often in the weeks when nearby farmers set their fields ablaze after harvest, adding to an already precarious baseline of smog from burning fossil fuel.

____________________________________________________

More on our Empowering the Planet campaign:

Make a donation to help our cause

Sign our petition to help prevent plastic in the ocean

Learn how you can ask UK parliament to stop climate change

____________________________________________________

Automotive and industrial emissions fill the air with nitrogen, sulphur dioxides, and “black carbon,” the latter of which includes tiny particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. Over the past days, levels in Delhi have exceeded 10 times what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe. (The idea that any level is “safe” is disputed, as even very low levels have been found to cause disease.) The effect is lethal, in India and beyond. Air pollution is the leading cause of premature death in much of the world. It already accounts for around a third of deaths from lung cancer and heart disease, according to the World Health Organization. A Lancet study found that particulate matter alone killed some 1.9 million people in Asia in 2015. One in 20 deaths in China is due to bad air.

a highway filled with lots of traffic: Anushree Fadnavis / Reuters © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Anushree Fadnavis / Reuters

The episodes, which are getting worse over time, presage crises in others in urban areas around the world. Half of the world’s cities do not meet the World Health Organization’s safety standards. Even for people who can afford to stay indefinitely indoors, that way of living has its own consequences to health, from sedentary behavior to social isolation.

The Delhi air crisis is reaching peak severity in the same week that the U.S. formally notified the United Nations that it would be the only country among 196 signatories to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. In the 2016 agreement, almost every country in the world committed to establishing its own emissions target. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement yesterday that the commitment to sustainable energy posed an “economic burden.”

Gallery: How the world's weather is affecting popular tourist attractions (Love Exploring)

Year after year, the economic effects of the world's current environmental path are bearing out in Delhi. Flights are canceled and schools closed. Car owners are limited to driving only on certain days. Construction is stalled, and hospitals are flooded with disease, as they will be flooded with chronic effects in coming decades. People miss work, become disabled, and exit the workforce. They consume more medical care and rely on safety nets.

This is the economic future that the status quo invites. Even for the world’s wealthiest people, who may be able to guarantee their personal air and food supply, their stability will be contingent on the billions of people around the world who still have to go outside.

MSN UK is committed to Empowering the Planet and taking urgent action to protect our environment. We’re supporting Friends of the Earth to help solve the climate crisis - please give generously here or find out more about our campaign here.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From The Atlantic

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon