“Climate pollution,” by contrast, conjures images of billowing smokestacks, putting the culpability back on industry. The pollution lens gels with the idea that the climate crisis requires big-picture solutions from governments and corporations, as more Americans are beginning to understand. “It really shows it’s a systemic problem that affects everybody, and that to solve it, you need to solve it for everybody,” Kawahata said.
One of the earliest signs that public health was a powerful framing for climate action? Polluting companies were worried that green groups would emphasize how greenhouse gas emissions would harm people’s health.
In the mid-1990s, the Global Climate Coalition, a group of corporations working to stop environmental regulations, expressed concerns to their board when emerging research showed that a hotter planet would be hospitable to mosquitoes, leading to the spread of malaria and other tropical diseases. “Environmental organizations’ activities suggests their strategy is shifting to one of focusing on a purported increase in the spread of dangerous and lethal diseases as a result of climate change,” read the coalition’s annual report from 1995. “This could have major ramifications for the GCC.”
But the early climate movement was strangely resistant to including public health in its plans to tackle global warming, dismissing activists who tried to do so. In the early 2000s, people living in highly polluted areas of California led the push for tackling local air pollution and climate change together. They pointed out that the same smokestacks that were spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere were also emitting pollutants that harmed their families’ health more directly. Why not regulate greenhouse gas emissions and clean up air at the same time, accomplishing two important goals at once?
When California began developing climate legislation in the early 2000s, however, local air quality got deprioritized. The state started to “divert staff, time, resources, money, and grants away from local pollution” and toward limiting carbon emissions, said Michael Méndez, a professor of environmental policy at UC Irvine, who wrote the book Climate Change From the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement.
Over the next several years, activists fought to get policymakers and traditional environmental groups to address air pollution and climate change head-on. But many officials and economists balked at combining the two issues.
Consider the following comment from a 2006 panel on developing cap-and-trade programs at an environmental law conference in California. Dan Skopec, then undersecretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency, said that the challenge of global warming was so great that it should be the single focus of policies. “Using the umbrella of global warming to satisfy other agendas is really going to distract from the solution and create inefficiency,” he said. “So, as we go forward, I hope that we can all focus this effort on the problem of reducing greenhouse gases and not try to solve everyone else’s unsolvable problems in other areas.”
Environmental justice activists in California tried to popularize the phrase “climate pollution” starting around 2012, according to Méndez. He recalls talking to a legislative advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce who was uneasy about that language, saying they were wary of lumping all types of pollution together, since it broadened the scope of regulation and would reduce economic efficiency.