December 5, 2005
Less Smog, More Hot Air
By Michael D. Shaw
Despite a recent wave of good news about reductions in smog levels in Southern California, the usual suspects (enviro-wackos) are back at it. According to them, Los Angeles is the model of impending doom, because the city is once again the nation’s smog capital (Houston is second). But this statistic, which completely ignores advances in automotive technology, stringent air quality standards, and uncontrollable weather patterns, to say nothing of history, is essentially meaningless.
After all, way back in 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo described what is now the Los Angeles basin as “The Valley of Smokes.” That early smog came from the bonfires of the Tongva (also called Gabrielino) Indians—the primary polluters of the era, no doubt.
Truth be told, the air in Los Angeles is significantly cleaner these days—radically better—than this newly bestowed title of “Smog Central” would have us believe. In fact, any criticism about the presence of smog in Los Angeles is, divorced from the city itself, as meaningless as, say, complaints about blizzards in Buffalo, hurricanes in Miami, or droughts in Las Vegas.
Simply stated, climatic conditions being what they are, Los Angeles will always naturally have more smog than most other cities because of its location, number of cars, and long-standing history as a basin that produces this side effect. Despite all this, the overall trend is a good one: Smog is on a steady decline.
Though most environmental extremists will not admit it, smog levels actually fell this year. According to Bill Brick, San Diego County Air Pollution Control District meteorologist,
“We’re continuing in a downward trend. The controls we are putting on are really making a difference. And, in the last few years, cleaner cars are really helping to turn the corner and get the numbers to drop even more.”
Mr. Brick’s statement is just as applicable to Los Angeles County, which logged fewer violations than in years past. Indeed, there is a sense of cognitive dissonance among the activists who bemoan LA’s air pollution problems. On the one hand, they demand the production and use of cleaner, more fuel efficient cars. Yet, when consumers buy these models, critics also complain about more cars on the road and the threat of increased smog, even though these autos meet the EPA’s strictest guidelines.
For them, the solution is always less industrialization, less development, and fewer people—although they ARE stumped about that air pollution in 1542…
It is important to bear in mind that weather is one of the greatest factors responsible for smog levels. As cooler temperatures arrive, the production of smog naturally decreases. Consider this report from the Dallas Morning News on reductions in smog over the last few years in Houston, quoting Bryan Lambeth, chief meteorologist for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission:
“The main reason for fewer ozone violation days this year has been the weather. Houston enjoyed a windier, cloudier summer than in 1999 and 2000. It’s weather that causes the big swings from year to year. More stagnation and more sunshine…leads to more ozone formation.”
A further reason for the drop in atmospheric ozone levels, and one that is not widely reported, is the 60 percent decrease in coal-fired power plant emissions. According to Joel Schwartz, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the report Finding Better Ways to Achieve Cleaner Air, activists avoid mentioning these statistics because they thoroughly undermine their doom-and-gloom predictions. Also, these numbers come on the heels of an eight percent per year decline in automobile emissions due to fleet turnover to cleaner vehicles.
As one who vividly remembers eye-burning air pollution as a teenager, I can personally assert that smog is hardly the menace it was a generation ago, in Los Angeles and other locales with a reputation for dirty air. This does not mean that we can rest on our laurels. Far from it.
It does mean that real progress is being made, and that the time for extremist rhetoric and scare tactics—if there ever was one— has long since passed.