Academic journal article The Future of Children

Pollution and Climate Change

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Pollution and Climate Change

Article excerpt


Childhood is a particularly sensitive time when it comes to pollution exposure. Allison Larr and Matthew Neidell focus on two atmospheric pollutants--ozone and particulate matter--that can harm children's health in many ways. Ozone irritates the lungs, causing various respiratory symptoms; it can also damage the lung lining or aggravate lung diseases such as asthma. Particulate matter affects both the lungs and the heart; like ozone, it can cause respiratory symptoms and aggravate asthma, but it can also induce heart attacks or irregular heartbeat. Beyond those immediate effects, childhood exposure to ozone and particulate matter can do long-term damage to children's health and reduce their ability to accumulate human capital. For example, frequent asthma attacks can cut into school attendance and academic performance, ultimately detracting from children's ability to earn a good living as adults.

Fossil fuel-burning power plants, which are a major source of carbon emissions that cause climate change, also emit high levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which play a role in forming ozone and particulate matter. We might assume, then, that policies to reduce climate change by cutting back on carbon emissions from power plants would automatically cut back on these other types of pollution. But its not quite that simple--atmospheric concentrations of ozone and particulate matter are linked to heat and other climatic variables through complex, nonlinear relationships.

Taking those complex relationships into account and examining a variety of ways to model future air quality, Larr and Neidell project that policies to mitigate the emissions that produce climate change would indeed significantly reduce atmospheric ozone and particulate matter--at least in the United States, which has the most-complete data available to make such calculations. The drop in pollution would in turn produce significant improvements in child wellbeing. Children would be more likely to survive into adulthood, experience healthier childhoods, have more human capital, and be more productive as adults.


We can expect climate change--and policies aimed at curbing it--to affect air quality, among other things. Exposure to pollution during childhood has numerous consequences for wellbeing. In the short term, it can affect health; for example, it can exacerbate children's asthma or even kill them. In the long term, it can alter their human capital (for example, how many years of school they complete) and their labor market productivity. This article spells out and quantifies some of those effects based on our understanding of the relationships between climate change and pollution and between childhood pollution exposure and wellbeing.

We focus on two ways that climate change and efforts to fight it may affect air quality. The first involves policies that aim to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which emit not only carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) but also many air pollutants that affect health. For example, power plants are major sources of C[O.sub.2], but they also emit high levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which lead to the formation of ozone and fine particulate matter (particles up to 2.5 microns in size, or [PM.sub.2.5]). Therefore, any policies that reduce the use of fossil fuels would also reduce emissions that affect local air quality. (Geoengineering techniques such as carbon capture and sequestration don't generate improvements in local air quality because they don't reduce the amount of C[O.sub.2] produced.) The health effects of using less fossil fuel are often referred to as co-benefits of climate change policy.

The second way that climate change may affect air quality is through weather's role in determining pollution. For example, ozone forms when heat combines with volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. Therefore, warmer temperatures are expected to increase ozone levels. …

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