A woman looked out her window in Harbin, China and said "I couldn't see anything outside the window and I thought it was snowing". Then she realized it wasn't snow but instead it was dangerous, toxic smog.
The fact that the citizens of Harbin could only see about 10 yards in front of them is just part of the story. Small particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than international standards.
China’s top leaders know that air pollution is a serious health problem, and the privileged officials protect their families by using air filtering devices in their homes and offices.
This situation developed because China is burning too much dirty coal. It is the start of winter there, which coincided with the firing up of so many coal-fired power plants and resulted in a toxic emergency.
It may be easy to dismiss this terrible situation and think it could never happen in the U.S. But without the foresight of our predecessors, we could be facing similar situations today.
Luckily Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress passed the modern Clean Air Act back in 1970, and strengthened it in 1990. Before this law was passed, smog levels in many of our cities were dangerously high.
For example, there were years in Los Angeles when many days featured "smog alerts" – meaning people had to be very cautious when they ventured outside.
In 1976, there were 166 days when health advisories were issued in Southern California to urge people with asthma and other people with lung sensitivities to stay indoors. In 35 years, the number of smog-related health advisories issued in Southern California dropped from 166 days in 1976 to zero days in 2010. Since 1990, the U.S. has cut fine particulates emissions – the main culprit of China’s toxic smog – by 57 percent.
When I look at pictures of Chinese citizens wearing masks and looking very worried I am so very grateful to those who made sure we took action to clean up our air.
Just this past week, we learned from the World Health Organization that outdoor air pollution is a cause of cancer. That means that the American people must stand sentry and not allow anyone to weaken or repeal or undermine our landmark Clean Air Act.
I wish I could tell you we are safe from that -- but we are not. Just look at the record number of environmental riders that have come at us from the extreme wing of the political spectrum. From 2011 through 2012, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had 145 votes targeting the Environmental Protection Agency, 95 votes to dismantle the Clean Air Act, and 53 votes to block climate change action.
Here's a small sample of the attacks on the landmark Clean Air Act:
• Stop the first-ever national mercury and air toxics standards;
• Overturn the U.S. Supreme Court rulings allowing Environmental Protection Agency to control carbon pollution; and
• Roll back landmark car and small truck tailpipe standards.
Democrats in the Senate saved the day and stopped every one of these riders, but it is critical for the public to weigh in. Most of this sneak attack on our air quality goes unnoticed with a few exceptions.
I so appreciate the work of the American Lung Association and many other health and environmental organizations who keep their eye on this serious threat. What has happened in China is a warning for us. Let us appreciate and strengthen our landmark environmental laws, and the Environmental Protection Agency which enforces them.
We should not allow the special interests to obscure the fact that environmental safeguards are important when it comes to the health of the American people. We cannot go backwards and expose our children and families to dangerous air pollution.
The battle is on. The Obama administration is moving to clean up dangerous pollution from coal-fired plants and other sources. Many in Congress will fight this. Reducing conventional air pollutants and carbon pollution go hand in hand and we must stand with the President and support his leadership on these issues. And we must also note that the Keystone XL pipeline is not without problems. It will carry the dirtiest oil known to man through our country.
Environmental safeguards are not only good for public health, but they are also good for the economy. Over the last 40 years, air pollution has dropped 68 percent, while our national GDP has grown 212 percent. And for every dollar we invest in complying with the Clean Air Act, we get more than $40 of benefits in return.
We must choose our path forward. Let it be the path of clean energy along with the many good jobs that it will bring and let it be away from the kinds of hardships we see with our own eyes in China.
Senator Boxer is the Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.