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UMass-Amherst Researcher Klara Zwickl discusses measuring environmental inequality through industrial air pollution in the U.S. and recommends solutions to bridge economic disparities

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I am Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. A new report has been released measuring environmental inequality. Researchers looked at industrial air pollution exposure in the United States across all 50 states and compared exposure based on race and economics. The report is titled Three Measures of Environmental Inequality. Now joining us is one of the authors of the report, Klara Zwickl. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Ecological Economics at Vienna University in Austria. And she worked in tandem with the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute on this report. Thank you for joining us, Klara. KLARA ZWICKL, RESEARCHER, INSTITUTE FOR ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS, VIENNA UNIVERSITY OF ECONOMICS AND BUSINESS: Thanks for inviting me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: So, Klara, your report measured environmental inequality. First of all, just define for us what that is. And how do you measure something like that? ZWICKL: So, concerning the measurement here at PERI we are fortunate to have access to very high quality data on industrial air pollution exposure. So, for over 50 million tiny grid cells covering the entire United States, we have a measure of pollution exposure. And we combine these data with income and socioeconomic data also that define spatial resolution to look at who is disproportionately affected by pollution exposure. And–yeah. And we calculate some inequality measures based on these data, and we do all sorts of statistical analyses. DESVARIEUX: Okay. So what did some of those statistical analysis–what came out of it? What were some of the most alarming findings? ZWICKL: So, I mean, we find consistently that poor people and minorities are disproportionately affected by pollution exposure. And now we’re doing studies, we’re doing analysis at the national level. And you could say maybe these national-level results don’t tell a lot about local disparities, because poor people and minorities generally lived in the more polluted regions of the country as a whole. Now, when you then look at disparities only within cities or within regions, you find that the results hold, and in some cases they tend to be stronger. For example, this is especially true for Hispanics, who generally live in the cleaner parts of the country as a whole, like the Southwest. But within the regions and cities, they live in the more polluted neighborhoods. African-Americans, by contrast, both live in the more polluted regions, as well as in the more polluted neighborhoods within cities and regions. DESVARIEUX: You also look specifically at industrial air pollution. What is special about industrial air pollution? And compare that to other environmental disparities. ZWICKL: So, first of all what is important about air pollution is that it is a huge environmental health risk and that there’s a growing understanding that it has been seriously underestimated in the past. According to a study by the World Health Organization, now one in eight global death are related to some form of air pollution. So they say that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. And there are other studies by the International Monetary Fund or the European Commission largely confirming these findings. So, now, industrial air pollution, the data we’re having on the over hundreds of chemicals that are emitted from the toxic facilities only accounts for small part of this. But what is interesting about this is that it is, on the one hand, very unequally distributed, but this distribution is not something natural, but it’s the outcome of political struggles and passed regulations, etc. Now, clearly you’ll have more air pollution from heating in places that are colder or you’ll have more air pollution from cars and trucks in places with higher population density, and it’s really hard to target these. But for industrial air pollution it’s very easy, because you can, for example, include environmental justice considerations for the sighting of new facilities, or you can install scrubbers that filter out some of the most hazardous chemicals. And these things are sometimes very small changes for the firms, with huge positive impact for neighborhoods. DESVARIEUX: Alright. And you’ve been able to do all this because you guys actually have the data on industrial air pollution. But there are other forms of pollution where we just don’t have that kind of data. What would you need order to assess other forms of pollution? ZWICKL: The data limitation is a serious problem. Some databases that the Environmental Protection Agency has on air pollution have not been updated for a very long time. Other databases just or, generally, greenhouse gas emissions and non-greenhouse gas emissions are not covered in the same databases, so you can not really address some really important research questions. But there’s an even more–there are some even more serious problems when it comes to disclosure, especially as far as new environmental hazards are concerned. So, for example, fracking. Fracking is exempt from the main environmental regulations in the United States, including laws on chemical disclosure. So what happened is that states that aim to regulate fracking–but unsurprisingly, now regulation varies strongly across states. Some states have very generous exemptions of disclosure for companies because companies can declare some chemicals they release as trade secrets. And in some states, timing of disclosure is very late. So what can happen is that neighborhoods are already exposed to pollutants for a significant time span before they actually learn about this. DESVARIEUX: Klara, besides just getting more disclosure, what other policies would you recommend for the United States government to take in order to reduce environmental disparities? ZWICKL: Well, we need to include distributional considerations into environmental policy and environmental considerations into economic and social policy. Currently, market-based environmental policy mechanisms such as emissions trading regimes are very popular amongst policymakers, and especially for reducing carbon emissions. And the rationale here is that for climate change, it doesn’t matter where one unit of emissions takes place, because it has the same negative climate impact everywhere. So the rationale goes that basically emissions reductions should be achieved where it is easiest to do so and market forces are allowed to basically solve this in the most cost-efficient way. Now, there is a serious problem with that. The burning of fossil fuels not only contributes to climate change, but it also pollutes the air locally. There’s a growing literature on air-quality co-benefits of carbon reductions that recognizes this. Now, if we do have other benefits from reducing carbon emissions, including improved air quality, then it really matters where emissions reductions are achieved. So distributional considerations become very important. And it’s important to keep these in mind in environmental policy. DESVARIEUX: Alright. Klara Zwickl, thank you so much for joining us. ZWICKL: Thanks very much for the invitation. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Klara Zwickl is a researcher at the Institute for Ecological Economics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business in Austria She is working on a research project on environmental inequality with Professors Michael Ash and James K. Boyce, and is currently visiting the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and recently completed her PhD in Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.