This is the second installment of a three-part series examining historical incidents of air pollution and the individuals and organizations that have opposed regulation.

What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?

Statue of Liberty at Sunset

Statue of Liberty at Sunset. (Photo via Creative Commons)

My grandfather was born in 1888. He immigrated to the United States from what was then Austria-Hungry, arriving at Ellis Island on January 5, 1900. He lived under 15 Presidents, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He saw the advent of flight with the Wright Brothers. He watched a man walk on the moon. He saw the advent of the computer age and the beginning of the Internet. When he died on January 1, 1984, at the age of 95, I was 31. He had seen the U.S. make the transition from a primary agrarian, rural society to an industrial urban society. When he arrived in the U.S., the population of the United States was just over 76 million people. There were 8,000 registered motor vehicles on the roads (98 percent of which were dirt roads) in the U.S., and not one state required a driver’s license. Wood and coal were the primary energy sources. Greenhouse gas levels were in the 280 to 300 ppm range, relatively consistent with what they had been in the prior 100 years.

My mother was born in 1914 and my father 1921. She is 101, and thank you, she is doing well. He is 95 and doing well also. When they were born, Woodrow Wilson was President and the population of the U.S. was under 100 million. There were 1,411,339 registered motor vehicles in the U.S. (approximately 34,000 of which were electric), 175 time more motor vehicles than when my grandfather landed in the U.S. In 1914, the U.S. consumed 1.7 quadrillion BTUs of energy from wood, 0.7 from natural gas, 13.3 from coal and 1.4 from oil. The U.S. pulled 266 million barrels of crude oil out of the ground. Greenhouse gas levels were still in the 300 ppm range.

The author's mother, Marian Banner. (Photo Credit: Peter Banner)

The author’s mother, Marian Banner. (Photo Credit: Peter Banner)

The population of the U.S. is now approximately 320 million people, and there are over 253 million motor vehicles on the road. In 2013, electrical energy in the U.S. was generated primarily from natural gas, 30.5 quadrillion BTUs of it, 18.0 quadrillion BTUs of coal, 0.36 quadrillion BTUs from oil, nine quadrillion BTUs attributed to renewables. The U.S. consumed 6.97 billion barrels of oil in 2014, most fueling vehicles. Greenhouse gas levels now exceeded 400 ppm.

The Horse Manure Problem

My grandfather knew about pollution. He lived in New York City. In 1900, horse manure was a major problem. When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held in New York in 1898, it was dominated by discussions relating to the urban manure problem. After failing to reach any solution to the problem, the scheduled seven-day conference ended after only three days.

Photo Credit: Malene Thyssen

Photo Credit: Malene Thyssen

With over 150,000 horses, it was estimated that the horse population of NYC generated in excess of 45,000 tons a month. Little did they know they would trade one problem for another. By 1912, the problem of horse manure was solved. Cars outnumbered horses and, by 1917, the last horses drawn street car was retired. They were clueless that their salvation from manure would affect climate change. Though climate change wasn’t even in their vocabulary, there were a few scientist out there predicting global warming.

Maybe Global Warming is a Good Thing

In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius theorized that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other combustion processes were large enough to cause global warming. He is viewed as the first person to predict the heating effect on the Earth’s atmosphere resulting from the burning of fossil fuel. Ironically, he thought this might have beneficial impacts.

Quoting from his 1908 book, “Worlds in the Making: The Evolution of the Universe”,

“We often hear lamentations that the coal stored up in the earth is wasted by the present generation without any thought of the future, and we are terrified by the awful destruction of life and property which has followed the volcanic eruptions of our days. We may find a kind of consolation in the consideration that here, as in every other case, there is good mixed with the evil. By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth, ages when the earth will bring forth much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind.” 


Factory smokestack. (Photo via Creative Commons)

What he probably didn’t consider is that too much of a good thing becomes bad again, nor did he think about those living in more temperate climates than Sweden.  Early thoughts on geoengineering, ignoring how it might affect someone other than yourself.

The Good Old Days When Air Pollution Was Viewed as a Nuisance

In the early part of the 1900s, people in industrialized cities of the United States (and the rest of the world) were beginning to voice concern about air quality. The smoke from the burning of coal plagued all of the industrialized cities. In 1898, the steel tycoon, Andrew Carnegie, delivered a speech before the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce, extolling them to take up the issue of smoke control.

Carnegie decried what the failure to address the issue would mean for the city, warning that people would abandon Pittsburgh and move somewhere where the skies are less “clouded.” He laid out a vision wherein natural gas would be piped to homes and businesses to supplant the burning of coal. He was enamored of natural gas. It was cleaner, cheaper and resulted in a better finished product from his glass plant. At the time, smoke (air pollution) was viewed more as a “nuisance” than a health issue.

Between 1884 and 1890, the discovery of natural gas outside of Pittsburg had enabled the manufacturing sector to switch from coal to natural gas as their primary fuel. The citizenry of Pittsburg bemoaned the return to coal by 1892, desirous of getting back the clean air they had experienced for four or five years. The Chamber of Commerce did take up Carnegie’s vision, establishing a “Smoke Prevention” committee to address the problem and investigate switching over to natural gas. The Committee issued a statement that “there will always be found individuals who will insist that unless they are at liberty to make smoke at their pleasure, they will be ruined.” Ironically, a similar claim of “being ruined” is made today by those opposing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and other regulations to reduce greenhouse gases.

Smokestacks of a Philadelphia refinery. (Source: Creative Commons)

Smokestacks of a Philadelphia refinery. (Source: Creative Commons)

It was not just in Pittsburg that smoke abatement (pollution) became a major concern. Movements sprang up in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago and Indianapolis. Committees were formed, ordinances drafted, legislation proposed, and similar to today, lawsuits filed. The St. Louis city council passed a smoke control ordinance in 1893, only to have it struck down by the State Supreme Court four years later as discriminatory.

Smoke abatement proponents came from two different sides: The community leaders seeking cleaner air, making it a quality of life issue, and the engineers who saw smoke as indicative of waste. In 1906, the Director of Pittsburgh Steel was quoted as saying, “when we started to eliminate smoke…it was a business proposition. We wanted to see if it paid. It does pay. We have increased efficiency of the plant. It doesn’t cost so much to operate it. We get more power out of the same amount of coal.” 

The two leading Pittsburg newspapers took opposing sides. One saw the push to natural gas as a smoke screen for the gas monopoly franchise, the other saw opposition to smoke abatement efforts as pandering to special interests over community interests. Pittsburg’s vision to fuel its industry with natural gas as opposed to coal did not get traction. Coal was cheap and readily available. To many, smoke meant jobs and prosperity, so it appears the same arguments were used to justify pollution 100 years ago as today.

In my next installment, I discuss the historic pollution incidents that caused mass deaths and how many of these incidents the world had to suffer before governments started taking action. To read the rest of the series, click the links below:

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