#79: Air Pollution: Really Bad or Really, Really, Really Bad? (transcript)
Quinn Emmett: Welcome to Important Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
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Brian Kennedy: Our guest today is Beth Gardiner. She's a journalist and her new book, Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution is out now. Go get it.
Quinn Emmett: Everywhere.
Brian Kennedy: And today we're going to talk a little bit about why she wrote it, how we got to this place that we are right now, and how we're actually getting out of it.
Quinn Emmett: Because we are.
Brian Kennedy: Yeah.
Quinn Emmett: In a lot of places. Not in all of them, but we are. There's progress to be seen, and as she notes, this is one of those places where you can see change happening. You can see it very quickly.
Brian Kennedy: Right.
Quinn Emmett: You can feel it. You can breathe it. And we have examples of how to do it and how it's worked and where we still have to go. And that's what's so fucking tantalizing about it.
Brian Kennedy: Yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Because we can do that.
Brian Kennedy: There's optimism in the air which makes all of our episodes-
Quinn Emmett: Nice. That's a great pun.
Brian Kennedy: ... really nice.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah. Anyways, not to give it away, that is our guest today, Beth Gardiner. We're excited to be back, and let's go talk to her.
Brian Kennedy: Let's do it.
Quinn Emmett: Our guest today is Beth Gardiner. And together we're going to ask, air pollution, really bad or really, really, really bad? Beth, welcome.
Beth Gardiner: Hi. Great to be with you guys.
Brian Kennedy: We are very excited to have you.
Quinn Emmett: Very excited.
Beth Gardiner: Same here.
Brian Kennedy: Good, good. Beth, if you can get us started by just letting everybody know who you are and what you do.
Beth Gardiner: Sure. So I am a journalist, an environmental journalist. I'm American but I've lived in London for a really long time, almost 19 years. And I just published my first book which is called Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution. It's a global look at the health dangers of air pollution. It kind of mixes together science and politics and stories of people who are affected and people who are trying to fight for change. And you know, I guess I feel like this is a really important issue that doesn't get enough coverage and attention and I've tried to write it in a way that's going to be readable and interesting for, you know, general readers, regular people, not just wonky environmentalists. So, that's kind of what I'm about right now.
Quinn Emmett: I love it and congratulations on your book. It's very exciting, has gotten a really preposterous number and level of positive reviews from both the scientific community but also the mainstream media as they say. Folks seem to, and rightfully, find it as both necessary, which is certainly is, but also very well done and executed and very readable which is awesome. I-
Beth Gardiner: Cool. Well, that's great to hear. Thank you. I basically spent the last, I don't know, five, six, seven months pitching my butt off trying to get coverage for the book and using all of my contacts and sort of ideas from, I don't know, 12 or something years of freelancing and you know, 20 something as a journalist. So yeah, it's paid off. I feel like it's gotten some great attention and I feel like, you know, this is something that people care about and maybe are a little bit, I don't know, shocked when they read. Actually, I was shocked when I started to learn not only how much but how many different ways air pollution affects us in terms of health.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah. And we're going to get into that. And I think we discussed a little bit up front and part of the reason I feel like we get it besides again, just being in this business is again, besides your professional interest and association with it, you live in a place and we live in a place that's affected by it every single day. They're not [inaudible 00:04:52] or Beijing, but they're not far off in a lot of ways, in a lot of moments. And LA in a lot of ways has been worse in the past and is still not great, and I don't think a lot of people realize that. So it's pretty necessary to talk about.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, definitely. And I really did come to this story through my own, you know, personal experience of air pollution, not fortunately in the sense of having had any, you know, health problems in myself or in my family related to it, but just living in a place where everyday I walk out on the street and you can really smell the fumes. London and Europe more widely because the air pollution problem here is really about diesel, and diesel is just a really, really thick, heavy sort of just gross, you know, gives this thickness to the air that you can smell and feel in a way that's always bothered me. You know, you're right definitely to say that in the developed world and wealthy countries like the US, Western Europe, our air pollution is nothing compared to what you see if you go to developing countries, particularly in Asia. India really now is sort of the global ground zero for air pollution. So we are way, way, way better off than that.
Beth Gardiner: But none the less, this is still something that kills a lot of people. And you know, when I say that I came to it through personal experience, it's always bothered me in London. Even when I first moved here 18, 19 years ago, I'd walk out of my office to go get lunch or something and I'd just get this sort of grittiness on my teeth and a little bit sometimes almost lightheaded or headachy. And I had come from New York so it wasn't like I was comparing it to some rural ideal or anything. But it always bothered me. No one really around me ever seemed to be talking about it. London, obviously has this sort of famous history with air pollution and the great smog in the 1950s that was more to do with coal. And those problems have sort of been solved. No one talked about it and I kind of thought, "Oh, I guess it's just me. I'm imagining it. Over sensitive American or whatever." So I kind of just pushed it out of my mind.
Beth Gardiner: And then years later, around actually the 2012 Olympics which were coming to London, I was doing an article that had to do with air quality vis-à-vis the athletes, and I literally, it only took me five minutes of sitting down and Googling to read about what the air quality was like in London and the science of what air pollution does to your bodies. And my jaw really started dropping because it's shocking. If you, you know, did that, I think you'd be shocked too at ... You will learn that air pollution is linked to everything from heart attacks and strokes to dementia, premature birth, and right up to and including premature death. You know, when air pollution rates go up, more people die.
Beth Gardiner: So obviously that bothered me. This is a place where I live. I have a child. As a parent, it's worrying. But also as a journalist, it struck me as a big story, you know, and something that wasn't really being sufficiently told, because why was this something that the numbers are like ... The latest study in London is that 9,000 Londoners every year die early from air pollution.
Brian Kennedy: Wow.
Quinn Emmett: Sure. Sure.
Beth Gardiner: Globally, seven million people. In the US, 100,000 Americans die every year from air pollution. That's a lot of people, right? So, why are we not hearing about it? Why is that not on the front page every day. That's more than, you know, are killed by so many other things.
Quinn Emmett: Yep.
Beth Gardiner: So I felt like there's a story here and I kind of started following it.
Quinn Emmett: I love it. Yeah, yeah, and again, we'll get into it. But I mean, America of course, which is completely broken. You know, we ... There were apparently six vaping deaths in the past year which, to be clear, six people, that's terrible. However, in the context of premature deaths from air pollution or just shit, I mean, let's count the kids in Los Angeles with asthma, you know, which are all low income or gun deaths, it feels like the move to write an executive order on six deaths of vaping feels like boy, we ... priorities are kind of all over the place at this point. But that feels like the least of our problems. Anyways, we're going to get into that. Brian, talk about the show a little bit today.
Brian Kennedy: So Beth, we're going to ... Quinn has prepared just a wonderful little summary and we'll go over some context.
Quinn Emmett: It's not good.
Brian Kennedy: And we're super happy to have you. Just pop in any time to correct him if he makes any mistakes about data.
Beth Gardiner: Okay, definitely.
Brian Kennedy: So we'll go over that, and then we'll get into some action oriented questions that get to the heart of why we should all care about what you're doing and the work that you're doing, and then what we can all do about it, if that sounds all right.
Beth Gardiner: Okay, definitely. That sounds awesome.
Quinn Emmett: Awesome. Rock and roll. Beth, we do like to start with one important question to set the tone a little bit. Instead of saying "Tell us your life story," as lovely as that must be, we actually lived in London at the same time, I just realized. I was there for a little while. Beth, why are you vital to the survival of our species?
Beth Gardiner: I'm definitely not vital.
Quinn Emmett: Come on. Be bold.
Beth Gardiner: I'm definitely not vital at all. I mean, I, you know, like I said, I think this story is vital and is a really important one. And one thing that definitely I think we should talk about is how it's interconnected with the existential threat that we face today of climate change. Air pollution definitely is on its own killing all these people, a really important story, but it's deeply interconnected with climate change which is, you know, beyond important and right up there to existential. But I, you know, I'm not an activist. I'm not out there on the front lines fighting against air pollution, fighting for cleaner air. I've met and interviewed and put in my book lots and lots of people who are and scientists who are studying this and helping us understand it and what to do about it. And I've talked to politicians and regulators who are taking the steps that we need to deal with it or not taking the steps that we need to deal with it or undoing the steps.
Beth Gardiner: But I'm a journalist, so I guess that makes me a little bit of an outsider or an observer. And I've tried to tell this because I think, like I said, this is a really important story that's not gotten enough attention. And I guess, you know, I've been doing this long enough that I guess I do believe that good information and an understanding of the issues that we face and an understanding of the world around us is really a pre-requisite for action. So you know, I reported the story. I wrote the book. I tried to tell it as accurately and as also interestingly and I hope readably as I could. And then, you know, I guess I put it out there. And it's up to people what they want to do with it, but at least I've helped them, I think, to understand it. So I don't know. Yeah, I'm a journalist. I'm not out in the trenches, but I guess, you know, talking to the people who are.
Quinn Emmett: Sure. But that is what's so wonderful and necessarily and rightfully limited about journalism, right? You're not picking sides inherently. You are doing your best to uncover, to discover a little bit like you did, the, when you were looking at the 2012 air around the Olympians. And then to uncover that more and to really build a dossier of information so that it then can be explained to people so that they can do what they need to do with it, if there is anything to do with it.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, definitely. And you know, there's all this kind of discussion and debate, I think, nowadays about what is the role of the journalist and "being objective," and what does that really mean. And you know, obviously there's ... No one's objective. We're all human.
Quinn Emmett: Sure.
Beth Gardiner: And I think there's really important decisions that get made in journalism of, you know, what do we cover and what do we talk about and what's worth reporting on and what's worth our attention. And I totally take my hat off to all the journalists who are covering politics in both of my countries on both sides of the Atlantic and all the breaking news that's just totally bananas everyday. I mean, all of that is so important. But I think also, amidst the tumult, it's important that some of us also be kind of keeping our eye on some of the issues that are maybe a little bit more hidden and a little bit more long term. Climate change obviously, you know, none of what we're screaming and yelling about today is going to matter in the long run of decades and centuries and millennia if the world becomes uninhabitable. And similarly, you know, if we don't have clean air to breathe, that's killing people just as much as any other terrible thing in the news is.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, and we-
Beth Gardiner: So, I've tried to sort of shine my lens, I guess, in a place that I don't think is getting enough attention.
Quinn Emmett: I mean, totally agree. It's the entire reason we exist, which is like, I worked for the Financial Times when I was in London. I am a product of and love journalism. And again like you, I both tip my hat and feel horribly sympathetic for the people that are covering the breaking news that is every day, because it is relentless. There is no downtime certainly on either side of the pond right now. I mean, I can't imagine what it looks like from the outside looking at these two countries on a day to day basis. But, there are these huge underlying things that don't change day to day except for that they're getting worse. And even as a journalist, you have to, and we'll get into this, look at these things and go, "I'm presenting an objective fact that is something that is actually effecting my life because it's effecting everyone's lives, not just in my city, not just everywhere."
Beth Gardiner: Right.
Quinn Emmett: So I am giving you the clearest case possible of what's happening, not necessarily what we should do. But also know that again, it's why we got into this because these are the things that are effecting everybody. And we talk about whether it's antibiotic stuff here or we talk about climate, these things are inescapable and that's why we thread a bunch of action into it, because we're happy to take all the incredible work that you guys do and stand on your shoulders and say, "These are the things we need to do to fight them and deal with them." Because obviously we don't have [inaudible 00:15:45] journalism chops by any stretch.
Brian Kennedy: Especially me.
Quinn Emmett: My handwriting's terrible. Especially Brian. And that's a different topic.
Brian Kennedy: Sure.
Beth Gardiner: Oh, my handwriting is terrible too. It's a requirement for being a journalist.
Quinn Emmett: We appreciate it and I'm excited to dig into that a little bit today. And we've talked about air pollution here before and I want to take a bit of a different [inaudible 00:16:08] with it today. But just for some quick background for people who aren't around it everyday or again, it's easy to look around and move to Los Angeles and be like, "Every body said it's smoggy. It's not that bad." Well, it's still not great. What's air pollution, right? It's pollutants in the air. And just so you know, Beth, basically what I try to do with this section is really, for our users who are all texting and driving, just not dumb it down but get everybody on the same page so they can understand the conversation we're about to have.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Air pollution is particles and gases that can reach harmful concentrations both outside and inside. We don't have a ton of the inside issues in the US, but there's a lot of places in the world that do. We're talking about soot and smoke and mold and pollen and methane and carbon dioxide. In the US, we measure them with something called the Air Quality Index or the AQI. I'm not sure what you guys call it over there. I assume there's some similar measure. But what does it measure? Ground level o-zone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide-
Beth Gardiner: Nitrogen dioxide's a big one in Europe because of diesel.
Brian Kennedy: Oh, yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Right, exactly. Diesel, that's a different discussion I want to get into which is like, I think it was the early '90s, Europe decided to go diesel to try to prevent exactly what's happening. And it turns out that didn't work out. So, there are also those that contribute again, indoor air pollution. People who are cooking inside. But also, there's radon and cigarette smoke and formaldehyde and asbestos, all these things. But the big guys are what we're really talking about today. So, how is it going? It's not ... Go ahead, please. Interrupt whenever.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, right. So yeah. So you tossed out a lot of the names of all the different pollutants and you know, that's great and it's important to know what they are or, I don't know, maybe it's not important. But I mean, you know, you can I think in a way sort of step back and forget about, you know, micrograms per cubic meter and all this other kind of technical language that i really tried to stay away from in the book because I feel like it totally turns people off understandably. And it really comes down to mostly burning and mostly burning of fossil fuels.
Quinn Emmett: Right.
Beth Gardiner: And you know, what I think and the way that I framed it in the book and the thing that really connects this issue to climate change is that I think we have built our world, our modern world on a foundation of fossil fuels. You know, fossil fuels drove the industrial revolution, right? They get us around wherever we need to go everyday. There's gas powered plants that are keeping our computers charged and that's what has delivered prosperity and built the modern world really. But, it's a dirty foundation to have built on and it's an unhealthy foundation to have built on. And I think most of us sort of in the reality based world get now that fossil fuels are what's driving climate change. But what I really learned in writing and reporting this book is that they also are the very same thing that is making us sick and literally killing people right now. But I just want to go back to one thing and correct actually something that you said earlier-
Quinn Emmett: Destroy it.
Beth Gardiner: ... which is that it's getting worse. It's actually not getting worse. It's getting better, mostly. Obviously it depends on where you are. But if you're talking about Europe and the US, the US has been sliding backwards now the last year or couple of years. But if you take a little bit of a broader trajectory and look back about 50 years to 1970 when the Clean Air Act was passed, which is, in my view, and I devote a whole chapter to it in the book, one of America's, I think, most consequential modern laws. We have air now that is so much cleaner than it was back in 1970. You know, you in L.A., people use the description, and I think it's very justified, that L.A. in particular, L.A.'s improvement with smog is one of the great environmental success stories of all time. I think that's true and you could actually apply that description to the US as a whole. We are actually sort of a story of, I don't want to say success because it's an unfinished story, but a story of real progress.
Beth Gardiner: Literally the Clean Air Act, you know, studies have shown, has saved millions of American lives and trillions of dollars in the past 50 years. And it's now become a model that other countries around the world are looking to. Places like China that are struggling with their own air quality problems are looking to the US. They're looking to California, in particular, and saying, you know, "How did that happen? What do we need to do? What can we learn from that?" So you know, this is obviously, we're living in times of all this tumult and you know, fear and anxiety and a sense I think that everything's going the wrong direction and we're sort of powerless to fix it. But actually, I think if you just look back a few short decades, you actually see a really imperfect but functioning American system of government. The Clean Air Act was passed on a bipartisan basis. It actually passed the Senate unanimously, one no-vote in the House of Representatives.
Quinn Emmett: Which is crazy today.
Beth Gardiner: Right. You couldn't imagine the most innocuous post office renaming.
Quinn Emmett: Right. Right. What do we want to have for lunch today? Right.
Beth Gardiner: Right. But you know, this was actually a law that gave far reaching new powers to the federal government. I mean, it's unimaginable. Republicans were on board with it. President Nixon signed it.
Quinn Emmett: It's incredible.
Beth Gardiner: He didn't really like it, but he could see where the political wind was blowing and he followed that. So, you know, you could say like, how far we've fallen, but you could also say it's not out of reach to be able to be able to do something like that again. You know, we've made steady progress over the years, slow kind of incremental accomplished through incredibly boring things like regulation on fuel quality and those sort of cap type things that go over, you know, when you put the gas in your car, there's this thing now that keeps the fumes from floating out.
Brian Kennedy: Oh yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Sure.
Beth Gardiner: That used to be, right? That's so boring but that used to really contribute to smog, those fumes. You know, cars now, American cars are 99% cleaner than they were in 1970-
Quinn Emmett: That's incredible.
Beth Gardiner: ... because of effective regulation by the federal government and also by the state of California, which has been a really important player in this story. So I think, you know, that sort of it ... There's some optimism to be found in there because it's not impossible. And the other thing about air pollution is that we know that even incremental improvement, even these little steps forward actually really literally save people's lives. They translate directly into better health. Even if you can make the air, you know, I don't know, 5%, 10%, 20% cleaner, you see these lines on the graphs that the death rates come down and heart attacks come down. And you know, what more could you want in terms of direct impact of policy change?
Quinn Emmett: No, and it's something-
Beth Gardiner: So-
Quinn Emmett: Sorry, I was just going to say, it's certainly, and that's what I want to dig into today is sort of the decisions have been made. And that's what I love about your book is you focus so much not just on like, "These people are dead and this is better and this is better." It's like, "These are the people behind and the decisions behind what made it not breathable and what has made it better." And I think that is important because, and again, I clearly didn't have, shockingly didn't use enough nuance when I talked about how things are going, but they have been going so much better in so many places.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah. No, but it's easy to feel that way though, right?
Quinn Emmett: Well, look. It's like, part of it is, for example, the internet. Are more earthquakes happening? We're not really sure, but we can find out about an earthquake in Indonesia in 10 seconds now where we didn't know it happened period 25 years ago. Or we read about it in a book. So that's different. But also, like you said, places like London are looking up and going, "Oh, wait a minute. We've got a serious problem on our hands and it's because of this. And this is what we're going to do and this is how we can learn from it." And places like, I mean, we talked about India and we've talked about India a lot here, you know, the issues that they're dealing with, some of which are just incredible. But you know, again, just to clarify for folks, and we talked about a little bit before, you know, bad outdoor air cause an estimated about four million premature deaths in 2016 from what I could find according to the World Health Organization. Does that sound about right?
Beth Gardiner: Well, there's different estimates.
Quinn Emmett: Right.
Beth Gardiner: I've actually used the number seven million, which also comes from the Worlds Health Organization, but that includes what they call "indoor air pollution-"
Quinn Emmett: Okay, great.
Beth Gardiner: ... or household air pollution it sometimes gets called, which is mostly to do with these very dirty cooking fires in developing countries.
Brian Kennedy: So wild.
Beth Gardiner: But that's also really deeply interconnected with the outdoor air quality problem because the smoke just doesn't stay indoors.
Quinn Emmett: Right. Of course.
Beth Gardiner: It, you know, floats around. And now that's estimated to account those cooking fires in India or estimated to account for 25% of the overall, what's called ambient outdoor kind of regular air pollution problem.
Quinn Emmett: Sure, sure.
Beth Gardiner: So, that's why I use the seven million, which is also from the Worlds Health Organization. But you know, four million, seven million, it's a lot of people, right?
Quinn Emmett: It's still a lot of people.
Beth Gardiner: That's sort of what those numbers tell you.
Quinn Emmett: And I know, and one of the other things I saw and again, please just keep correcting me because it's fantastic-
Brian Kennedy: It's my favorite.
Quinn Emmett: It's Brian's favorite thing, is that about 90% of those are in the low and middle income countries. Does that sound about right?
Beth Gardiner: Yeah. I don't know the number off the top of my head, but you know, definitely-
Quinn Emmett: It's not 50:50.
Beth Gardiner: It's true, yeah. Right. So we do have serious problems in here in London where I am, you know, in L.A. where you are, all across the US, across Europe. But it's nothing compared to, I mean, I went to India. It's horrendous. China too. China's improving now. India's not improving.
Quinn Emmett: Sure.
Beth Gardiner: But still, it's unbelievable. You literally can't see buildings that are, I don't know, 100 yards away from you or something.
Quinn Emmett: Man.
Beth Gardiner: And the human toll of that is horrendous. But just one, to get back to the thing about is it getting better, is it getting worse in the US, so it's getting better for sure over the long term. But you're also not wrong, even though I did correct you. Sorry Brian. You're also not wrong, to disappoint, you're also not wrong to say that it's getting worse because the last couple of years have shown that. And for sure, what we know when you look at Washington now is that there's these really, really aggressive regulatory roll backs going on. There's a new one today to do with water rules under Obama that the Trump administration is now finalizing a repeal of.
Brian Kennedy: Oh, excellent.
Beth Gardiner: That's a separate issue, but you know, it speaks to the same thing. And you know, that's really consequential. I think the deterioration in air quality that's been shown in the last couple of years, the American Lung Association does this annual report and they have started to see things getting worse again. I think it's a little too early to blame that on Trump because there's lag time in terms of policy having an impact and the data when it comes in.
Quinn Emmett: Of course. And they're all tied up in law suits anyways. But it's-
Beth Gardiner: But the deterioration's so far is actually being caused by climate change because these two things are kind of, sorry to cut you off-
Quinn Emmett: No, no. Please.
Beth Gardiner: ... you know, intersecting with each other. And you know because you live out west about wild fires driven by climate change made worse and more frequent and more intense by climate change and causing huge, huge air quality problems in cities all across the western US and Canada. And also just in general, hotter weather makes air quality worse because of particularly o-zone, which is a big problem. I know in L.A. o-zone isn't something that comes out of like a car's tailpipe. It's what results when all this exhaust bakes in the sun. So if you have exhaust plus sun, you get o-zone. So, global warming, as the temperatures go up, more sunshine, it's making air quality worse in a way that's having an immediate impact on people's health and people's lives. But also I think you could definitely pretty safely predict that several years down the line, when we do start seeing the effects of this really aggressive, it's not just a regulatory roll back but also they're really shrinking the enforcement capabilities of the EPA and super, super importantly I think, attacking the science and trying to undermine the science of the EPA and the Clean Air Act.
Beth Gardiner: You know, we definitely are going to see the effects of that because we know that when you tighten regulations, you get better air quality. When you loosen them, it's going to get worse. And it's predictable what the effect of that is. People die from it-
Quinn Emmett: Yep. And we've-
Beth Gardiner: ... and get sick.
Quinn Emmett: ... dug into it a lot here which is the air might be better in Brentwood here, but the urban heat issues in places like parts of L.A. and Washington D.C. and Baltimore, I think NPR just did a big study there which is-
Brian Kennedy: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:29:39].
Quinn Emmett: ... you know, it's everything. It's the heat, it's the lack of trees, it's the stuff coming off the tires. It's the fact that there's still 3,000 oil wells in L.A., most of them not in white neighborhoods. These things, like you said, didn't start with Trump, as bad as it might be. They're fairly endemic and in a lot of ways, designed that way. But I do want to dig into that a little bit because again, so much of your book is focused on decision making and policy and the people behind it. Basically, not just particle counts but kind of how we got here. And I do want to spend a few minute, because there was a really interesting ... I could see on it's head how it could be seen as something ridiculous, but Nathan Heller in The New Yorker wrote a piece a few months ago called, "Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?" And it's interesting because a little bit like coal, like you hinted at, we built the 20th century on the back of coal and cars, at least here in the US.
Quinn Emmett: Coal is not like solar panels, was not a difficult one to figure out, and we used it. And so that's part of the reason why everyone else feels like they should be able to use it as well. The interstate highway system really launched in '56 or so and you know, for the next 34 years is where things got really interesting, where we decided not to do trains, for example. So talk to me about some of the decisions that you feel like America has made in the past 60, 70 years that kind of dug us this hole and that, you know, leading up to, like you mentioned, the clean air stuff that hopefully won't be fully dismantled before my children around.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, definitely. So one thing I definitely want to talk about and you touched on it in your question is this way that air pollution intersects with inequality and racism, because I think that's really important. So I think we should definitely come back to that because it's an important theme of my book and I think it's an important part of this story. But the question about cars, yeah, you're right. We've created this infrastructure where, right, we put all of our money into roads and highways and you know, all these kind of invisible decisions around, you know, things like zoning and tax deduction for mortgages and red lining and you know, starving of public transportation of funds, and the way that we have sort of laid out our roads and our world. You know, I see it because I go back and forth a lot between the US and the UK. And when I take a train out of London, I mean, there's more trains for one thing. But when you take a train out of London, you're going through the city and then it ends and you're like, in green. And then you get to a little town that's really concentrated where all the houses are close together. And then you go out of that town and it's green again.
Beth Gardiner: There's space in between the towns. And I'm from New Jersey. L.A. is the same, right? There's no space in between the town.
Quinn Emmett: No, no, no, no, no.
Beth Gardiner: There's space between the houses, right? So you'd need a car-
Quinn Emmett: Right. Sometimes.
Brian Kennedy: A little bit. A little bit of space.
Beth Gardiner: So I mean, of course there's tons of invisible decisions that have gone into giving us that set up which now makes it hard for us to get out of our cars. But one thing I really learned from reporting this book, I have a whole chapter about the auto industry because they are such an important part of this air quality story. And man, I did not really understand the auto industry is just such a recalcitrant, just kind of digging their heals in, you know, fighting every attempt to regulate kind of industry for literally decades. And you know, P.S., now they're the sort of progressive ones compared to the oil industry. Trump is trying to deregulate more than the auto industry wants to deregulate, which really tells you. I mean, they are such an anti-regulatory industry.
Beth Gardiner: I mean, a really consequential story that has played out in a huge way here in Europe, in London where I live is this Dieselgate story. And you know, that was one of those things that was in the news and in the background. And I don't know if I was really paying close enough attention to really get what they did and how blatant it was, but-
Quinn Emmett: It's insane.
Beth Gardiner: ... Volkswagen. Yeah, and it wasn't just Volkswagen. You know, they were the ones who got in legal trouble. But all the companies basically, the ones that manufactured diesels are totally gaming the system, just blatantly, blatantly cheating and putting this software in their cars that detected when they were being tested. And when the cars are being tested in a regulator's lab, they run clean, and then they go out on the road and in real world conditions literally a dozen, 20 times over the pollution limits. So that is just, I think, a great example of you know, the tenor of this industry and how hostile they've been toward regulation. You know, certainly back in the early '70s and then in 1990 when the Clean Air Act was getting amended again, they just pushed so hard against any effort to regulate. And then, they're also selling people on these huge SUVs and pick-ups and pushing the market really hard in that direction, which obviously is really damaging from a climate perspective.
Beth Gardiner: But having said that, you know, when they have been forced to do it by regulation and regulation with teeth that's been properly enforced, they have actually been able to innovate and makes cars so much cleaner than they used to be. They finally were forced, in the '70s, to take lead out of gasoline. That was huge-
Brian Kennedy: That's a real win.
Beth Gardiner: ... for public health. Totally. And you know, now obviously the question is around electric cars. And interestingly, VW is one of the ones who's really pushing hard on that, I think because they realize their reputation has been so badly damaged, they want to try to turn it around. But you know, okay, whatever the cause, that's a good thing.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, we'll take it.
Beth Gardiner: And that's a company that knows how to mass produce, right?
Quinn Emmett: Sure.
Beth Gardiner: And so you might get a cheaper electric VW than, verse a Tesla or something.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, and that's what's going to move the needles, right? As amazing as having ... We can do 12 podcasts on how complicated Tesla is and Elon Musk. My overarching feeling is I'm thankful for them dragging us into this future, even if the actual raw number is still pretty small, because figuring out car manufacturing, it turns out, is incredibly complicated and hard to do on the mass level.
Beth Gardiner: Right.
Quinn Emmett: But like you said, whatever the reason VW's doing it, whether it's the enormous penalties they got, which were fair, or because of pure shame or because of their stockholder price, they have basically said, and I think the COO had a quote the other day, which is, "We're going on an electric offensive," which is, if someone like VW or GM or whoever starts, Ford with trucks, can turn it around, their manufacturing capacity blows anything else out of the water, and that's where we see massive, massive change.
Beth Gardiner: Now, I think, actually the huge, huge player in this industry is China because China, for all of their own reasons largely to do with their own air quality problems but also because they want to dominate this industry as the main manufacturer, they are throwing absolute ton of money now into electric vehicles. They want to, you know, be the world's, in the same way that China dominates the manufacturer of solar panels now. And they brought the price of solar panels down by like, 90% in, I don't know-
Quinn Emmett: 10 years. Yeah, it's crazy.
Beth Gardiner: ... six or eight years. Yeah. You know, now they're throwing themselves into electric cars and I think that we might prefer that American companies do better in that industry or move faster there. But you know, whatever happens, I think it's pretty clear that China obviously has these huge economies of scale and what happens there is going to have consequences elsewhere in terms of, good consequences in terms of driving down the prices and probably moving forward the technology a lot faster than we would be without them in terms of the batteries and the range and stuff like that.
Quinn Emmett: And a lot of that comes down to, you know, two different political systems which is like, we can't get our shit together to do anything, and much less decided if we're going to regulate things or tear it apart or incentivize or have these carbon marketplaces or whatever where China, you know, for better or worse, which is very complicated, can, as they did with plastic bags, can say like, "You have to do this." And what, that stick can move things. And it's also necessary because they had to seed clouds to get rid of, you know, pollution for the Olympics. Like, it's not great.
Beth Gardiner: Well, you do hear people say in the west, you know, half joking like you just did, like, "Oh, at least in a sort of authoritarian system, you can actually get things done." And he was like, "Well, you know, not so much." Yes, now China's government is actually moving on air pollution for a whole bunch of, I think, pretty complicated reasons that I try to delve into, but you know, it follows decades and decades of not moving.
Quinn Emmett: Well, it was in the other direction. The-
Beth Gardiner: So you know, their way's-
Quinn Emmett: The stick-
Beth Gardiner: Their way's not great either.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, the stick for 40 years was grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, grow. And that's what got them there.
Beth Gardiner: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, they obviously, now they've hit a point where, you know, they have to do something-
Brian Kennedy: Something must be done.
Beth Gardiner: ... and not just air quality but water quality and soil. They're just drowning in their own toxins. So they're starting to wrestle with that.
Brian Kennedy: Switching from cars for a second here, because not every body made the same mistakes we did, China has so many more people than we do and by far fewer cars per capita. And of course, the big issue there has been burying coal. And there's a super interesting graphic that we've included before that shows how the US has, you know, created, I mean basically all of the emissions until about three seconds ago when China leaped ahead of everyone. We burned a shit ton of coal and then everyone else did. And the argument, which you mentioned before is like, you know, as to why they feel like they should have, be able to are, they are compelling. And you know, that's a policy decision. Yes, it's like playing catch up. Where are we there post-Paris in China and India?
Beth Gardiner: Well, I think what's happening, especially in China, is really interesting because you're seeing the ways that air pollution and climate change interact. So you know, the numbers are hard to read and China is very two steps forward, one step back, or two steps back, one step forward in terms of what they're doing on coal, because China now consumes half the world's coal. So their usage has huge, huge consequences for the future of the climate. And I think what we've started to see over the last few years is they are trying to plateau it and bring it down. You know, it's not always succeeding, but roughly speaking, their coal use has started to go down. They've imposed coal caps on certain regions of the country. And you know, what I sort of saw when I went there and I talked to a lot of people, it's very hard to know what's happening inside the sort of decision making apparatus of the Chinese government because it's a total black box.
Beth Gardiner: So you hear a lot of speculating, but you know, there was a huge upswelling of anger about air pollution in sort of like 2013, 2014. The air there has been terrible for decades but it wasn't really talked about. You know, it would be on the news, they'd say like, "It's bad weather today," or "It's foggy today." Even people who were sort of educated and tuned in didn't even really understand the air pollution problem that they had and the human consequences of it. But around 2013, 2014, there started to be this really big social media uprising around air pollution and people, particularly the urban middle classes, more educated people, were starting to understand how bad it was and getting worried about what is this doing to me, what is this doing to my kids. And they really started to get angry about it. And that was starting to come out in social medial and some sort of scattered street protests.
Beth Gardiner: And you know, obviously China is not a democracy where people's, where political issues gains steam and then you can kind of force politicians through voting to do something about it. But there are ways in which politicians there and the leadership does react to the public. And you know what, a lot of smart people there told me was like, the Chinese government, their biggest priority is stability. They need to keep things stable. That's what economic growth is about. That's how they keep their hold on power. So anything that sort of threatens instability or threatens people getting unified around a particular issue is really, really scary to them. And I think that that's what happened with air pollution. They sensed and they saw on social media particularly, that people were really getting angry about this and it sort of threatened to snowball even into something that could damage their legitimacy and their ability to hold onto power. So I think there was a decision to try to crush that not so much by putting it down, but by actually doing something about the problem.
Beth Gardiner: And then it also dovetailed with some economic things that were going on inside the government with reformers seeing that they have a huge problem of overproduction and too much debt and all these factories that were making stuff that nobody needed just to keep jobs going and stuff. And there was a need to scale that back, but it's hard to do because then people lose their jobs. So they could sort of use air pollution as a political cover. So it's been this, I think, super interesting dynamic where air pollution, the government has actually responded and tried to start doing something about it. They're actually really having some progress and there's been, a few years ago, I think from one year to the next, there was like double digit percentage decrease in Beijing of particulate matter, and in other cities too. So that's hugely important.
Beth Gardiner: And even of wider global importance is what that means for global CO2. You know, China, they don't really sort of like to, you know, be showy on the world stage and take a leading role diplomatically, but I think sort of defacto, they are now the global leader on climate, because we're sure not.
Quinn Emmett: That's such a gentle way of putting it.
Brian Kennedy: That's very saddening.
Beth Gardiner: Yes.
Brian Kennedy: So yeah, they are cutting down on coal at home. But talk to us about how China's coal addiction has been exported to Africa probably through their belt and road initiatives. Africa's a place where a lot of folks are pretty worried about in the next 20 years, of growth and pollution. And again, like India, you know, they deserve to be able to do what they need to grow after hundreds of years of white people exploiting that continent and its people. But China building coal everywhere is probably not wonderful.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, that's definitely true. That's not something that I really get into in the book. But Africa is sort of, you know, I think a really important continent for the air pollution story too. And one issue there is that there's not really very much monitoring, so it's almost like we don't even know how bad it actually is. And the other really important driver in Africa is that it is urbanizing so, so fast. So you're getting these huge cities that are just growing and growing. There's a lot of dependence on dirty cooking fuels, these smokey, you know, whether it's wood or dung or straw that people burn. So there's an opportunity in a sense because a lot of cities are in their early, some of the cities there are still in the early phases. There's a lot of urbanization yet to come. So if you could get good systems now in place, you know, that would be beneficial for the future. But it's, I think in a way, almost like a little bit of uncharted territory from an air pollution perspective because of this lack of measurement and monitoring.
Quinn Emmett: Right, right.
Brian Kennedy: That's kind of scary.
Quinn Emmett: And I know, again, it's even more complicated. And I may have to do a whole show about this because, you know, not only they're building a bunch of coal plants, but in some ways they're saying, "Okay, we'll finance it but then you have to pay it." And then some of these countries or cities can't pay back the loans. And then, it's very complicated. But, you know, you hope, like some of the clean energy deals that India is managing to sign, and some of the prices you're seeing for these things, you hope that there's some sort of straw that breaks the back or some opportunity that makes them turn away from coal to something else. Because again, it's super cheap, it's easy to burn. It's understandable. That's why we were able to do what we do.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, I was just going to say, one thing that I wanted to come back to because we're talking about sort of inequality between countries, and that's really important and it plays into air pollution. You know, it's developing countries that are suffering much more with air pollution. But even within our countries, inequality and environmental racism is a really important part of this story that I think I don't want to miss out on talking about. You know, if you look at a city like yours, L.A., or mine, London, you know, yes, the whole city has an air pollution problem and yes, that affects everyone who breaths it, whether their some rich white person in the best neighborhood or a poor person of color in a much poorer neighborhood. But it is also true ... The way I put it in the book is that air pollution affects everybody, but it affects some people more than others.
Beth Gardiner: And this is really an issue that I think tracks all of the biggest fractures in our modern societies definitely around race and around socioeconomic inequality. You know, I think it's pretty obviously to say that in a big city, if you don't have a lot of money for housing, for rent or whatever, you're going to be the one who ends up living next to the big highway or next to the garbage transfer station, or in L.A. near the ports which are huge sources of truck and ship pollution. But it's also true that there's a race element that goes even beyond that economic divide. I was doing an event recently with a terrific writer who's written, I think, this really important new book called A Terrible Thing to Waste. Her name is Harriet Washington. And it's about environmental racism. And she cites this statistic that was really shocking about how much racism impacts the story beyond just, it's not just that black people tend to have less money or people of color, less money for housing. She put out this number that if you compare the toxin exposure, and this is not just air pollution, but other environmental toxins as well, the toxic exposure of a white neighborhood where people are earning an average of $10,000 a year is the equivalent of an African American neighborhood where people are earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year.
Beth Gardiner: So really, pretty middle class, working class people of color who are experiencing the same kind of toxic environmental exposures as white people at a very, very low level of income. So that tells you that there's something more than just dollars and sense going on, whether it's segregated differential access to housing or other sort of ways of racism works its way into where we all live and work and go to school and spend our days. So it's a really important part of this story. And you hear people in the air pollution world talk about regional levels of air pollution and hot spots. You know, so there's a number that signifies, you know, L.A.'s air quality today or New York's air quality today. But it doesn't tell the whole story-
Quinn Emmett: Not at all.
Beth Gardiner: ... because there's going to be some places in the city that have much better and much worse air quality than other.
Quinn Emmett: Right. And again, I don't think people, like London where I know most of London's air pollution problems are centered in the city, where Los Angeles, again, we've mentioned this before, Los Angeles County is what most people refer to because we have 88 cities within Los Angeles County, and it is incredibly congested throughout. And the places that aren't are the places where it's not as bad and that's not near the highways. But the rest of them, you know, the highways and the oil drills and the asphalt with no trees is where the schools are. It's where these kids are suffering from urban heat and pollution and their grades are suffering and they can't sleep at night. And yes, it in a lot of ways was designed that way. And again, we've talked about that before and we'll keep talking about that because it's inherent.
Quinn Emmett: I do want to move into, where are decisions actually being made? Where have we seen success starting with things like the Clean Air Act to get us out of this mess? Where are the inklings of hope? And then more specifically I guess, what are the repeatable policies that can be, have been shown to be or could be transferred abroad, could be repeated, could be adapted? Because this is a race, but as we have seen, like you said, the success story of what, having still so many issues, but what we've been able to do in the US. Breathable pollution is something we have shown we can basically turn off. It's not like the heat that is accumulated that we're running 30 years behind and the ice is going to melt, you know, to an extent no matter what we do at this point. We can make a city more breathable very quickly. And so I really want to talk about sort of where you've seen those policies work and how they're being expanded and where they're being considered in other places.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, that's really true. So you know, with air pollution, you definitely see that when you take the steps and you do the things to clean it up, most of which are to do with aggressive regulation and enforcement of pollution industries, you get the results. The air gets cleaner and literally people get healthier right away. So you know, as we've been talking about, the US has been sort of a story of progress over decades going backwards a little bit now. California now is the place that I think is leading the country and in some ways, leading the world on air quality regulation and doing things to try to deal with it. It's a complicated story though because California has done the most and made the most progress on air pollution over the years but it's still actually has the worst air quality basically in the country, you know, or dominates the lists of the most polluted cities.
Quinn Emmett: I think the top 10 are still here.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah. A lot of them-
Brian Kennedy: Wow.
Beth Gardiner: ... largely because the car culture is so endemic there. So even though cars are so much cleaner, there's just so many of them and so many more of them than there used to be going so many more miles and so many more roads and all that. But I think you're, you know, if you look at Sacramento, and I was there recently, you do see some really aggressive efforts to try to deal with this and you see also how it's intersecting with the climate agenda now, clean air and climate. So it's things like taking steps to try to not just get electric cars out there and build out the infrastructure but make them accessible to people in lower incomes so that it's not just like a toy for rich people. And it's taking steps like trying to electrify the ports because those are hugely polluting, these gigantic container ships that come in with these containers of stuff headed for Target and Walmart and all of that. Letting them, giving them power outlets so that they can plug in when they're docked instead of running their, idling their really dirty engines the whole time that they're in the port. Just really small seeming, boring things like that actually have huge impact for the people who live near there and people further away too because the stuff also floats many miles.
Beth Gardiner: So I think California's a real bright spot. In Europe, I have a chapter from Berlin which is not an air quality, an amazing air quality place, but it is a city that is really doing things to try to change the car culture and to try to experiment with different ends or alternative forms of transportation. You know, it's a, first of all, not alternative but it has great, great public transportation, which is kind of like the base thing that you need, I think, to start getting people out of their cars. They're trying to start ... you know, there's a movement there to try to get better infrastructure for biking. It's a really big biking city. You know, and I could have picked places in Europe that would be better air quality and better places for cycling, but Berlin kind of felt like not an unachievable dream.
Quinn Emmett: Sure.
Beth Gardiner: It's not like Scandinavia or something that we all just feel like, "Oh yeah, of course they're prefect."
Quinn Emmett: Super cool, however-
Beth Gardiner: Right.
Quinn Emmett: ... not applicable.
Beth Gardiner: Right. Berlin, you know Berlin is like a major capital of the continent's economic engine.
Quinn Emmett: Right. But they've also ... It's not exactly, it's not like Berlin's had their shit together for 70 years. I mean, it was split in half until 30 years ago, you know? The point is, they've had to dig themself out of quite of a hole as well.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah. Interesting, actually that history is part of why there's much lower car ownership there than there is in other big German cities like Frankfurt and Bahn, because Berlin back in the Cold War, obviously if you were in East Berlin, you didn't really have that much money and you probably couldn't afford a car. But if you lived in West Berlin where people were wealthier, there was really nowhere to go because you were like this little island in the middle of East Germany. They had to get a visa to leave the city. So there was a pretty low rate of car ownership there. And because of all this huge investment in public transportation as they sort of tried to knit their subway system and stuff back together post reunification, surprisingly the car ownership rates, I mean, it's gone up since 1989 but it has not gone up by as much as you might have thought. So it's much lower than it is in other cities. And it's sort of a city with a, I don't know. It's got like a lot of young, creative industries. It's government. It's a lot of ex-pats. There's a lot of things that sort of make it less likely to be really car focused than a big financial center like Frankfurt or something where people are wealthier.
Quinn Emmett: Right.
Beth Gardiner: Berlin, there was one Berlin mayor a while ago who tried to get the city to have the slogan "Poor but sexy."
Brian Kennedy: Poor but sexy?
Beth Gardiner: Sexy but poor. Poor but sexy, yeah.
Brian Kennedy: Wow.
Beth Gardiner: So it's not like the wealthiest city. So they don't have as many cars, and that actually has big consequences for, I think, quality of life. Not just air pollution but noise and being able to walk across the street without getting, risking your life and getting hit by a car. So it's a place where there's progress, not perfection by any stretch. But there's stuff being done and I felt like that was important to go look at it.
Brian Kennedy: I'm going to try and see if I can make that my slogan.
Quinn Emmett: What's that?
Brian Kennedy: Poor but sexy.
Beth Gardiner: Poor but sexy, yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Sure.
Beth Gardiner: It's a good slogan.
Quinn Emmett: We can trademark that.
Brian Kennedy: Um, anyway. So-
Beth Gardiner: I don't know. Berlin's already used it.
Brian Kennedy: Yeah, that's true.
Beth Gardiner: But you know, I don't know if they trademarked it.
Brian Kennedy: I'll look into it.
Beth Gardiner: Probably not.
Brian Kennedy: Beth, our goal on the show is always to provide specific action steps that our listeners can take to support your mission with their voice, their vote, and their dollar. And we want to be strategic about this because as we've discussed, you're a journalist. You're not necessarily an activist. But this is something that's affecting you and me and Quinn, and literally everyone on the planet. So let's start with voice. What are the big actionable, specific questions that we all, you know ... Sorry, sorry. What are one or two maybe, one or two specific actionable questions that we could be asking of our representative?
Beth Gardiner: You know, I think a big thing that's going to have to happen in Washington in order to start confronting this problem again rather than going backwards on it is like a rebuilding kind of of the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, which has really been just under an onslaught in the Trump administration. Not just like we were saying in terms of all these regulatory roll backs, but also just this huge, huge brain drain of experts and scientists who have really been kind of the pillars of that agency and it's successes over the years who have just been leaving because they don't see what the point of being there anymore is. So I think that's going to be a big challenge for a future post-Trump administration, post-Trump America, whenever that may happen. And you know, I think it's also important to ask local and state politicians as well as national politicians what they're doing and particularly around these inequalities that we see in air pollution.
Beth Gardiner: You know, what measures are you taking, mayor or city council, to try to make things a little bit more equal and to focus some of those resources on bringing better air quality to poorer neighborhoods and to communities of color. Because that's hugely consequential.
Quinn Emmett: Yes.
Beth Gardiner: So those are, you know ... This is obviously an issue that's really, in many ways, driven by policy, so I think it can feel a little bit disempowering, you know, like how can I fix it. But I think it's also true that there are things we can do as individuals both to try to lessen our own contribution to air pollution and also a little bit to protect ourselves from it. So we can talk about that too if you want to.
Brian Kennedy: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I'm first of all just happy that you mentioned the local. You know, it all starts local. People always forget that.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah.
Brian Kennedy: Yeah. No, that's excellent. And then, I guess for now we'll skip vote because you know, we're trying to keep it objective here. But let's talk about where our listeners can put their money. Maybe something that's journalism focused?
Quinn Emmett: Are there things out there, folks out there-
Beth Gardiner: Oh, where to put their money.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, again, usually it's like, send it to this, fund this, do this. But I wonder if there's something-
Beth Gardiner: Yeah. Buy my book.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, right.
Beth Gardiner: Can I say buy my book?
Quinn Emmett: Oh, fuck yeah we can say buy your book. Of course. Like, why don't you give us all the details on the book and then if there's anything else out there that you think is really cool.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah. Yeah, the book is Choked: Life in Breath in the Age of Air Pollution, from the University of Chicago Press, but not too academicy. You could get it on audio. You could get it as an e-book wherever you buy books. But I'll also put a plug in for a great organization that I'm a part of which is the Society of Environmental Journalists. They actually gave me a grant to fund some of my reporting when I went to India for this book. And there's also the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting which is similarly funding really important journalism often by freelancers or independent journalists on not just environmental issues but that is one thing that they do. Yeah, I think that this is really important. Obviously we know journalism is really struggling right now. The business model of newspapers and news websites and all that is really fracturing and it's a time when I think this kind of coverage is more important than ever.
Beth Gardiner: So yeah, give a donation to Society of Environmental Journalists and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and they'll give it to reporters who are going out there and covering some of these stories.
Quinn Emmett: That's super cool. That's kind of exactly what I was looking for.
Beth Gardiner: Okay, great.
Quinn Emmett: Awesome.
Brian Kennedy: Boom.
Quinn Emmett: Awesome.
Brian Kennedy: Awesome. All right, well we have kept you on the horn quite a while here.
Quinn Emmett: It's got to be like midnight there. I'm not even going to bother to do the math.
Brian Kennedy: Thank you so very much, Beth, honestly.
Beth Gardiner: The sun's still out. Yeah, it's been great talking to you guys. Thank you so much for having me on.
Brian Kennedy: Yeah, it's been fantastic.
Quinn Emmett: Of course. We just have a couple little last quick questions we'll blow through here.
Brian Kennedy: Is this the lightning round, Quinn?
Quinn Emmett: I'm going to change the name of it-
Brian Kennedy: Oh, got it.
Quinn Emmett: ... at some point but I'd appreciate if you'd just not do this in public on the show.
Brian Kennedy: I'm just trying to prep her. So it's not a lightning round.
Beth Gardiner: Oh, okay.
Brian Kennedy: I just want to make sure.
Quinn Emmett: Hey Beth, when was the first time in your life where you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Beth Gardiner: When I first became a journalist, when I joined the Associated Press back in 1990-something. And I saw my first story out on the wire.
Quinn Emmett: What was your first story?
Beth Gardiner: My first story-
Quinn Emmett: Uh-oh.
Beth Gardiner: I was like the news room assistant and my job was really to sort the faxes and, because it was the '90s and answer the phones.
Brian Kennedy: Faxes, what are those?
Beth Gardiner: But I was given a press release that was something to do with I think court statistics and I was told to make it into a story of something to do with imports at the New York port. I don't think it had a buy line on it. Some AP stories don't and it was really short. But I wrote it and they put it out on the wire and it was like, wow, there it is. It was not very glamorous though.
Brian Kennedy: That's [crosstalk 01:04:32].
Quinn Emmett: Something. That's so exciting.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, but I still remember it. That was more than 20 years ago.
Quinn Emmett: Time flies.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Awesome. So Beth, who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months? We're all about gratitude here.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah. I've met and connected with someone really amazing in London. Back in January, that's more than six months ago, I wrote a story about her and I've gotten to know her a little bit since then. Her name is Rosamund Adu Kissi Debrah and she has really played the most important air pollution activist in London right now. She's a mom who lost her daughter. Her nine year old died in 2013.
Quinn Emmett: Oh, is this the one ... I remember them saying it was the fist ... Was that the first one? It was big news, wasn't it, when she died because they said it was definitely because of air pollution?
Beth Gardiner: Well, no, it wasn't big news when she died. She was nine, it was 2013. Her name was Ella Kissi Debrah. A beautiful young girl. Seen photos of her and just really full of life. But she had terrible asthma and they lived very close to a really, really big, not quite a highway but almost. And Rosamund, her mom, did not know about air pollution at that time but more recently she has been waging this legal fight and she's, it's moving forward. She's had success, but it's not done yet. She wants to get air pollution written onto Ella's death certificate as a contributing factor to her death from asthma so she's trying to get the [inaudible 01:06:03], she has succeeded now in getting a new inquest. That's what they call it. I don't think we use that word, right? Investigation into the death of Ella to get air pollution written in. And I actually wrote a [inaudible 01:06:17] for the New York Times about this because I think the case is so important to have it written in black and white.
Beth Gardiner: You know, air pollution, we throw out all these numbers, right? Seven million people, a hundred thousand ... But you never know who those people are in most cases. You can never specifically say like this person died because of air pollution. But she is trying to do that. And Ella's case was sort of severe and extreme enough that you may actually legitimately be able to say that. But I think to be able to put that in black and white on a legal document, air pollution killed, you know, not forty thousand people in the UK but this little girl who you can see her photo and your heart will break. And so since I wrote that article, I've gotten to know Rosamund a little bit and she's just an incredible woman. She's full of fight and full of life. And she's got two other children, twins who are actually around the same age as my daughter and they've met. And I've just been honored to meet her and get to know her and sort of watch her fight. You know, like I said, I'm not an activist myself, but as a journalist, you do kind of get this sort of front row seat I guess, to see other people waging these fights and sort of living their own stories. And that's been a privilege.
Quinn Emmett: That's pretty special, yeah. I definitely want to dig into that more. And yeah, it comes back, what's the old adage? Like, you know, I'm going to mangle it. Something about a large number's a statistic and one life is a travesty. But like you said, to get that black and white for the first time and this little girl that had just been in the news would hopefully help to start painting a picture for folks.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, definitely. You know, putting a face literally on this stranger.
Brian Kennedy: Beth, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed?
Quinn Emmett: What's your self-care, Beth?
Beth Gardiner: I don't know. Some times I just curl up on the couch and stare at my phone, and that doesn't seem to help at all.
Brian Kennedy: Shocking.
Quinn Emmett: I'm pretty sure there's science behind that. At this point, Beth-
Beth Gardiner: I don't know if you guys have ever tried that, but-
Brian Kennedy: It doesn't really work.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah. No, no, no. You sound like it's something that nobody does.
Beth Gardiner: I guess I have two things. Number one, I really love to read so I just try to curl up with a book instead of with my phone, and that seems to make me feel better. And I like to walk. In London we're lucky to live right next to this sort of, you know, it's not California if you're talking about natural beauty. But you know, we have a few trees. We live next to this, it's sort of like a nature preserve. It's called the Parkland Walk. It's a sort of, you know, rails to trails kind of, used to be a train line. Now it's like a walking trail. And you can kind of feel like you're in the woods a little bit in the middle of London. So I try to walk out there everyday and that helps to just like, I don't know, get me away from my phone at least, from Twitter.
Brian Kennedy: It looks really nice.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah, it's beautiful.
Brian Kennedy: This is a fun question. If you could Amazon Prime one ... I think, can you Amazon Prime something from London to America?
Quinn Emmett: It's kind of theoretical.
Brian Kennedy: Got it, got it.
Quinn Emmett: And Beth, you can also feel free to not-
Beth Gardiner: Well you know, Amazon is bad for authors. I don't know if you know about that.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah.
Brian Kennedy: If you could personally mail ... Let me amend the question.
Quinn Emmett: If you could send a carrier pigeon-
Brian Kennedy: If you could personally, from your house to the White House, send a book to Donald Trump, what book would it be?
Quinn Emmett: You can also feel free to not answer it, to remain objective. Some of them are impactful, some are more fun. We've got coloring books to the constitution. We can also cut it out if you'd feel free, if you're not interested. But it's fun.
Beth Gardiner: Um, well, I don't know if I would send him my own book. That seems a little bit ... What book would I send him?
Quinn Emmett: We've definitely got that answer a lot.
Beth Gardiner: I would send him Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Colbert who I think is just ... She's my journalistic heroine, and that was such an important book on climate change.
Quinn Emmett: Awesome.
Brian Kennedy: Very good.
Quinn Emmett: Easy. Done.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Beth, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for making the time to do this for all of your work and the trouble and the efforts that went into it and for dialing it back to this is why these things have happened and this is what we're doing to get out of it in places and where it's working and where it's not because that, I think, really does help inform change because it does show blueprints of ... We learn more from the mistakes we make than from our successes seemingly always.
Beth Gardiner: Yeah.
Quinn Emmett: So we appreciate that and for your coming on the show. Thank you so much.
Beth Gardiner: Great. Thank you guys for all the really smart questions and for the great conversations. It's really been fun talking to you.
Quinn Emmett: It's all because of coffee. But thank you so much.
Brian Kennedy: Ditto.
Beth Gardiner: Same here. Same here.
Quinn Emmett: All right Beth, we'll talk to you soon, okay? Thanks so much.
Beth Gardiner: Okay, thank you.
Quinn Emmett: All right. Bye.
Beth Gardiner: Bye bye.
Brian Kennedy: Chao.
Quinn Emmett: Thanks to our incredible guest today and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dish washing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at Importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
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Quinn Emmett: Please.
Brian Kennedy: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website Importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn Emmett: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally most importantly to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian Kennedy: Thanks guys.