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China's Biggest 74 Cities All Dirtier Than L.A.

Climate

Los Angeles has always been held up as the U.S.'s most polluted city. But, the Los Angeles Times reports, all of China's largest cities make L.A.'s air look crystalline.

Los Angeles isn't as smoggy as it once was, but it still has the most polluted air in the U.S.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Los Angeles became famous for its ozone pollution, and it is still the most ozone-polluted city in the country, says the 2014 State of the Air report published by the American Lung Association. It ranks fourth in the even more dangerous particle pollution, which comes from sources like exhaust smoke and coal, and has serious negative effects on the cardio-vascular system.

With an average particulate reading of 12 considered "good," the average Los Angeles reading last year was 18. But China's cleanest city, Haikou, had an average annual reading of 26. Beijing's was 90. The L.A. Times cited a tracking of China's 74 largest metropolitan areas by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection for the figures.

"From February 2009 to December 2013, Beijing's worst one-day average reading was 569 on Jan. 12, 2013; L.A.'s was 79 on Dec. 9, 2012," reported the L.A. Times. "In the same period, Beijing had 48 days with an average daily reading in excess of 300, considered by both China and the U.S. to be 'hazardous'."

Of course, with tougher environmental standards, L.A.'s air now is cleaner than it was decades ago. And since particulate matters wasn't being measured back then, it's hard to say if L.A. back then was more polluted than major Chinese cities now. But experts cited by the L.A. Times didn't think so.

"Comparing California 30 years ago to China today is apples and oranges," Eugene Leong, an air pollution expert who teaches at Peking University, told the paper. "How bad was PM2.5 in California in the '60s, '70s and '80s? We don't know. … Was it as bad as what China is experiencing now? My educated guess is probably not as bad."

Beijing's notoriously poor air quality forces people to take measures to protect themselves.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

If you'd like to follow how polluted the air is in a Chinese city right now, you can do so on this real-time map. It tracks pollution in cities around the world, assigning each a total air pollution score which can be further broken down by types of pollution. It rates L.A.'s current pollution as a "moderate" 78, with Beijing rated "unhealthy" at 187. At the time we accessed the map, two Chinese cities were rated "hazardous" with readings over 500. Shanghai, however, measured only 42, or "good." The Yosemite Visitor Center in Mariposa, California, had the highest pollution rating in the U.S. at 177.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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