I tried to think of a clever title for this one, but then I realized that the truth was sufficiently attention grabbing that it probably didn’t need my half-assed wordplay to improve it.
Then I actually read the article and realized that the author had pulled a highly suspect bait and switch with his lead.
I’m no journalist (not to mention many other things — so I won’t), when you begin an article by citing a study from MIT, your reader should not be punished for inferring that the numerically inclined headline associated with said article most likely derives from said study:
Earlier this month, a U.S. study on the economic impact of China’s air pollution was released with little fanfare. Maybe it was because of the series of successive “blue sky” days we were enjoying in the Chinese capital, thanks to the gusty winds blowing down from Mongolia.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, breaks down costs that result from the health impacts from ozone and particulate matter, which typically lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
But in this case, the study (which, FYI, you can’t even read without paying for) isn’t even referenced again. Instead, many paragraphs later, we get this:
“The [Beijing] government says that nearly 80 percent of the days in the last two years met at least the Chinese standard and therefore had good or even excellent air quality,” Steve Andrews, an environmental consultant who has analyzed the @BeijingAir data, said. “While when we look at the U.S. Embassy data … over 80 percent days exceeded what would be considered healthy air quality and more days were hazardous than good.”
Andrews said that Beijing’s pollution levels were “six or seven times higher than the U.S.’s most polluted city.” “Air pollution at these levels likely shortens life expectancy by about five years,” he added. [emphasis my own]
And that five year estimate is based on…what, exactly? Maybe I’m old fashioned, but an off-the-cuff remark — even by an expert — is hardly the sort of hard data headlines should be based on…
…which, even as I write it, I realize sounds so naive that I should probably resign from this site in shame.
ANYWAY, the point is, dude pulled a fast one, okay??
Ooh, also, if I were starting a band in Beijing right now, I would call it Smog Hat.
That is all.
Update by Tom: I think Trevor may have misread this one pretty badly. The important point about the MIT study is that it “breaks down costs that result from the health impacts from ozone and particulate matter, which typically lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.” The costs, it turns out, have skyrocketed. Though the study only focuses on the period between 1975 and 1995, even then, the estimated decrease in economic output went from $22 billion to $112 billion. One can assume that the pattern has not gotten better as China has continued rapidly industrializing for the past 18 years.
What are the costs? Well, presumably they’re health related. Humans get sick and die. Habitats become inhospitable to life. Agriculture is threatened. The list of externalities goes on, but surely, when we’re talking about pollution, they are related first and foremost to issues of the health and well-being of rational economic actors. Agreed?
Additionally, we know a lot about how various dangerous particulates affect our lifespan, having experimented with a great many of them ourselves. (Asbestos! Lead paint! Cigarettes!) If the Chinese are juking the stats to make themselves look good, that’s bad. If an environmental consultant suggests that a really dangerous thing can take five years off of your lifespan, I’ll take him at his word, especially if a quick Googling reveals that “Studies also suggest that long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease. People with breathing and heart problems, children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive to PM2.5.”
So, yeah. There’ll be an adverse effect on economic activity. Should the headline have read like it did? Well, probably not. I’d have gone with: “The Air in China is the Chink in China’s Armor.” Certainly something less sensationalistic than MSN went to press with. But I’m not in the headline business (anymore), and I think we should all just take a deep breath and relax.