Nationalism is going up in smoke

Nationalism is going up in smoke
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This World Environment Day, the theme is air pollution. While the Trump administration has been sowing doubt that air pollution kills, the World Health Organization documents that severely endangers health. Ambient air pollution is responsible for 43 percent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 29 percent from lung cancer, and 25 percent from coronary heart disease in people across the globe.

Yet, even if this administration took these health risks seriously, we would not be able to track our emissions very well, a fundamental problem that prevents us from definitively knowing what pollution is our responsibility. With natural and manmade factors that spread pollutants across borders, it becomes difficult for nations to understand their true contributions to poor air quality and then to act. This is an especially tough problem for nationalists. President TrumpDonald John TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' MORE, who has declared himself a nationalist, has been eager to promote American interests at the expense of traditional relationships and engagements that would benefit all countries.

But with air pollution, we cannot just build a wall. That would clearly not keep pollution out. More importantly, the only effective solution to keep our air clean runs totally counter to everything Trump believes, which is participating in global conversations. After all, air pollution is naturally borderless, and trade has broken apart those borders even more. For instance, winds from Mexico and China bring pollutants into California, lowering its air quality. In fact, up to a quarter of Chinese sulfate pollution drifts across the Pacific Ocean and ends up in Western states. Chinese export manufacturing even causes an additional day of smog that exceeds federal ozone limits in the city of Los Angeles each year.


At the same time, the United States exports pollution both indirectly by importing pollution intensive goods from countries that are willing to make them and directly by passing off old vehicles and fuel waste to developing countries. A 2006 study found that exports to the United States make up approximately a fifth of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, black carbon, and other export emissions from China. When the United States imports these products, they pay the price of the final product but not the environmental and health costs to China.

Moreover, the United States exports polluting vehicles and fuel waste to developing countries directly. At auctions of old cars and school buses that no longer pass federal emissions tests, people from Guatemala, Honduras, and other Central American countries buy these vehicles, taking with them all the air pollution that the United States has deemed unacceptable. In 2016, the United States exported more than eight million tons of petroleum coke, a fuel waste product from oil and gas refining processes that is far dirtier than coal, to already polluted India alone.

The citizens of these countries are then left with asthma, heart disease, stroke, and other side effects of air pollution without compensation for appropriate clean up or health care. Without effective tracking across pollutants, no one is held accountable. The solution is not to turn away from this issue nor to attempt to make pollution stay within national borders. The solution is to use diplomacy to cooperate on reducing air pollution globally so that there is less to go around in the first place.

By actively engaging in global conversations, the United States can take responsibility for its share of this transboundary problem. First, the United States should take the lead on collecting data to better measure how much it pollutes, incorporating both how the nation undermines air quality abroad and how some pollution returns right back across its borders. Second, the world needs a comprehensive legal framework for protecting the atmosphere, covering a diversity of pollutants and air quality challenges, backed by American support and cooperation.

A good starting place is the draft of the Global Pact for the Environment. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution last year to synthesize existing principles in international environmental law, fill in current gaps such as atmospheric protection, and enable the environment to become an even greater part of international governance. So far, the United States is one of only five nations to oppose this agreement.

The world shares one atmosphere, and everyone needs to breathe. For nationalists across the globe, a new philosophy on this World Environment Day might be a breath of fresh air. Think my pollution is your pollution, and so we must tackle this international health crisis working together.

Diana Schoder is a research associate specializing in global health and economics with the Council on Foreign Relations based in Washington.