The Great Smog of China

London's pea soup fog used to be a deadly killer, until the government cleaned it up. Can China, and the world, learn from example?

Published March 13, 2007 3:29PM (EDT)

The Great Smog of 1952 is estimated to have killed 4,000 Londoners in four days. A noxious mix of coal smoke, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, hydrochloric acid and other industrial pollutants, at its height the smog was so thick that residents of London could not see their own feet.

In an article published today in the consistently excellent environmental journal ChinaDialogue, Peter Thorsheim, author of "Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain Since 1800," recounts how the terrible smog of 1952 -- only the most egregious incident in centuries of human-caused blights brought upon the city of London -- finally induced the U.K. government to pass a Clean Air Act and other laws that ultimately cleared London's skies. Unsurprisingly, the coal industry and other polluters had previously opposed such legislation, arguing "that pollution-control devices and alternative sources of energy were too expensive to be adopted."

Sound familiar? Thorsheim's intent is to draw a connection between London's experience and China's current environmental crisis, but he could just as easily be alluding to the larger global problem of human-caused climate change. His demonstration that change is possible, that we can clean up the mess we've made, through government action, is applicable both to China and the world.

But Thorsheim refrains from spelling out the real lesson of the Great Smog of 1952. Even though there had been warnings about the ill effects of coal smoke as far back as the 13th century, substantive action to address the problem only occurred after a major disaster.

What will it take this time around? Will Shanghai have to be under water? Or do we need a few more Hurricane Katrinas aimed directly at the right-wing think tanks clustered in Washington, D.C.?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works