If this winter's air-pollution crisis serves any purpose other than to make every Wasatch Front resident less healthy, it may be this: From the governor on down, Utahns are beginning to understand that dramatic changes in behavior and public policy are all that will keep the problem from getting worse. Make that much worse.
Public awareness is the first step, and in this context, coughing and wheezing from breathing the worst air pollution in the country for days on end in January has been more effective than any public education campaign. Watery eyes and aching lungs are wonderful motivators.
That said, public awareness means nothing if all it results in is finger-pointing. The hard part, as many are beginning to see, is translating thought into action a cliche, perhaps, but no less true in the context of what has become a grave, pervasive threat to public health.
Nor is the threat confined to the winter months. High ground-level ozone levels during hot summer days don't get as much attention because ozone is odorless and tasteless. But ozone damages the lungs, causing swelling and inflammation. The chief culprits? Emissions from motor vehicle exhaust, industry and utilities.
As Gov. Gary Herbert rightly points out, air pollution is everyone's problem and requires everyone pulling together to solve it. He emphasizes increased use of public transit, among other voluntary steps. But it is difficult not to fault the governor for casting the problem in the framework of his administration's number one priority.
"It's an economic development [issue]," he said in late January. "If we don't get a handle on this air quality, we stifle economic growth and development in this state. So health and economics mandate that we do something."
Unfortunately, the two are often at odds. Public health alone is ample cause to act boldly, and in ways that go beyond volunteerism. Intervention by both the executive and legislative branches is essential. Raising the state gasoline tax instead of raising the freeway speed limit to 80 mph, for example. Or shelving the idea of moving Utah State Prison to make more room for more development, more residents and more traffic. Or beefing up the state Division of Air Quality instead of cutting its budget.
None of the above is meant to convey the notion that cleaning up the air will be simple or easy. Everyone must be made to understand we are responsible for the problem and the solution. But what is essential to the success of any initiative is to put the public's health above all other considerations, and that has yet to happen.