EDITORIAL – ‘Clean Air Act’ in London linked to thousands of deaths

“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

— Albert Einstein, physicist

“The experts make the rules; then they’re wrong. I give up.”

— Bob Miller, London cabdriver

Predicting long-term weather patterns isn’t exactly astrophysics … in many ways, it is probably tougher.

The residents of London are currently being forced to deal with unintended consequences of the British government’s grand experiment in environmental science, called the Clean Air Act of 1956. As we now see six decades later, the act has actually had the opposite effect and has led, albeit inadvertently, to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

At the time the law was passed, it seemed like a good idea to provide financial incentives to encourage motorists to shift to diesel engines because, according to the New York Times, “laboratory tests suggested that would cut harmful emissions and combat climate change.

“Yet, it turned out that diesel cars emit on average five times as much emissions in real-world driving conditions as in the tests …”

(So much for the “settled science” of the era.)

The results of the government’s interventionism were more diesel-powered vehicles on London’s streets, more toxic nitrogen dioxide pollution in London’s air and, eventually, more people ending up in London’s hospitals – and morgues.

According to the Times, “The pollution is linked to 23,500 deaths in Britain each year … Britain has the highest number of annual deaths from nitrogen dioxide in the European Union after Italy …”

Now, government officials are scrambling to combat the threat of air pollution, contemplating handing out gas masks to schoolchildren whose lungs are still developing, proposing new taxes and fees on motorists, and, in a reversal of the historical policy, setting up a fund to encourage drivers to buy “cleaner” non-diesel vehicles.

Time will tell how effective (or not) the expensive and intrusive measures will turn out to be. Earlier campaigns to get people out of cars and onto bicycles (which emit zero air pollution) may be backfiring, as cyclists may be putting their own lungs at risk by breathing exhaust from cars they share the road with. According to the Times, “Researchers from the London School of Medicine say that cyclists inhale more than twice the amount of black carbon particles as pedestrians making the same trip.”

This column is not intended to pick on London unfairly. After all, how could British scientists and policymakers of 60 years ago possibly know what they could not know (i.e., the future)?

Someday we may be asking the same question of certain “climate change” zealots who claim to predict within centimeters how much sea levels will rise years or decades from now, and within fractions of degrees what future highs and lows individual regions will experience, based on projections of concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and who castigate anyone impudent enough to ask questions about their assumptions or methodologies.

We are mere mortals. Our intelligence is finite, and the scope of our certain knowledge is, at best, a pinprick of light in a dark universe. (Case in point, cosmologists, physicists and theorists to this day are still debating the truths and flaws contained in the theories postulated by Einstein, who died in 1955, a mere one year before the U.K.’s defective Clean Air Act.)

The next time someone tells you something is “settled science” – keep in mind there’s no such thing.


  1. What do we know? If we do know something, how can we be sure that we aren’t mistaken if the act of observation will make changes on a phenomenon being observed?
    “Earth from Space” Nova documentary has opened my eyes. Thanks to satellites and spacecraft scientist can now observe the world and its intricate systems. But we still don’t understand HOW it works.
    Dust from Sahara desert fertilizes Amazonian forests? Antarctic circumpolar current cools down oceans? Lightenings break up nitrogen gas into nitrates fertilizing the soil? So fascinating.