Environmental Law Review Syndicate

Denormalizing Air Pollution and Uplifting Indigenous Groups

By Ashwin Telang 

This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate


In his distinguished essay collection, Henry A. Giroux writes about the violence of forgetting.[1] Giroux touches on how the American media has weaponized ignorance and how important issues are slowly fading from public discourse.

Unfortunately, Giroux misses out on one of the deadliest examples of the violence of forgetting: air pollution.[2]

In recent years, air pollution has become a terrifying case study in normalization. In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, recognizing the relatively unknown threat of air pollution. The Act now saves three hundred seventy thousand lives annually, adding $3.8 trillion to the economy—thirty-two times the law’s cost.[3]

But today, ten million people in the world still die from air pollution each year.[4] And unlike the 1970 deaths that prompted the Clean Air Act, today’s deaths haven’t produced any forceful political mobilizations. Although we better understand air pollution and the benefits of regulation, our government has failed to generate a policy response for the last thirty years. Whether the offspring of gridlocked governance or a polarized political climate, pollution demands a solution immediately.


Desensitization to Air Pollution


Air pollution kills as much as cancer. When stacked next to the death storm caused by air pollution, deaths from war, smoking, and terrorism look like a passing shower. Pollution increases mortality rates by over 20 percent, aggravating cancers, Alzheimer’s, and heart diseases. [5]  Most frighteningly: one in five deaths worldwide is caused by air pollution.[6] And yet, today, fewer people look to organize public policy and legal regulations to improve air quality. Most Americans and researchers say air pollution is “nearly impossible to avoid.”[7]

Environmental columnist, David Wallace-Wells, laments that pollution damage “hasn’t yet produced any…political mobilizations” in the United States.[8]  While massive attention is devoted to terrorism and pandemics, air pollution is consistently left behind.

Americans have accepted these ten million annual deaths as unpreventable, allowing them to erase said deaths from public discourse. Air pollution is no longer a political issue so much as a normalized and numbed-out feature of American life. Deaths go unquestioned, rendered invisible by national leaders.

A recent Yale Tropical Resource Institute study measured a close statistical relationship between normalization and air pollution.[9] One of the study’s participants practically summarized the process of desensitization: “[w]hen I came here from Japan, I thought air pollution was really bad, but then I got used to it.”[10]Humans are wired to respond to new challenges with alarms.[11] Too often, though, are persisting structural challenges deprived of human attention and appreciation. Rebecca Solnit finds that the best way to redirect attention towards air pollution is by “drawing attention to the cumulative effect and quantifiable results.”[12] The ten million yearly deaths statistic must enter the mainstream, making way in our political discussions and emerging with increasing urgency.


Marginalized Issues and Underserved Communities


Even as air pollution fades from public discourse, its effects rain most heavily on underserved and similarly silenced communities. Tribal groups are particularly vulnerable to air pollution and disproportionately bear the brunt of its impact.[13] Key to this thinking is the reality that Indigenous people are more likely to live closer to oil and gas facilities than general populations.[14] This saturates their exposure to noxious chemicals such as ozone, contaminating the air they breathe. Structures of institutional abuse facilitated these generational health and economic disparities. Ford and other massive corporations dumped toxic air contaminants into native land, cementing a legacy of education, cognitive, and systemic inequalities.[15]

Environmental racism isn’t new—it has a deep-seated legacy in American history. From 1940 to 1980, the Navajo Nation was the most popular uranium mining site for nuclear weapons.[16] And today, over four hundred thousand Native Americans in the United States live within three miles of a Superfund site—an area contaminated with oil, lead, and air pollutants.[17] The U.S. government has a tendency to view Native American people and their land as dispensable. Throughout history, Native American policy has been checkered with violence, ignorance, and abandonment—the government has nearly always prioritized corporate interests over the well-being of Indigenous communities. By toxifying and de facto forcing many Indigenous Americans to leave their land, gas and waste corporations have eroded the native right to self-determination.[18] The sovereignty of Native American nations and people—their ability to manage their development and land—is under threat if they are mired by corporate-induced disease and educational deficits.

On top of the chilling effects of air pollution, Indigenous cultural practices and socioeconomic dynamics make adaptation even more difficult.[19] Governmental dysfunction and a broader “numbing” of America have muted the perceived severity of air pollution and have rendered affected marginalized communities voiceless. Normalization allows racial and cultural disparities to reverberate through the system but go unnoticed.


Policy and Legal Recommendations


The Inflation Reduction Act will be remembered as landmark legislation, covering some of the most meaningful climate change progress of this generation. But the Act fails to properly address one of our nation’s most forgotten issues: air pollution. The sole provision about air pollution addresses data monitoring in thirty-seven states.[20] While monitoring is vital for identifying over-polluted communities in America, it does nothing to depollute such communities. The Inflation Reduction Act may even increase air pollution through its investment in carbon capture technology. According to Taylor Kabuta, carbon capture technology and the huge uptick in energy consumption actually increases air pollution.[21] It’s about time that America finally pulls together grassroots and broader congressional mobilizations focused on rebooting the Clean Air Act of 1970.

There is no shortage of existing air purification policy suggestions. However, a shortage of will and ambition to pursue the following policies persists.

Power Grid Upheaval: Expansions of green technology in the Inflation Reduction Act are much less effective if our power grids cannot sustainably carry the energy generated.[22] Disappointingly, the Inflation Reduction Act fell short of fortifying America’s separate power grids to meet the demand for new energy.[23] Green, renewable energy is volatile, given the instability of the energy source—sun or wind. Thus, power grids must come first to make use of renewable resources.[24] Cross-seam transitions—the connection of America’s three separate power grids—could substantially enhance power grids and reduce the abuse of dirty air pollutants.[25] According to Fred Krupp, a smarter and stronger power grid “can cut air pollution from the electric utility sector as much as 30% by 2030.”[26]

City Planning: City planning can limit the effects and roots of air pollution. In Los Angeles, governments required “commercial high-efficiency air filtration systems in homes and buildings along freeways.”[27]  This city planning measure significantly decreased direct exposure to pollutants. Using data monitoring from the Inflation Reduction Act, cities must implement intense incentive-based policies to decrease pollution in highly concentrated areas.[28] Oakland, for example, observes pollution varying from one location to another and uses data to target specifically polluted areas.[29] More frequent building inspections can similarly increase accountability and lower pollution to relatively safe levels.

Zoning laws can be used as an endogenous instrument of regulation for air pollution.[30] Local governments can implement buffer zones, phase out toxic land use through code enforcement, and prohibit land use based on pollutive activity.[31] Zoning can also promote land use equity by decreasing the disproportionate effects of air pollution born by people of color and underserved communities.[32] The uneven spatial distribution of noxious and polluting entities can be regulated to provide equal environmental treatment on the basis of sex, race, and ethnicity. Of course, zoning has historically been used in the opposite direction—to enable environmental disparities and structurally drive underserved communities into polluted areas through tools like redlining. Re-zoning and heavy funding for these marginalized areas can revitalize communities and serve as a reparation for past environmental injustice. Re-zoning, for example, proved successful in the New York City Department of Environmental Conservation’s program and the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition.[33]

Legal Regulations: According to Meridith Howley at the Brookings Institute, “[e]vidence suggests that large industrial sources, like oil refineries, have actual emissions that can be orders of magnitude higher than limits prescribed in the air quality permit.”[34] This is primarily due to the breakdown of legal regulations under the Clean Air Act. Source-specific regulation often relies on prospective monitoring or engineering estimates of specific stationary sources. As a result, many massive polluters can get away with polluting more than is legally permitted. And by only using engineering-based emission factors, regulators have limited authority to assess emissions or enforce legal requirements. Communities near warehouses and major industrial facilities—typically marginalized communities—often complain of smelling toxic chemicals or suffering from respiratory illnesses.[35]

Local and national regulators must establish a workable and effective mechanism for holding industrial polluters accountable and for monitoring emissions. Regulatory authorities must be better funded to diagnose central hotspot polluters, especially in underrecognized areas. California has already propelled a course of action of this kind. The Community Air Protection Blueprint (CAPB) selected ten test communities that partake in three regulatory stages, identifying key spots of stationary and mobile pollution, engaging local community planning, and assessing new ways to measure air pollution.[36]

Indigenous Justice Accessibility: Native Americans are severely underrepresented in law.[37] Most Indigenous communities who are disproportionately exposed to contaminants are unaware of how to file or simply don’t have the financial resources.[38] This constricts access to environmental justice, thereby de facto short-circuiting many broader rights of Native Americans. Policy analysts should start exploring programs to empower cleanups and air purification in Indigenous communities. If Native Americans have smoother access to legal resources, they can more effectively hold corporations accountable for undue contamination.[39] Accessible justice can serve as a death sentence for hidden and abusive air pollution. Broadly, it isn’t only Indigenous groups who need more justice but rather EPA enforcement agencies that must ramp up investigations and accountability.

In civil court, Native Americans aren’t provided a right to civil counsel either. Owing to structural disparities, many Native Americans today can’t afford lawyers.[40] Furthermore, there exists a chronic shortage of Indigenous lawyers.[41]This is largely why most Indigenous lands are silently laid to waste by corporations.

The U.S. Congress has much wider authority over tribes and broader discretion to bridge the justice gap. America must implement a “Tribal Licensed Legal Technician Program,” as some scholars have suggested.[42] First, the federal government should spend more to subsidize free civil lawyers directly. Each year, America spends over $400 million to subsidize tribal justice systems, but only $1 million is distributed to tribal civil counsel.[43] According to Nick Fontana, most tribes never see “a single penny for indigent” lawyers from the government.[44] Congress must enlarge the scope of the subsidization and then expand the amount apportioned to tribal public defenders, proliferating free Indigenous public lawyers across America. What’s needed to reach the root of the justice gap is legal training. A national legal technician program can facilitate rigorous native legal training and selective licensing to fill the growing scarcity of native lawyers. This training must occur in law school programs, reservations, and apolitical institutions to avoid homogenization. By empowering professional development and then sponsoring free tribal defense for poorer Native Americans, Congress can secure the Sixth Amendment rights of Natives.

By establishing a more accessible mechanism to seek justice, Congress opens a window for greater environmental accountability. Poorer native communities can finally hold polluters responsible for triggering generational economic, health, and cognitive disparities in toxified tribal land. 

 Grassroots Mobilization: While the grassroots, bottom-up policy process is tailored to individual communities, a few general principles can still guide mobilizations. First, community organizers should expand operations to underreached citizens, noting the pressing environmental threat air pollution presents. These groups should prioritize education and maintenance first, ensuring that citizens aren’t desensitized to air pollution. Then, projects empowering citizens to engage in political processes and make a meaningful difference in their communities should take shape. On the other hand, the central aim of national mobilization should be to promote incentive-driven policies—tax credits, penalties, subsidies, and regulations. Put differently: as they grow, grassroots movements must push forward a reboot of the Clean Air Act.

Media Reporting: As a powerful public influence, the media also plays a crucial role in normalization. At the pinnacle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Times callously wrote, “900,000 Dead, but Many Americans Move On.”[45]Gregg Gonsalves, in The Nation, asserted “the urgency of normal.”[46] Former Fox host Bill O’Reilly announced that “Many people who are dying…were on their last legs anyway.”[47] Meanwhile, other news outlets simply stopped reporting about COVID deaths.[48] Together, these media pieces and the lack thereof encouraged Americans to normalize mass death and suffering. They numbed Americans to the devastating pandemic and gave us the go-ahead to move on. Making matters worse, explicit normalization and the “fading out” of issues is extremely common in the media.[49] Too often are issues given less and less news coverage after Congress fails to solve them. It’s no surprise that after being abandoned by the news, issues like air pollution are forgotten by Americans.

News institutions must search for creative and engaging ways to present these same problems. This way, important issues are still remembered, and solutions retain strong advocates. News outlets shoulder a massive responsibility: to present serious issues to the public, maintain awareness, and facilitate political progress. If they continue to prioritize views and clicks, these companies will be complicit in a broader normalization of air pollution.

Steven Ramodt and Susana Ramirez find that “new media reporting” in regard to air pollution “is not conducive to raising environmental health literacy.”[50] Newspapers regularly fail to accurately represent the health risks of air pollution. On the rare occasion when they do report air pollution, the media does not promote political solutions to air pollution.[51]This trend buys into the recent “doom and gloom” pattern of news, offering few solutions to serious issues. The relative absence of stories covering air pollution ultimately decreases the issue’s public, and thereby political, significance.

Local news stations can follow a few general guidelines when reporting about air pollution. First, newspapers must ramp up the volume of air pollution stories. Second, journalists should find creative ways to effectively engage readers when representing air pollution. Third, newspapers should inform readers of harmful, individual effects of air pollution. To that end, newspapers must also outline specific precautionary measures on the individual level. Fourth, the media must adopt a posture of “solutions journalism”—journalism researching and reporting the efficacy of current solutions.[52] Solution-oriented air pollution stories encourage communities to mobilize for regional change and invest in campaigns for cleaning up the air. Fifth, as most media outlets have sections dedicated to “climate change,” they should also adopt subsections dedicated to air pollution—the fifth leading cause of death in the world.[53]

By educating citizens about their legal rights, news outlets can mobilize zoning or regulatory changes in communities. Many illegal air polluting practices persist because they go legally unchallenged. When marginalized and underserved communities hold predatory polluting entities accountable, they can finally vindicate the justice they have long deserved.

The Healthy Air Campaign in the United Kingdom serves as a valuable case study.[54] The coalition targeted five key cities, mobilizing social media campaigns and sponsored newspaper articles. The Healthy Air Campaign used “highly targeted creative content that was tailored to their audience.”[55] This content engaged readers and viewers from across the political aisle, distinguishing itself from the traditional desensitized reporting of air pollution. By framing air pollution as a health issue and outlining clear solutions, this media and news campaign proved greatly successful. Ultimately, national and local news play an essential role in propping up political and legal issues. The news has the ability to either facilitate an understanding of air pollution’s environmental risks or a broader forgetting of air pollution. Media attention can mobilize true change or desensitization. For example, meaningful change in tobacco policy began with organizational and media dissemination that altered public perceptions. Air pollution solutions can also benefit from more frequent, comprehensive, diverse, and creative media attention.


Final Thoughts

Air pollution epitomizes Giroux’s narrative of forgetting: “accommodation, quietism, and passivity” have come to govern our air.[56] It has been over fifty years since the Clean Air Act was passed, and few have made a real effort to purify America’s toxic air. Indigenous and marginalized communities are the most exposed to air pollution’s menace—and like pollution, these groups are disposed of and deserted by every level of government.

We cannot discount the future nor remain idle in the present. The longer Americans wait, the worse air quality becomes. Normalization is the cheapest adaptation to air pollution, surrendering us to the violence brought by silence. Done well, air pollution adaptation is indeed a tall order. Solutions are expensive but not beyond the realm of possibility. Americans must be willing to focus their attention and efforts to arrest pollution once and for all.


[1] See Henry A. Giroux, The Violence of Organized Forgetting, Truthout (July 22, 2013).

[2] See Brad Evans & Henry A. Giroux, The Violence of Forgetting, N.Y. Times (June 20, 2016).

[3] See Simon Mui & Amanda Levin, Clearing the Air: The Benefits of the Clean Air Act, NRDC (May 5, 2020).

[4] See David Wallace-Wells, Opinion, Air Pollution Kills 10 Million People a Year. Why Do We Accept That as Normal?, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2022).

[5] See Adams Barnes, ​​Death Risk Soars with Exposure to Extreme Heat and Air Pollution the Same Day, The Hill (June 29, 2022).

[6] Id.

[7] Wallace-Wells, supra note 4.

[8] See Claire Parker, Air Pollution Worse for Global Lifespan than Cigarettes or Alcohol, Wash. Post (June 15, 2022).

[9] See Alexandra C. Alhadeff, Numb to the World: Degradation Desensitization and Environmentally Responsible Behavior, Yale Tropical Resource Institute (2015).

[10] Id.

[11] See Daniel Gilbert, Humans Wired to Respond to Short-Term Problems, NPR (July 3, 2006).

[12] See Rebecca Solnit, There’s Another Pandemic Under Our Noses, and it Kills 8.7m People a Year, The Guardian (Apr. 2, 2021).

[13] See Tribal Air and Climate Resources, EPA (2002).

[14] See Elizabeth Bechard, Indigenous Communities Left Out of Clean Air Wins, Clean Air Force (Apr. 5, 2022).

[15] See Ashwin Telang, Ford Motor Co. Dumped Paint Sludge into Tribal Groundwater and Soil, N.J. Star Ledger. (Jan. 10, 2023).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] EPA, supra note 12.

[20] See Geoffrey Nolan, Inflation Reduction Act Air Quality Monitoring Funds Dispersals a Welcome First Step to Achieving Clean Air for Environmental Justice Communities, Earth Justice (Nov. 3, 2022).

[21] See Taylor Kubuto, Study Casts Doubt on Carbon Capture, Stanford News (Oct. 25, 2019).  


[22] See Risk to Resilience: Cyber and Climate Solutions to Bolster America’s Power Grid. The Hill (Dec.12, 2022).

[23] See Biden’s Inflation Act to Destabilize Electric Grid, American Energy Alliance (Sept. 16, 2022).  

[24] See EVs Plus Clean Energy Grids Key to Reducing Climate Change and Air Pollution, Stan. Earth Matters Mag. (July 7, 2020).

[25] See Gregory Brinkman et. al., Interconnections Seam Study, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Oct. 2020), at 1. 

[26] See Fred Krupp, Health and the Smart Grid Env’t Def. Fund (July 20, 2011).

[27] See What Policies Can Governments Implement to Lower Pollution Levels, Camfil Air Filters (Oct. 26, 2018).

[28] Nolan, supra note 19.

[29] See Julian Glover, West Oakland Air Pollution Disproportionately affects Black, Latino Residents, Report Finds, ABC 7 News (Sept. 29, 2021).

[30] See Oded Hochman & Gordon Rausser, Zoning as a control of pollution in a spatial environment (Univ. Cal. Berkeley Working Paper, Paper No.875, 1999).

[31] See Millman Land, How Zoning Laws Can Help Reduce Pollution, Millman National Land Services (Jan. 25, 2021).

[32] See Julia Maantay, Zoning Law, Health, and Environmental Justice. What’s the Connection, 30 LEHMAN Univ. J. L. Med. & Ethics 573, 573 (2002).

[33] Id.

[34] See Meredith Fowlie, Climate Policy, Environmental Justice, and Local Air Pollution, Brookings Econ. Stud. (2020).

[35] Community Air Protection Blueprint, Ca. Air Res. Bd.

[36] Id.

[37] See Mary Smith, Native American Attorneys Systematically Excluded in the Legal Profession. 40 Hum. Rts. 14, 14 (2015).

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] See Barbara L. Creel, The Right to Counsel for Indians Accused of Crime: A Tribal and Congressional Imperative, 18 MICH. J. RACE & L. 317 (2013).

[41] See Smith, supra note 36.

[42] See Samuel Macomber, Disparate Defense in Tribal Courts: The Unequal Right to Counsel as a Barrier to Expansion of Tribal Court Criminal Jurisdiction, 106 Cornell L. Rev. 275 (2020).

[43] See Gary Fields, Native Americans on Trial Often Go Without Counsel, Wall St. J. (Feb. 1, 2007).

[44] Id.

[45] See Steven W. Thrasher, There Is Nothing Normal about One Million People Dead from Covid. Sci. Am. (2022).

[46] See Gregg Gonsalves, Why Wishful Thinking on Covid Remains as Dangerous as Ever, The Nation (Feb. 3, 2022).

[47] See Aris Folley, Bill O’Reilly: Many of Those Dying from Coronavirus ‘Were on Their Last Legs Anyway, The Hill (Apr. 9, 2020).

[48] Id.

[49] Thrasher, supra note 44.

[50] See Steven Ramondt & A. Susana Ramírez, Media Reporting on Air Pollution: Health Risk and Precautionary Measures in National and Regional Newspapers, 17 Int’l J. Env’t Res Pub. Health, 6516, 6516 (Sept. 7, 2020).

[51] See Andrea Wenzel, Engaging Communities through Solutions Journalism, Columbia Journalism Rev. (Apr. 26, 2016).

[52] Id.

[53] See generally Climate Section, N.Y. Times.

[54] See Healthy Air Campaign, Let Britain Breathe, Integrated Campaign (2021).

[55] Id.

[56] Giroux, supra note 1.