Habitable Air

Breathing Clean: Reflections on the Annual Maurice S. Segal Lecture and the Fight Against Air Pollution

The annual Dr. Maurice S. Segal Lecture, presented by The Fletcher School in partnership with Tufts University School of Medicine, featured Jane Burston, the Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund. The lecture series honours Dr. Morris Seibel, a prominent researcher in lung disease. Burston’s lecture highlighted the intersection of health and climate crises, emphasising clean air as a fundamental concept around which people can organise.

Burston shared the tragic story of a young girl named Ella, who died of a severe asthma attack caused by air pollution. She also revealed that globally, 7 million premature deaths are attributed to air pollution, with 4.2 million caused by outdoor air pollution. Vulnerable groups, such as children and low-income families, are the most affected. If no action is taken, deaths are projected to double by 2050.

The lecture also discussed the potential to save lives, improve quality of life, and tackle climate change simultaneously through renewable energy, clean heating, transforming industry, promoting public transport, and using electric vehicles. Several speakers joined in the conversation and highlighted the economic benefits of reducing air pollution, such as improved productivity and fewer sick days as well as the potential long-term cognitive benefits for children.

While people are more motivated by concerns for their health and the health of their children than global statistics on climate change, there is still opposition to behaviour change. Some of those who spoke discussed the importance of air quality monitors in building a constituency for action on clean air and the role of citizen advocacy in pushing governments to be transparent about pollution data. In our own project (Habitable Air), we are striving to install air monitors at several of our research sites, including South Africa, Germany, and the United States. The speakers also addressed the challenge of balancing the need to scare people into action with the risk of paralysing them with fear.

Making data as local as possible can be effective in motivating action and new findings about the health impacts of air pollution, including links to dementia and Parkinson’s disease were also highlighted. The lecture discussed air pollution’s causes, including burning fossil fuels and subsidies for oil and gas companies, as well as the challenges of reducing pollution in countries facing conflicts and disparities in international funding for air quality.

Lastly, the lecture underscored the critical need for clean air and the impact of air pollution on health and climate change. The importance of involving businesses, governments, and citizens in the fight for clean air was emphasised. At Habitable Air, we share in the vision that with continued efforts and collaboration, cleaner air for all is achievable.

You can watch the full video on the annual lecture below or on YouTube.