In his Encyclical letter, Laudato Si‘, the Holy Father directly tackles the issue of climate change. In his argument, Francis emphasises the pressing threat under which Mother Earth is choking; the incapability to respect the world surrounding us and the Common Good. A Leviathan monster which we ourselves have created and which we are incapable of containing, which is not only feeding on our freedom and liberty but rather on our very health and existence.

Pope Francis addresses a tremendous number of issues in his script. Among others, climate change, water scarcity and globalization. Yet, the one I would like to draw attention to is the increasing hazard of air pollution.

Over the last few decades, our world has witnessed a sharp increase in the concentration of Nitrogen Dioxin (NO2) in the atmosphere. This has led to the widely known Greenhouse effect, which continues to-date to pose a threat to modern civilization, by threatening the melting-down of the two ice caps and the extinction of a wide range of global flora and fauna, central to the functioning of the world’s biosystem. Some analysts have labelled this issue as a medium to long-term threat, even though the results of this unbalanced natural system are already visible. However, what directly affects our lives in the very short-term is the air we breathe which surrounds us. We cannot escape inhaling oxygen in our lungs, regardless of whether that air is toxic or not. Pollution augments chronical respiratory syndromes (e.g. asthma) and it is the root cause of acid rain phenomena and contaminated food and water.

“Taranto without Ilva” citizens protest against the huge steel factory photo credit: Fliker

“Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths”. This is how the Holy Father introduces the issue in his Encyclical letter. This is not an issue that will only affect us as present generations, but a Sword of Damocles which will keep hanging above our children’s and grandchildren’s heads for decades, if not centuries, to come. Although the EU has set up a strict plan of air quality rules, not even the European “engine”, Germany, has been able to comply with those standards.

However, it is in Italy that we may find one of the worst empirical examples of the threats which air pollution can pose to our communities.

In Taranto, economic growth has been encouraged at the expense of citizens’ health.

In this city in Southern Italy, that counts more than 215 industrial chimneys in all, the manufacturing complex of ILVA remains the central economic kernel of the region. Besides producing and giving jobs, it also disseminates 11,000 tonnes of NO2 per year, affecting primarily the local community. According to data, the percentage of lung cancer deaths in the city has risen over 30 per cent, as has respiratory illnesses (50% higher). The Italian government has for decades played for time, trying to find a balance between the right to a healthy life and the economic necessities of one of the poorest areas of the country.

Taranto citizens protest: “they are killing us”, 2016. photo credit: Ansa

To conclude this reflection, I would like to leave an image, which has recently won an honorary mention in the context “lights in the night”, organized by the Italian Nixon Club. It portrays a skull, coming out from the industrial chimneys of the ILVA. The terrifying cranium remains in the air, observing the city and reminding us that the air we spoil is the same air we breathe. Let’s just for a moment imagine that we all are that city. Climate change and air pollution will continue to affect us, even if we continue to turn a blind eye on it. I wonder, will the time to seriously address the issue, ever come?

by Francesco Pisanò

ELP fellow

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