London Killer Fog: 60 Years Ago Today, Thousands Died
|N T Stobbs|
|This isn't a grainy photo of Nelson's Column. It's killer smog.|
In San Francisco, it's the thought that counts.
And while the notion of our mid-sized city attempting to counter the global problem of climate change seems a bit triumphalist and ridiculous, on this of all days local environmental measures should be taken seriously.
Sixty years ago today, a belt of cold air settled over London, keeping the ever-present smoke belched out by both residential and factory chimneys from escaping into the upper atmosphere. The cold weather induced Londoners to toss even more coal on their fires, resulting in haze so severe that sporting matches and even theater performances were canceled due to poor visibility. By the time the fog lifted several days later, perhaps as many as 12,000 people were dead.
Had a meteor smacked into a city and wiped out 12,000 souls, that day would be marked. (Thankfully, this has not occurred -- but those wishing to celebrate the anniversary of the Tunguska Event can do so every June 30.)
As the death toll -- which, depending on what gauge you believe, ranged between 4,000 and 12,000 -- became apparent, policies were changed. On the 50th anniversary of the disaster, London Mayor Ken Livingstone wrote the following:
In response to the 1952 smog, the Government passed legislation to phase out coal fires, which meant initially many people transferred to paraffin heaters, until central heating became more widespread.
There was a good deal of discontent and people were resistant to change. I have to say that I was quite pleased because it was my job to go out and clean the fire out in the morning raking out all the bits of unburned coal to save them for the next fire.
Looking back 50 years I can't imagine there are many people now who don't recognise that this was the right policy.
The slings and arrows of CleanPowerSF deserve scrutiny. But it warrants consideration that the notion of local environmentalism need not be superficial or smug -- no matter how aptly those terms describe San Francisco's efforts.