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Here Be Dragons

The London Smog Was a Thick Cloud of Bullshit

We've spent the last week lost in a giant toxic cloud of misinformation.

Photo by Daisy Ayliffe

Last week, a dense cloud of smog began swallowing up towns in southern England. In scenes not unlike those witnessed in the 1950s sci-fi classic The Blob, this cloud of smog came from the Sahara and then swept across Europe gathering soot and stench, before embracing southern England in a big dirty bearhug.

Suddenly, everyone was gripped by panic. People were wearing face masks in the street. The newly launched London Live was encouraging viewers to "tweet us pictures of the weather outside your window". Even the Prime Minister was cancelling his morning jog because of this so-called "Sahara Rain". “I didn't go for my morning run. I chose to do some work instead,” he told reporters, to the dismay of millions. However, it’s thanks to Cameron’s tireless work that we can be pretty confident about what did and didn’t cause last week's great stink-bombing of London and East Anglia.


We know, for example, that it definitely wasn't all our own fault. It had nothing to do with Britain’s own failure to reduce air pollution, which led to the European Commission launching legal action against the UK in February. Also seemingly irrelevant is the judgement of the UK’s own Supreme Court, which has noted that we're pumping out far more nitrogen dioxide than we're meant to and that safe limits of air pollution have regularly been exceeded in areas including London and the Southeast.

Apparently, the great smog was not our fault at all. The very high air pollution levels were outside human and Tory control, the result of "naturally occurring weather phenomenon” – a freak Saharan dust storm. As usual, the dubious government line was swallowed uncritically by helpful newspapers who enjoy nothing more than a "freak weather" story – or tales of "red death", as the never-knowingly hyperbolic hacks at the Express dubbed it. Not that their readers were so easily convinced: “Toxic smog… where is the toxic smog… I sense another new tax grab being planned here,” cried one of their more paranoid readers.

The problem with this story is that London regularly experiences very high pollution levels, and they rarely have much to do with Saharan dust. – a data resource run by King’s College London – records episodes over the last decade or so, and a quick scan shows that in the last year alone, smog-lunged Londoners experienced several incidents that were just as serious as this latest episode. Environmental activists took air quality samples on 30 streets in the East End last October, and laboratory analysis found that around half exceeded European safety limits, with some areas recording pollution levels more than 50 percent over the limit.


In France, the government recently acted to deal with air pollution by placing strict restrictions on car travel in Paris. Their policy was based on the radical idea that the lives of city residents are more important than people eschewing public transport to drive their favourite toys to the office every morning. Previously unsafe air pollution levels dropped immediately – problem, albeit only partially, solved.

While the French were swift and decisive, our own government’s response has been a weird, ineffective combination of denial, misdirection and really bad advice. We saw Cameron waffling about Saharan dust and sacrificing his morning jog, presumably to show how we’re "all in this together". The thing is, I don’t want to be in a giant toxic cloud, and if anything sharing the experience with a bunch of Tory ministers only makes it worse.

Especially when their advice is so ropey. Britain's suffering residents were told to stay indoors, which seems unlikely to do much, given that all of the air in your house comes from outside in the first place, rather than magically appearing out of your floorboards or something. The suggestion that cyclists should refrain from travelling to work during rush hour was particularly galling, given that it was car drivers who contributed to the air pollution problem in the first place – god forbid, though, that the UK’s petulant and child-like car-driving community should face any sort of inconvenience as a result of their own inconsiderate behaviour.

But the government have an even better trick up their sleeves – if air pollution levels are getting too scary, then we can just close down hundreds of the monitoring stations that Defra are using to measure them. After all, doing so would "save costs". Never mind the fact that Defra’s own analysis estimates that the current pollution levels have slashed more than 18 million years off the lives of UK residents, and lumbered us with an economic cost of around £16 billion.

Ignorance is bliss, and the public can’t worry about the harsh reality of a situation if they don’t know much about it. Thanks in part to the efforts of a shortsighted government and an unquestioning media, in the case of the London smog, the public's judgement has been unhelpfully clouded.


Previously – Let's Sack All Climate Scientists