The Other Crisis at the U.S.-Mexico Border: Rising Air Pollution
For years now, there’s been a constant stream of stories about a “crisis” at the border between the U.S. and Mexico as migrants travel north from Central America. Just this week, a quick Google news search shows recent headlines about a “tipping point” and a “humanitarian crisis” at the border. But on a recent trip to San Diego, I learned about another crisis at the southern border that’s threatening lives in local communities and, less directly, around the world: hours-long waits to enter the U.S.
Although the long border wait may seem like an inconvenience, the fact that it takes vehicles to get into the country can mean thousands of idle cars and trucks. Having these vehicles sit on the road for hours on end isn’t just a giant waste of time, it also generates considerable air pollution. It also contributes to climate change and harms people living in the border areas. “It’s billions and billions of dollars that we’re losing in economic productivity due to the wait times in addition to the emissions that are being generated,” Mario Orso, a project coordinator at Caltrans, the state transit authority, told me as we drove to the border in early February.
Both the solution—reducing wait times at the border—and the knock-on effects—improving the health of tens of thousands of local residents—are classic examples of how climate policy has seeped into everything.
Solutions and problems
The classic tale of unintended outcomes is the polluting at the border. The federal government increased inspections of the border after the attacks on September 11. Wait times rose to several hours from just 30 minutes. The average wait time at San Diego-Tijuana border crossing is now over two hours.
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Casa Familiar began investigating how air pollution was being effected by locals who had crossed the border via foot in 2009. One group of border-crossers was equipped with individual air pollution monitors. Researchers also set up monitoring equipment at the port. This is the ResultsThey were quite alarming, even if they weren’t entirely unexpected. The levels of particulate matter (a pollutant that consists of small particles of dirt, dust and smoke) were 10 times greater than those in San Diego County, which is less than 10 miles away. Later Do some researchCasa Familiar and the University of Washington conducted a study that found an association between air pollution levels and long queues. “The higher the wait times, the higher the pollution,” says Alejandro Amador, environmental programs manager at Casa Familiar.
San Ysidro is the San Diego district directly bordering the border. This area, which is 85% Hispanic but has more than 50% of its residents without a high school diploma, has seen all of these effects. The state has the highest rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease.
Of course, it’s much more difficult to see the global damage, but keeping tens of thousands of vehicles idling also has implications for the climate. According to Klimawandel, 457 tonnes of carbon dioxide are released each day by delays at the border. This is equivalent to 100 passenger cars’ annual emissions. Data from San Diego’s regional transportation planning agency.
It is often hard to find and implement climate solutions. But here the fix—or really the fixes—are easy to pinpoint: the wait time at the border needs to fall. To do this, officials in the area are looking at a number of possible levers. These include expanded pedestrian and bike access as well improved lane management. One such lever I saw was a completely new point of entry that is currently under construction to alleviate congestion. Orso, project coordinator drove his Caltrans truck up to the border fence and zipped me through the 100-acre construction site. For years, I’ve been writing about how climate change seeps into every aspect of our lives. The impacts are not only devastating, but also devastating. There is a connection between climate change, migration. has been covered in depth—including in this newsletter—I was still surprised to find a climate story in what seemed like the most unexpected place.