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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

London Killer Fog: 60 Years Ago Today, Thousands Died

Posted By on Wed, Dec 5, 2012 at 1:40 PM

click to enlarge This isn't a grainy photo of Nelson's Column. It's killer smog. - N T STOBBS
  • N T Stobbs
  • This isn't a grainy photo of Nelson's Column. It's killer smog.

The latest news that participants in CleanPowerSF will be paying more than initially tabulated is, sadly, not at all surprising. The ongoing saga of this long-germinating green energy program seems to epitomize the ethos of San Francisco: Take on serious problems like global warming and an undesirable, monopolistic company like PG&E by coming up with a costly and ill-run solution that may not improve the situation for anyone but those enriched by the project itself.

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.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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