In the 1960s, an American scientist named Clair Patterson warned that humans were contaminating the Earth’s air and oceans with lead. The heavy metal was everywhere. It was so omnipresent by then that people’s bodies were found to contain 100 times more than those of their ancestors.
Many in the scientific community ridiculed Patterson's findings. But he persisted. With a team of dedicated researchers he dug out ice from deep inside the Antarctic, and collected samples of air, groundwater, and soil in various remote areas to test it for lead.
Ultimately, they succeeded in proving that industrialisation had increased lead contamination to what were once unimaginable levels. And much of that happened because of lead-tainted gasoline.
It took thirty years for countries to come to terms with the harmful effects. And now lead is hardly ever mixed with gasoline.
Patterson's story was recently told by Lucas Reilly, in an article for the news website Mental Floss, days before US President Donald Trump pulled out of a global pact to fight climate change.
The Paris Climate Agreement was the result of years of efforts on part of scientists who were concerned about the effect of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide on the environment.
Signed by more than 190 countries, its long-term goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
There’s a nearly universal consensus in the scientific community that a rise in temperature can badly impact food production, coastal communities and life itself, as we know it.
However, Trump has long held a differing opinion, which has been shaped by his right-wing advisers who say too many regulations have hurt economic growth.
"The United States will cease all the implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country," he said on Friday, announcing the decision to withdraw from the deal.
Trump wants to renegotiate the agreement on new terms, which he argues will protect jobs in the US coal mining industry.
However, many other world leaders have expressed commitment to stand by the accord and refused the idea of renegotiating.
"We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible and we firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated," said a statement issued by leaders of France, Germany and Italy shortly after Trump's speech.
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his disappointment in a different way.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) June 1, 2017
China, the world’s biggest polluter, and Russia have also expressed commitment to fight climate change.
The US is the world's second largest polluter. On a per capita basis, it still remains on top when it comes to CO2 emissions.
Washington's commitment to the accord was seen as imperative for the successful implementation of pollution-curbing rules and regulations across the board.
Many fear that its departure will encourage others to follow suit.
Can it save jobs?
Trump's decision is fiercely backed by those who don’t believe CO2, released from burning oil and coal, is damaging the environment fast enough to warrant immediate action.
Scott Pruitt, the newly appointed administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is one of them. He recently stirred controversy by suggesting CO2 wasn’t the primary cause of climate change.
Pruitt along with Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, were able to outmanoeuvre the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and others who were pushing to keep the US in the Paris agreement.
Even before his announcement on the Paris deal, Trump has taken steps which have rubbed environmentalists the wrong way.
He ordered the construction of a controversial oil pipeline, slashed the budget of the EPA, and scrapped a move to improve the fuel efficiency of cars.
Trump also plans to kill the Clean Power Plan, introduced by former president Barrack Obama, to check CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants.
To be fair, Trump has not done anything that wasn’t expected. Throughout his election campaign, he had promised to do away with the stifling regulations on industries such as coal mining.
That's a key reason why he commanded strong support at the polls in the coal states of Kentucky and West Virginia.
In face of stiff resistance from environmental activists, some coal industry executives have stood behind Trump's decision.
"We need 30 percent coal-fired electricity in America to have a reliable electric power grid and to have low-cost electricity," Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of a coal company, said in March.
Coal accounts for about 30 percent of the electricity generated in the US. But over the years, coal production has declined. In 2016, the country produced around the same level as in 1977.
What makes Trump’s decision even more controversial is the involvement of petroleum companies in the lobbying effort.
The 22 Republicans who most vociferously pushed him to walk out have collectively received more than ten million dollars from oil and coal companies since 2012, The Guardian reported.
Trump now faces the challenge to actually create jobs in the mining industry, which experts believe has suffered more due to economic forces than regulations.
In reality, the abundant supply of natural gas – the result of the fracking revolution – has been the major blow to coal mining.
It’s unlikely the US’s withdrawal from the Paris deal will boost demand for fossil fuels including coal.
The fall in prices of solar panels and windmills mean the reliance on coal will decline going forward.
Some coal companies like Cloud Peak Energy and Peabody Energy have even argued for remaining in the Paris agreement.
That’s because they want the US to lead efforts for clean-coal technologies, which could now take a back seat. The companies have already invested in clean-coal technologies.
Trump has taken a similar unconventional approach towards reviving the manufacturing sector. He threatened American companies with penalties if they moved factories to other countries with cheaper labour.
Industrial states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania voted for him as he promised to bring back jobs, but experts believe many of the jobs have in fact been lost because of technological advancement where robots replace humans.
Some of the largest US companies had warned Trump against walking away from the Paris agreement.
Leading firms had already factored in the agreement in their business plans, setting aside funds for efforts to curb carbon emissions and adopting policies in line with the climate regulations.
Now blowback could come in the shape of trade barriers as US products are deemed unfairly priced because of lax environmental regulations.
Some US firms that are well positioned to capture the renewable energy market fear they would lose business.
The process to take the US out of the Paris agreement, which came into force in 2016, can drag on to November 2020 when the next presidential election is due.
It remains to be seen if Trump will surprise everyone with yet another move to speed up the withdrawal.