I thought it got easier to breathe back there in August!

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As attentive readers may recall, the air in Beijing through the six months before the Olympic games was almost unbelievably horrible. Lest we forget: this was the view out my window in mid-June, which was not that different from how it had been day upon day through the spring and early summer.

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But even as I was wheezing my way around town and truly getting depressed by no view of sun and sky (and being told by a doctor that I should stop smoking, when I'd never started), I was reporting in the Atlantic on plans to get things cleaned up by the time of the Olympics. The first two days of the Games looked pretty bleak -- but then a line of thunderstorms moved through, and the air looked far better, and the environmental threat to the Games was averted.

Since then, the air in Beijing has seemed better -- not all of the time, God knows, but more than before. How much of the improvement is due to factories being shut down because of the recession? (They must have been running 40 hours a day in the spring, given how bad things were then.) How much because of typically strong late-fall winds blowing in from the northwest? How much an actual long-term change? I don't know.

But, courtesy of a tip from an engineer at NASA, here is new evidence that all the anti-pollution steps taken because of the Olympics really did make a difference in air-quality measures in August -- and, it seems, some of the time since then.

The NASA map below will make more sense if you read the full report, here. Highlight version: the deep red west of Shanghai and north of Hong Kong (where Shenzhen and Dongguan are), plus through the central coal-and-factory belt in places like Shanxi province, is a bad sign. The light green around Beijing is relatively good! (The red zone on the coast just east of Beijing is the city of Tianjin.)

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As the NASA report says of Beijing's special Olympic anti-pollution rules:
During the two months when restrictions were in place, the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) -- a noxious gas resulting from fossil fuel combustion (primarily in cars, trucks, and power plants) -- plunged nearly 50 percent. Likewise, levels of carbon monoxide (CO) fell about 20 percent.
Why does this matter? Because it shows that corrective steps can improve even the most hopeless-seeming environmental disasters. It's worth trying to do something, rather than just hunkering down in bed and trying to take very, very shallow breaths -- my strategy in the months from April to July.

In other words, Yes We Can.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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