By Jennifer Miller, PhD
Since 2009, when the last attempt to enact comprehensive federal climate change legislation succumbed to a high-profile political failure, expensive and deadly natural disasters have refocused national attention on our changing climate. In his inaugural acceptance speech and his State of the Union address, President Obama devoted considerable attention to the issue. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently identified climate change as a “significant financial risk for the federal government.” House Democrats have established the Safe Climate Caucus. And on last Thursday, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Climate Protection Act of 2013, a bill that would take a major step by imposing a fee on the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Sustained and serious federal policy-making to addressing climate change is good news for health; and those interested in health must help shape and push for climate policy.
U.S. legislation to address climate change is long overdue. With a polarized Congress, some are calling the proposed Climate Protection Act dead on arrival. But others, perhaps bolstered by the 40,000-strong “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington over President’s Day weekend and by a 2012 survey that shows 77% of U.S. citizens favor action on climate change, see this as part of growing public and political momentum on the issue.
Public health is at the front lines in preparing for and responding to the effects of climate change in our everyday lives. The health impacts of climate change, direct and indirect, areevident, and will increase in frequency and severity as climate change proceeds. From heat waves to extreme weather events, from increases in vector-borne diseases to droughts and the resulting impact on food supply, climate change poses a range of ongoing threats to health.
Health matters, as well, in the solutions we seek: Some strategies to address climate change offer significant health co-benefits for everyone. Decreasing auto dependence will reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it also supports walking and transit, thereby promoting greater physical activity, and improved transportation access and mobility for children, the elderly and others who may not drive. Urban green spaces such as parks reduce heat events while offering communities places to gather and giving children places to play. Strengthening community resilience with climate-ready infrastructure, emergency preparedness, and engaged, active neighborhoods readies communities to better withstand those climate events that do occur, and also improves their abilities to meet other challenges that impact community health and well-being.
From a health perspective, after decades of inaction, U.S. legislation that makes substantial progress toward curbing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions promises to be a major step forward. The Boxer-Sanders bill, if passed, could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 2005 levels by 2025, helping to put the U.S. on track to meet a target of 80% below 2005 levels by 2050. Just as importantly, such U.S. action could help to unlock international climate change agreements, and thus motivate action by other countries including those that are significant current and emerging producers of greenhouse gases.
Climate and environmental groups rightly see this as a strong bill, for a number of reasons; and it does include important elements that address social determinants of health, such as job retraining to help displaced workers shift to the green energy sector, thereby protecting the economic well-being that supports health for workers and their families.
But the bill offers many opportunities to address health more directly. While it supports electric vehicles, it does nothing to shift to more transit and active transportation. Support for climate resilience focuses on infrastructure – vitally important – but ignores the readiness of those public agencies, such as local health departments, that are the first lines of defense against the health impacts of climate change. The funds raised by the bill would be used to weatherize homes to reduce energy usage–a laudable plan, but one that must be combined with steps to ensure indoor air quality if it is not to increase asthma and other respiratory issues. And the blanket rebate program – rebates from the carbon tax to all U.S. residents — could be tailored to incentivize actions that further mitigate climate change and improve health.
The health and public health sectors have a key role to play to push for effective, substantive action on climate, as does everyone with an interest in his or her own health and that of his or her family. We must participate in defining climate action, bringing a health lens to the details that can make the difference between the strongest co-benefits for our health, versus health as an afterthought. Moreover, we have a crucial role to play in building the momentum for action. Health advocates can help policy makers and the public understand the urgency of addressing climate change: climate is not just a vital environmental issue, not just an increasing financial risk, but a major health issue with stakes for everyone. Legislation and other government action that work to address climate change are vitally important health policy.
Given current realities in Congress, digging into the health details of the Boxer-Sanders climate change bill might seem moot; but the momentum it represents is not. What this bill together with other recent actions make clear is that climate change, an issue with major cross-cutting health implications, is on the political table. For any action to address the health implications of climate change effectively, those who care about health must step up to that table, and the administration, Congress and climate stakeholders must bring health considerations into the process from the outset.