I’m a new dad. Okay, new-ish. My son is sixteen months old, but he’s changing so quickly and learning so much that the experience of fatherhood is exhilarating. And, frankly, a little bit crazy between chasing after him, taking him to the park, reading colorful books, and all of the diaper changes and meals and dishes. It’s hard at times to see past the day-to-day. When he quiets, though, maybe snuggled up with a bottle or breathing sweetly as he sleeps, I find myself taking the long view. What kind of world will he live in? Will he be safe? Will he be healthy? As associate director for Regional Asthma Management and Prevention (RAMP), one of the issues I work on is climate change, and with climate change there’s cause for both hope and worry.
Climate change is one of the most profound public health issues of our generation – and the next. The warming of our planet will have major implications not just for the issue that I work on, asthma, but it presents a host of other challenges and potential catastrophes like temperature spikes, drought, flooding, agricultural crises, and all of the associated human suffering.
Why, as an asthma advocate, am I concerned about climate change? The connection isn’t hard to make. Rising temperatures will lead to increased levels of ozone and particulate pollution, both of which are implicated in asthma. Climate change brings increased pollen counts, too, which can trigger asthma. Here in California one in eight people has been diagnosed with asthma. With climate change, those numbers will likely get worse.
We also know that the effects of climate change will hurt everyone, yes, but will hurt some much more than others, like low-income communities, the elderly, communities of color, and the very young. Climate change threatens our efforts to improve social equity, because it most affects those of us who already grapple with poverty, or live in polluted communities, or lack access to health care.
I’m proud of the work RAMP has done to date on climate change. We supported the passage and implementation of California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, and have fought efforts like Proposition 23 to roll it back. Currently, we’re deep into work to build the capacity of the public health field across California to address climate change. In the Bay Area, for the past three years we have strongly advocated for public health and social equity protections in the development of a regional transportation and land use plan. This Sustainable Communities Strategy has the potential to reduce the number of car vehicle miles traveled by residents of the Bay Area, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. Done right, we can also make sure that future development investments don’t add pollution to overburdened communities, or push low-income communities and communities of color out of their homes. Of course, all of this is only a start as there’s so much more we need to do.
I also know that tackling climate change can offer what we in public health call co-benefits. The communities that will grow out of the Sustainable Communities Strategy here in the Bay Area will have better bus and train systems. They will be more walkable and bikeable, and people won’t have such long commutes because they’ll live nearer to work and schools and shops. Because advocates like RAMP and others have pushed for it, the plan also makes sure that there will be more affordable housing so more people have clean, healthy and safe places to live. And if we tackle climate change right, we can even start to clean up the air and reduce asthma in some of the neighborhoods that currently deal with the worst pollution.
I want my son to grow up in a world where we’ve worked hard and managed to slow down climate change, a world where we’ve created healthier communities along the way, and a world in which those of us most vulnerable and in need came first. I want to be able to look him in the eye and say that when it came to climate change, we were up to the challenge.
Joel Ervice is associate director for PHI’s Regional Asthma Management and Prevention. He will be spending this Father’s Day with his new(ish) son, Jasper.