Carbon Reduction and Health Protections

Kim Knowlton, Senior Scientist, New York

This is a historic week for the health of the American people, and our future generations.

The Obama administration announced its Clean Power Plan proposal for working with states to set national limits on heat-trapping carbon pollution from the nation’s existing power plants. It’s the main cause of the rapid climate change we’ve seen in recent decades. And as a nation, by putting the brakes on this carbon pollution we stand to gain a great deal for better health and more climate-secure communities.

I listened on a conference call among public health leaders with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and President Barack Obama speaking about the health milestone these proposed standards represent.  An Ohio mom joined the President’s call and described efforts to help her son Parker, a 10-year-old with severe asthma, stay healthy. She applauded the Obama Administration for doing their part to limit the pollution that worsens Parker’s struggles.

The President offered his own perspectives:

“… Since air pollution from power plants actually worsens asthma and other breathing problems, putting these guidelines in place will help protect the health of vulnerable Americans, including children and the elderly.

And I just want to give one example; I got a letter from Dian Coleman, who is a mother of four.  Her three kids have asthma.  Her daughter has a congenital health defect.  She keeps her home free of dust that can trigger asthma attacks.  Cigarettes aren’t allowed across the threshold of her home.  But despite all that, she can't control the pollution that contributes potentially to her kids’ illnesses, as well as threatening the planet.  We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing something on behalf of Dian, and doing it in a way that allows us also to grow the economy and get at the forefront of our clean energy future. 

And the health issues that we’re talking about hit some communities particularly hard.  African American children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma, four times as likely to die from asthma.  Latinos are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized for asthma.  So these proposed standards will help us meet that challenge head on.”  

Indeed, climate change fuels many of the kinds of health-harming extreme weather we’ve seen in recent years. Extreme heat kills more Americans every year than hurricanes, tornadoes, and all other natural disasters combined. One 2006 California heat wave sent over 16,000 people to emergency rooms. Those warmer temperatures also contribute to smog in the air, and breathing this pollution can inflame lungs. That makes it hard for people already struggling with respiratory illness, like Parker, to get a lungful of clean air. The American Thoracic Society—the professional association of lung doctors—said climate change is dangerous not only for kids but also for older people, because their lungs are also more vulnerable to respiratory diseases caused by smog.

Extreme rains are fueled by climate change, too. The amount of rain falling during extreme downpours has increased 71% in the Northeast over the last 50 years.

NRDC’s President Frances Beinecke wrote yesterday about the range of health, environmental and economic wins we as a nation can see when we reduce carbon pollution.

Health groups and health leaders are stepping up already to support EPA’s proposed limits: 

  • Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, applauded the US EPA for taking “a critical and necessary step for ensuring greater health now and for future generations.”
  • The American Lung Association statement said, “Proposed Carbon Pollution Standards Would Protect Health of Millions of Americans.”
  • California Healthline detailed ways the new climate change plan can improve public health.
  • Dr. George Thurston, a spokesperson for the American Thoracic Society, said the rules would reduce "the most toxic particles and ones associated with the most severe effects." He also noted in the New York Times that the effects would be "local and immediate, so the people who do the cleanup will get the benefits."
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics' President James Perrin said in a statement, "As climate change accelerates, children will continue to suffer disproportionately," adding, "The regulation released today ... is a welcome and needed step to help make the air we breathe safer and cleaner for children."

The Bottom Line is: the EPA plan is historic and the biggest proposal ever to reduce the biggest driver of climate change. We need to support this opportunity. We can’t afford to ‘kick the can’ and delay action on climate any longer, because with each kick, that can gets heavier and harder to kick for our kids and grandkids.

Each of us can take action now to support these health-protective standards, and stand in solidarity with parents of children like Parker and the 26 million Americans with asthma. Their health matters, so let’s make sure we prevent climate change at its source. Building healthier, more climate-secure communities can become a priority when we say “yes” to limiting carbon pollution.

Photo Credit: Carbon and Public Health/shutterstock