Protecting Our Climate and Health on Earth Day

A grandmother and her granddaughter standing in a garden marveling over a flower in the granddaughter's hand

Earth Day is an important opportunity to remember the connection between our health and the health of the environments in which we live. And the evidence of this connection is growing.

Earlier this month, a comprehensive peer-reviewed report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program was released, titled The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. It found that climate change threatens the health of every American, and particularly vulnerable communities such as children, seniors and low-income communities, and that it is already affecting health today. In addition to many other health issues, climate change worsens symptoms of lung disease and other chronic respiratory illness.

To learn more, we talked with one of the lead authors of this report, Dr. John Balbus, a Senior Advisor for Public Health at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. According to Dr. Balbus, this is the first government assessment to quantify the health risks and impacts associated with climate change in the United States.

One of the many ways that climate change impacts health is by affecting the quality of the air we breathe. "The assessment highlights the role of increased temperatures in speeding the production of ozone in the atmosphere, and leading to increases in peak ozone concentrations in many of the most densely populated regions of the United States," said Balbus. "Climate change is currently exacerbating the high temperatures and droughts that enhance the range of wildfires, which contribute locally and regionally to severe air pollution episodes."

According to the report, climate change is also linked to an increased risk of heat stroke and heat exhaustion; new threats of food and waterborne diseases; higher rates of hospital admissions for cardiovascular and kidney disorders; elevated incidence of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress; and more. Climate change could even make our food less nutritious.

The U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD, has said that climate change has few historic public health comparisons, given its scope, long time scale, complexity and massive reach—yet at the same time, we have reason to be optimistic that we can address this issue. Balbus agrees.

"There are definitely historic analogues for large numbers of people needing to change behaviors, policies and environments to address massive public health threats, ranging from addressing urban sanitation and crowding issues in the second half of the 19th century to addressing the AIDS epidemic in the second half of the 20th century. I think these examples of mobilization to face serious public health threats support the optimism that the Surgeon General expressed… when he professed that the U.S. is fully capable of addressing the threats of climate change, including doing what is needed to change our path and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change."

The findings of this report, particularly combined with other recent reports like the American Lung Association's just-released "State of the Air 2016" report, which finds that climate change has increased the challenges to protecting public health, establish the need for even more urgency around climate action.  

The good news is that significant steps are being taken now to address this issue—on both the national and global levels. More than 150 countries are expected to sign the Paris Climate Agreement at a ceremony at the United Nations on April 22, led by a big push by the United States and China. International support for action to address climate change has improved hopes of an acceleratedtimeline for the agreement to come into force.

In the United States, the Clean Power Plan , adopted by the U.S. EPA in 2015, established the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants. These reductions will lead to climate and health benefits worth an estimated $34 billion to $54 billion per year in 2030. This includes avoiding up to 3,600 premature deaths and up to 90,000 childhood asthma attacks. The Supreme Court has issued a stay, or temporary pause, while legal challenges are resolved, but many states continue to develop their plants to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

Unfortunately, some members of Congress are working to block this progress by attempting to add unrelated, anti-clean air and climate amendments—called riders—into crucial bills to fund the federal government. Last year, riders that would have indefinitely delayed the Clean Power Plan and blocked other crucial air pollution protections under the Clean Air Act were introduced. These and other harmful riders were ultimately defeated–in part due to the large outcry of opposition from the public. We need your help to defeat these riders again.

What can you do? If you want to protect progress on clean air and climate action, please call your senators and representative and urge them to oppose riders on funding bills, including riders that would block or delay action to address climate change or clean up dangerous air pollution. It's quick, it's easy, and it really does make an impact.

If you don't have the number for your senators and representatives, use our Find a Legislator look up, or call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard and ask to be connected by the operator: 202-224-3121. (You can find who your representative is here and who your senators are here.)

Thank you for taking the time out of your Earth Day to help protect our health!

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Related Topic: Healthy Air

  • Lyndsay Moseley Alexander
    Assistant Vice President and Director of the Healthy Air Campaign, National Policy and Advocacy
    American Lung Association
    Lyndsay Moseley Alexander is Assistant Vice President and Director of the American Lung Association’s Healthy Air Campaign, a national campaign to win strong outdoor air pollution safeguards to protect all Americans from the dangers of breathing air pollution.

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