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Safeguarding Our Climate Means Safeguarding Our Health | Commentary

By Laura Anderko  Many heath organizations and health care providers recognize climate change for what it is: a clear and present danger to public health. With the impacts of climate change making themselves felt around the country and around the world, our elected leaders must take action to prevent suffering and promote healthy and safe communities by supporting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.  

The evidence that climate change is a significant health issue is undeniable. The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, has said climate change poses “an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health,” while U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned it will lead to more asthma attacks and more extreme weather events — such as floods and wildfires — that harm our health. In addition, more than 120 major health organizations have named climate change a serious public health issue.  

That’s one important reason why the EPA has released the Clean Power Plan, which places the first ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants and will safeguard the health and wellbeing of Americans. This plan will be the greatest action the U.S. has ever taken against climate change.  

Unfortunately, nurses like myself see the harmful health impacts of air pollution every day. In our offices, children gasp for breath during asthma attacks. Our patients suffer from heart attacks linked to dirty air. We cannot idly stand by and we cannot afford to delay action. Instead, we need to push for the strongest safeguards possible to protect vulnerable communities from pollution and climate change. Anything less is unacceptable and unethical.  

We currently have standards that keep pollutants such as soot, mercury, and arsenic out of our air. But, before the Clean Power Plan, there were no federal limits on carbon pollution. In other words, power plants were allowed to dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air without suffering any consequences, and costing Americans in the form of hospital bills, prescription medications, and missed days from school and work.  

That’s why the Clean Power Plan matters so much: it places responsibility on polluters to “clean up their act” and in the process slash dangerous carbon pollution from power plants by more than a third by 2030. In addition to cutting down on carbon pollution that causes climate change, these new environmental and public health safeguards will protect communities from the costs of breathing dirty air.  

At present, nearly half of Americans live in counties that have unhealthy levels of air pollution. By cleaning up the air, the Clean Power Plan will pay big dividends, providing up to $54 billion in climate and public health benefits with every $1 invested yielding $4 in benefits from soot and smog reductions alone. These carbon pollution standards for existing power plants could also help avoid up to 3,600 premature deaths and up to 90,000 asthma attacks in children.  

Now that the EPA has released its final version of the Clean Power Plan, the stakes are high. Our leaders are faced with a choice that has real consequences: will they side with polluters and oppose action on climate, or will they take a stand for public heath—and decide to protect our children, our parents, and our families?  

In a speech delivered at Georgetown University, where I teach, President Barack Obama asked whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. Now it’s time for our leaders to make their call. They need to support strong action on climate change by implementing the Clean Power Plan and investing in technologies that and meet our energy needs with affordable and reliable clean energy. The health and safety of our communities depends on it.  

Laura Anderko PhD RN holds the Robert and Kathleen Scanlon Endowed Chair in Values Based Health Care at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies and is a White House Champion of Change for Climate and Public Health.

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