Here are a few facts about climate change: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are causing it, and 12 of the hottest years on record have taken place in the past 15 years. Also, since 2000, six climate-related weather disasters have cost the U.S. healthcare system $14 billion. In a speech to the nation yesterday, President Obama vowed to do something about that, and if his promised reforms go through, that means fewer chronic diseases, fewer allergies, and even more nutritious food.
"Forty-three years ago, Congress passed a law called the Clean Air Act of 1970," President Obama said in his speech. "The reasoning behind it was simple: New technology can protect our health by protecting the air we breathe from harmful pollution." And, he added, six years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases were pollutants that should be regulated as part of the Clean Air Act.
Unfortunately, stalemates in Congress and pressure from industry have curbed the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the agency has yet to do anything to regulate greenhouse gases.
Obama aims to change all that—but in this case, slow and steady wins the race. His plan is devoid of grand sweeping gestures, and in the 21-page proposal published by the White House, it's difficult to narrow even the broadest of efforts down to a few bullet points.
As part of his multi-pronged approach, he plans to:
• Curb greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Greenhouse gases emitted by coal-fired power plants contribute 80 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions produced by the energy sector, according to Harvard's Center for Global Health and the Environment. Though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates arsenic, lead, mercury, and other pollutants that can spew from power plants, the agency doesn't regulate carbon emissions. The president is telling EPA to create greenhouse-gas emission standards for all existing power plants by September 2013; the reforms would be implemented by June 2016.
• Curb methane and HFC emissions. Both methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are potent greenhouse gases but have much shorter lives in the atmosphere than other greenhouse gases—making their damage to the climate that much more immediate. HFCs leak from home and vehicle air conditioners, and Obama is hoping the EPA pressures industry to find less-damaging alternatives. Methane spews from improperly capped natural-gas wells (making natural gas a dirtier fuel than coal) and is often a contaminant released from the gas-drilling process known as fracking, as well as from food waste decomposing in landfills and from livestock operations.
• Invest in renewable energy projects on public lands. Obama has told the Department of the Interior to permit enough renewable-energy projects from wind and solar on public lands so that, by 2020, those projects will power more than 6 million homes.
• Boost energy efficiency in homes and businesses. They're the source of 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and Obama wants to set new efficiency standards that would double the energy efficiency of certain appliances by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.
(To learn how you can stop climate change in your own home, check out Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.)
Why It Matters to You
No matter your politics, or what you may think of Obama's "healthcare plan for the climate," so to speak, curbing greenhouse-gas emissions now, and in the future, means that you'll avoid all the proven health problems associated with climate change. "Climate change is and will continue to spur increases in every form of human illness, including infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, severe respiratory conditions, cancer, dementia and heart disease while crippling the public health system due to the increasingly frequent and more intense floods, fires and hurricanes that we will see as the planet gets hotter," says Linda Marsa, contributing editor at Discover magazine and author of the forthcoming book, Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health—And How We Can Save Ourselves. "To put it bluntly, in the absence of meaningful mitigation and adaptation strategies, we will live sicker and die quicker on a hotter planet."
Here are a few more specifics about how climate change is damaging your health:
• Heart attacks and strokes brought on by heat waves and air pollution
• Allergies triggered by longer allergy seasons, pollen made more intense by warmer temperatures, and molds brought on by increased flooding
• Asthma brought on by air pollution
• Insect-related diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus, which have experienced increased transmission rates in the era of climate change
• Waterborne diseases, such as cryptosporidium, as a result of flood-contaminated waters or other other extreme rainfall events that overwhelm municipal water-treatment plants.
Still not convinced? Check out these other 11 Climate-Related Health Threats.
As if that's not enough, climate change is wreaking havoc with our food supply. Both droughts and floods have wiped away entire crops in recent years, leading to higher food prices—and that's not all. The most recent National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program (a government scientific advisory panel) linked elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to lower levels of protein, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins, and sugars in fruits, vegetables, and grains. Greater levels of the greenhouse gas cause foods to grow much more rapidly, but their ability to absorb those nutrients from the soil can't keep pace. Likewise, it helps weeds grow more quickly, so—not surprisingly—the same report predicted that herbicide use will increase. And in fact, the EPA is currently reviewing a request from farmers to increase the amount of the toxic herbicide Roundup allowed on food.
Published on: June 25, 2013
Updated on: June 26, 2013