Dr. Lynn Ringenberg: Climate change health effects now visible, deadly

I’ve been a pediatrician for 35 years, and in that time, I have seen first-hand the effect that a changing climate has on my young patients.

With more ozone and pollution in the atmosphere, we see worsening respiratory problems, allergies, and asthma. I care for many young infants and children who have to take several medications every day just so they can breathe better. That’s what compels me to write this.

For my patients to be healthy, we need to address climate change now.

Just as with the links between smoking and cancer, the ties between climate change and health problems are clear. And as it did with the challenges of public sanitation and smoking, the health community has a critical role to play.

The Clean Power Plan that President Barack Obama recently released is the most important action any U.S. president has taken to address the climate crisis. For the first time, it will require power companies to limit the amount of carbon they put in our air. The goal is to reduce pollutants that are damaging Earth’s atmosphere, making our planet warmer, and harming our health.

By 2100, global average temperatures will rise by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit.  Extreme heat is closely connected to premature death and illness. If we are serious about protecting our people, reducing health care costs, and staying globally competitive, the new policies to address climate change are a medical necessity.

The good news is that moving quickly away from coal-burning power plants yields immediate health benefits. Burning coal to generate electricity causes worker illness and injury, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and mercury exposure that can hurt brain development. Emissions and fine particle pollution from America’s coal-burning plants cause an estimated 13,200 deaths, 9,700 hospitalizations, and more than 20,000 heart attacks a year. Altogether, the health costs of air pollution from coal plants reach $100 billion a year.

Cutting coal use will also reduce one of our most serious pollution problems: toxic coal ash waste, which is filled with heavy metals. Such ash is stockpiled near power plants all across the country, where it threatens public water supplies. A coal ash spill from a Duke Energy plant in North Carolina last year coated a 70-mile stretch of the Dan River. The damage is still being tallied. Most people don’t realize that coal mining is America’s second-largest source of methane gas, which also contributes to global warming.

Instead of wringing our hands, we need to get busy. The Clean Power Plan sets broad pollution cleanup goals, but it is up to each state to determine the best ways to meet them. We need to make sure each state moves forward with a plan that emphasizes energy efficiency and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. Many of the necessary actions in front of us present a terrific opportunity for policymakers, because they not only prevent the worst outcomes down the road, but also improve our collective health quickly. I believe that’s something we can all get behind.

Health is my career and my passion. I will be doing everything in my power to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency as this plan moves forward because I want our communities, our children, and our grandchildren, to have the opportunity to live healthy lives.

That’s the legacy that Physicians for Social Responsibility and I want to leave, and I hope others will join us in this movement toward a cleaner, healthier future.

Lynn Ringenberg M.D. is the national president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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