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Five environmental policy questions that should be asked in the presidential debates

Five environmental policy questions that should be asked in the presidential debates
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Unfortunately, climate and the environment are not on the agenda for the Sept. 29 presidential debate. Whether they will get any air time in future debates is unknown. This would be disappointing during the best of times, but during a period of unprecedented environmental health catastrophes, this is a disservice to the American people.

In 2020, wildfires in the Western U.S. led to the world’s worst air quality, we ran out of letters in the alphabet to label our hurricane and, of course, there is an ongoing global pandemic. It is more evident than ever that the environment can affect our health, with a heavy burden on poor people and communities of color. While states, local government and the private sector have important roles in environmental protection, the federal government is crucial in protecting the health of the American people. 

As public health experts who research the environmental impacts on human health, we urge anyone participating in debates to ask specific questions about the environmental policies of both candidates and to demand clear answers. The following are examples of questions that are important and would help educate the American people about how each candidate would approach challenges to our health and wellbeing:

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All Federal agencies are directed to “address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law”, but profound disparities remain. What do you think are the limitations of environmental justice policy to date, and what actions would you take over the next four years to address the root causes of environmental injustice? From the health effects of Hurricane Katrina to lead exposure in Flint to the current COVID-19 crisis, the history of structural racism in this country has contributed to a disproportionate health burden among communities of color. Federal and state policies requiring examination of environmental justice have not changed these fundamental patterns, and new strategies are required to reduce environmental health disparities. 

What specific policy measures would you enact to support communities who are working to become more resilient to extreme weather events? While we need to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for our long-term wellbeing, in the short term, communities are dealing with increased risk of flooding, heat waves, wildfires and other effects of a changing climate. Cities and towns are taking leadership roles, but resources are limited, especially as communities grapple with budget challenges and infrastructure issues related to COVID-19.

How would you coordinate efforts across agencies and create incentives in the marketplace to promote healthy and energy efficient buildings? The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the importance of healthy indoor spaces, but the importance of our homes, workplaces and schools goes well beyond the current pandemic. We spend most of our time indoors, and our exposures to air pollution, heat and chemicals are greatly influenced by our buildings. Further, there are significant opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs through investments in improved buildings. 

Many lower-income workers face substantial risks to health and safety in the workplace; what measures would you propose to create healthier workplaces? COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted essential workers and others without the luxury of working from home, but this is far from the only health burden in the workplace. This goes well beyond the usual mandates of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and potentially requires creative public sector investments and incentives for the private sector. 

What is your vision for the role of science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)? The EPA has been historically challenged as a regulatory agency that also has scientific expertise, and its scientific capacity has greatly eroded over time, just as environmental challenges have become more complex. Environmental decision-making should use expertise from inside and outside of the agency, with a strong scientific foundation for everything the agency does, and changes to policy and practice may be necessary.  

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The environment often takes a back seat to other policy issues and this makes it easy for candidates to either ignore it entirely or rely on platitudes about wanting clean air or wanting to promote a strong economy. But we as a country urgently need specificity and vision from any candidate worthy of being president. The environment is too important for our health and wellbeing to accept anything less.

Jonathan Levy is professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health

Dana Dolinoy is professor and NSF International chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Andrea Baccarelli is the Leon Hess professor and chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. 

Melissa Perry is professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Russ Hauser is professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Barbara Turpin is professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Marsha Wills-Karp is the Anna M. Baetjer professor of Environmental Health and chair of the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.