We don’t have to look further than the weather app on our phones to understand why climate change poses such a risk to health. Air quality alerts were issued last week across the country, from California to New York due to smoke from wildfires raging in Canada and the West. The intensity of these wildfires is fueled by heat and drought conditions brought on by climate change. While these air pollution alerts are merely a warning for some, for others, including those with respiratory conditions such as asthma, these alerts can signal a life-threatening situation.
While Americans try to keep their families safe from wildfires, heatwaves and droughts across the country, Congress is currently debating spending billions of taxpayer dollars on new infrastructure investments. These investments could either fund a rapid transition of our power system to clean, renewable energy or further entrench highly polluting fossil fuels. Considering these options, it is easy to appreciate how these decisions will impact our health now and in the future.
One of the most important proposals being considered is a clean electricity payment program that would provide federal investments to our nation’s electric utilities to incentivize robust growth in their use of clean energy like wind, solar and battery storage. This “clean electricity standard” would result in a power system that runs on 80 percent clean energy by 2030, and it would meaningfully improve air quality, while significantly reducing planet-warming emissions that are fueling drought and wildfires. Multiple studies, one of which one of our organizations helped lead, have also found a rapid transition to clean power can be achieved without raising customer bills, and would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in every part of the country, a major boost for the economy.
Burning fossil fuels like oil and gas not only emits heat-trapping pollution but also produces air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter. Children with asthma are especially vulnerable because breathing in this polluted air increases their risk of having a severe asthma attack. Data also shows these particles are harmful during pregnancy and can increase the risk of adverse birth outcomes. Particulate pollution also increases the risk of heart attack and stroke in adults and can travel to the brain and impact cognitive function.
A new joint study from Harvard and Syracuse University analyzed the proposed clean electricity standard of 80 percent clean energy by 2030 and found the reductions in air pollution from this policy would save 50,000 lives between now and the end of this decade. That’s about the number of people who could fit into Yankee Stadium. In addition, it would prevent 12 million asthma attacks over the next 30 years, as well as save $1.13 trillion in health costs.
Cutting pollution is also fundamental to achieving racial justice. For decades, polluting power plants and freeways have intentionally been built near Black communities and other communities of color. Nationwide, people of color are exposed to higher pollution levels than white Americans, and Black children are five times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for an asthma attack. These are also the same communities that suffer disproportionately from a warming climate. A just-released study found that even in the same city, the temperature can be as much as 7 degrees higher in Black neighborhoods compared to white neighborhoods.
A rapid move to clean and renewable energy would clean our air and help revitalize the health of communities that suffer disproportionately from harmful air pollution. Provisions in the proposed budget would fund home weatherization improvements that will not only cut harmful emissions and save families money on their energy bills but more importantly, will help keep people cool or warm when extreme weather hits. As shown by the “big freeze” in Texas earlier this year, when low-income people suffered hypothermia in poorly insulated homes, these efficiency improvements could save lives. In addition, the budget’s proposal of a Civilian Climate Corps for young people would help address the legacy of pollution and ensure a new generation has the skills to build our clean future.
The smoke of wildfires that has reached Washington, D.C., should be a wake-up call for our nation’s lawmakers. Congressional action to fund the strong clean energy programs, as laid out in the Senate Democrats’ budget proposal, would cut the pollution that makes us sick and is essential for solving the climate crisis. Along the way, we will have improved our children’s health, created good-paying jobs in every state, and lowered electricity bills for energy-burdened families. Surely this is a future worth voting for.
Dr. Sarah Spengeman is the associate communications director at Energy Innovation, a board member at Interfaith Power and Light, and the host of a podcast sharing stories of mothers fighting for their children’s right to inherit a livable planet.
Dr. Neelu Tummala is an ENT surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and is on the Boards of the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions.