Warning: Climate Change Is Hazardous to Your Health
As 100-degree temperatures broke Washington, DC records on Tuesday, I was pleased to be at the White House Public Health and Climate Summit listening to Surgeon General Murthy tell the American people that climate disruption poses an extremely dangerous risk to Americans’ health. If this sounds familiar, it should. Fifty years ago Americans received a similar warning from then Surgeon General Terry, on the terrible health risks of smoking tobacco.
— Sierra Club (@sierraclub) June 24, 2015
With Surgeon General Terry’s warning, our country was made bluntly aware of the dangers of cigarettes and Tuesday, Surgeon General Murthy was just as direct about the severe health consequences of climate disruption. Climate disruption is fueled primarily by carbon pollution coming from fossil fuels and fossil fuel power plants contribute 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. Therefore, it’s logical to think dirty fossil fuel burning power plants now deserve a bold-print warning label that lets Americans know of the dire consequences similar to a pack of cigarettes.
As climate policy director at Sierra Club, people often ask me if I still use my public health degree and today the Surgeon General answered that question for me by making it abundantly clear that good climate policy is good health policy. The reverse is also true: if we keep burning fossil fuels like we are today, we will destroy our health and the health of our children. This message connecting two important facets of good government is what attracted pillars of the American medical community to the summit including the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. It goes without saying that I was honored to be there with them and join them in celebrating the historical significance of Surgeon General Murthy’s words.
— Dr. Ali Khan (@UNMC_DrKhan) April 20, 2015
The event itself united health professionals, academics, the environmental community and other important stakeholders to discuss the important role the public health community has in communicating and preventing health-related climate impacts. Also this week, one of the most respected medical journals, the Lancet, released a report which found that by acting to stop climate disruption the world can save countless lives, reduce the spread of disease and ensure a secure food supply by moving to clean energy and creating a healthier future for people in every part of the world.
Also, Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis (CIRA) report finding that acting on climate change will prevent almost 60,000 premature deaths from poor air quality and 12,000 deaths from high temperatures in 49 major U.S. cities by 2100. And if that wasn’t enough, acting on climate will also save us a lot of money: $10-34 billion in electricity savings in 2050, $3.1 billion in avoided damages from sea-level rise in 2100, $110 billion in avoided damages from lost labor hours due to extreme temperatures in 2100 and $6.6-11 billion in avoided damages to agriculture in 2100.
However, despite all of this evidence and just days after the release of the Pope’s powerful encyclical saying that climate inaction is immoral, Congress has once again voted to block climate action. Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2042, Rep. Whitfield’s Polluter Protection Act, and voted to block the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Also today, in the Senate, the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is holding a hearing on S. 1324, the Senate version of the Polluter Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Capito and the climate denier in chief, Senator James Inhofe, who hopes to move this legislation to the floor of the Senate in July.
Climate change deniers in Congress need to stop acting as pawns in industry’s game while the severe effects of climate disruption wreak havoc on the health of our families and our communities. Make no mistake, industry-funded scientists are simply giving excuses for members of Congress to oppose climate action just like they were used years ago to protect the tobacco industry. All this is happening while most Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support taking action on global warming.
This is why the Surgeon General Murthy’s warning speech is so significant. Just as his distant predecessor initiated the push to stomp out the normalcy of cigarette smoking in American life, Surgeon General Murthy did the same today with our everyday use of coal, gasoline and natural gas. With his leadership, we can overcome the denier campaigns that attempt to twist and augment scientific fact, and take the necessary steps to protect our planet from climate disruption. When I left the cool air conditioning of the summit and walked back out into the 100-degree swelter of Washington, DC in summer, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that something is really being done to protect my kids and future generations from climate disruption.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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