Sick of coal yet?

This article is drawn from the GreenBuzz newsletter from GreenBiz, running Mondays.

Last week, the Trump administration offered up its revision to former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the keystone of U.S. climate policy. To many observers, the proposal seemed more like a coal bailout than a realistic plan for the United States to join the community of nations in combatting what is, arguably, an existential threat to the planet.

I won’t go into the details. Far wonkier analysts and activists have done a fine job of that. (Also, here's EPA's official summary [PDF].) Suffice to say that the Obama plan aimed to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector by 32 percent (compared to 2005 levels) by 2030. The Trump plan would reduce those emissions a measly 0.7 to 1.5 percent during that same time frame. In a word: Impotent.

An equally troubling aspect of the plan jumped off the page: By allowing states to set their own rules for regulating power plants — or request permission to opt out altogether — the EPA estimates (PDF) the Trump plan will lead to as many as 1,400 additional premature deaths a year from increased emissions of the fine particulate matter produced by coal burning, which are linked to heart and lung disease, plus as many as 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems, a rise in bronchitis and tens of thousands of missed school days. 

An earlier EPA analysis of the Obama plan concluded that it would prevent between 1,500 and 3,600 premature deaths a year by 2030 and reduce the number of school days missed by 180,000 annually.

We in sustainability often have hand-wringing conversations about how to make the climate crisis relatable to the average citizen. So, why isn’t it being better portrayed as worsening the health of us and our families?

According to the American Public Health Association, "Climate change can harm the water supply, increase vector-borne disease and increase extreme weather events. Vulnerable populations such as communities of color, the elderly, young children, the poor and those with chronic illnesses bear the greatest burden of injury, disease and death related to climate change."

Even the Center for Disease Control, part of the federal government, has some pretty stark information on health and climate change, especially striking considering that the Trump administration has scrubbed most climate information from its websites.

Little of this is part of the usual discourse about climate, coal or even changing weather patterns.

That’s a lost opportunity. One of the big challenges of engaging citizens on climate change, and especially Americans, has been the long-term and abstract nature of the problem, a decided non-starter in a world that seems to have become increasingly short-term in its thinking. And yet there is no lack of information on the adverse health effects of climate change in the short to mid-term.

Last year, for example, Scientific American reported, "Physicians are noticing an influx of patients whose illnesses are directly or indirectly related" to the changing climate, including Lyme disease and other insect-borne illnesses; cardio-respiratory illnesses from wildfires and increased air pollution; and longer allergy seasons because of prolonged, warmer spring seasons.

It also described heat events affecting people in urban centers; infectious diseases spreading in unusual geographic areas and times of the year; and extreme weather events threatening psychiatric health. And the effects of climate change are just beginning to be felt.

What will it take for doctors' concerns to become part of the mainstream conversation about the climate? Clearly, it’s not just polar bears and butterflies. It’s us.

Of course, the toll is also economic. Consider the federal government’s statistical cost of a human life, used in cost-benefit analyses of regulations. The EPA recommends using the estimate of $7.4 million in 2006 dollars, adjusted for inflation. For 2018, that puts today's government's cost of a human life at $9.25 million.

So, those 1,400 additional annual deaths would cost Americans an additional $12.95 billion a year. Assume that some of those affected will be covered by insurance, but most won’t (especially if access to affordable health care continues to erode under the current regime). And that's before the loss of property, income and other economic activity.

Those costs won’t be evenly distributed. One’s vulnerability to particulate-related illnesses increases along with proximity to a coal-fired power plant, as Grist recently noted. It cited a 2012 report that found nearly 40 percent of those living within three miles of a coal plant are people of color, and the average person made $18,400 a year. They are, as the saying goes, one illness away from bankruptcy.

This is not some future state. "The effect of climate change on human health is now so severe that it should be considered the major threat of the 21st century," according to the 2017 edition of Lancet Countdown, part of the family of prestigious medical journals, which tracks "the connections between public health and climate change."

What will it take to garner the corporate and political will to respond to the climate crisis in the name of public health and human well-being? How many of your employees and their families will be affected? How many of your customers, suppliers and communities will find themselves looking down the barrel of new disease vectors and acute health emergencies that can be traced in part to climate change?

What is the cost to your company of inaction?

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