Chesapeake PSR

State and local governments must lead on climate action

Climate Change and EnergyLydia SullivanComment

by Gina Angiola, MD

State and local governments will have to lead with aggressive action on climate change. Ideally, efforts to address global warming would be administered in a coordinated and cooperative way under the guidance of national governments and international agencies; however, political conditions in the United States and other countries currently preclude that approach. 

Climate disruption is here, it’s a public health emergency, and it requires urgent, bold and sustained action from government and civil society at all levels. The planet’s rising fever is causing chaotic changes in the climate system and creating feedback loops that are accelerating global warming, sea level rise and further ecosystem destruction. As medical and health professionals and health advocates, we must push forward with bold plans to rapidly wind down our use of fossil fuels and to repair our damaged ecological systems.

Not a day goes by without another shocking example of the impacts of climate disruption. The New York Times reported on Jan. 7, 2018 that parts of Australia were so hot that asphalt melted on a stretch of highway, causing traffic jams. A suburb of Sydney reported the hottest day on record for that region, with temperatures reaching over 117 degrees F.  Meanwhile, in the northeastern U.S., temperatures reached record lows in the first week of 2018, with “a wind-chill temperature of -90 degrees F” at New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. These extremes add to a long list of devastating events within the last year, including record wildfires in California and three major hurricanes.

The human health implications of climate change are vast and well documented. In 2003, a summer heat wave in Europe resulted in over 70,000 excess deaths. But climate disruption creates many pathways of harm to human health, including physical injuries during extreme weather events; increased spread of diseases from insect vectors; increased respiratory and cardiovascular illness from diminished air quality; increased waterborne diseases from flooding; threats to food supplies from droughts, flooding, and salinization of soils; and mental illness from the stresses induced by climate-related events.

Different geographic regions are at risk for different climate-related impacts. States with large coastal regions, like Maryland and Virginia, are particularly vulnerable to storm surges, erosion, and flooding events, which carry specific health-related impacts. Depending on where infrastructure is located, emergency response to extreme weather events may also be compromised by flooding of roadways or medical facilities, or loss of power to hospitals, exacerbating the health and safety impacts. Extreme and repetitive damage to coastal regions will eventually lead to migrations inland, a reminder that all of the state will be affected, even if direct damage is concentrated along the coasts. Will inland communities be prepared for rapid population shifts?

In addition to the humanitarian implications, the costs of climate disruption are staggering. In 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there were “16 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion, with total costs of approximately $306 billion – a new U.S. annual record.” These costs will continue to rise as extreme weather events intensify. Investing in transformational solutions now will save money – and lives—in the long run. And innovative proposals at large scale, such as this wind farm island in the North Sea, are now surfacing frequently.

The good news is that the large-scale, long-term changes required to address global warming will have immediate benefits to the health and well-being of individuals and communities by decreasing air and water pollution, creating good jobs, and enhancing equity and general prosperity. 

In Virginia, this means breaking the big energy monopolies' control on state policy, and supporting laws and regulations that promote solar energy, offshore wind and energy efficiency. It also means lending our voice to the chorus of groups and individuals who are working to stop the continued build-out of fracking and pipelines in the Commonwealth. 

In Maryland, while supporting the groups working to stop pipelines and other fracked gas infrastructure, we are refocusing our efforts toward building out the economy of the future. The energy sector is the primary contributor to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for roughly 90 percent of total emissions. By laying a solid foundation for transitioning to a clean renewable energy-based economy, Maryland can not only dramatically reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions but can also become a model for other states. This begins with building a clear pathway to 100 percent clean renewable electricity, now feasible due to the rapid technological advances of recent years. 

Legislation will soon be introduced in the Maryland General Assembly to create the framework for a transition to 100 percent clean renewable electricity by 2035. Details will be discussed further in an upcoming blog post, but the core features include: 

· Aggressive yet realistic annual goals for the percentage of electricity sold in Maryland that is produced from solar, wind and small hydropower systems, augmented with advanced grid and storage technologies;

· New and different incentives for local solar and wind development, combined with the removal of current subsidies for electricity production from combustion sources; and,

· A commitment to a just transition for workers in fossil fuel and related industries and a commitment to equity for low-income residents throughout this transition.

Just a few short years ago, global warming was still being discussed as a potential threat that might affect future generations; however, that narrative is no longer relevant. Global warming and climate disruption are here, their impacts are accelerating, and like nuclear war, they threaten the very survival of human and non-human species. It’s time to put aside political differences and commit to protecting our families, our communities, our country and our sacred home. The time to act is now.

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Dr. Angiola is a board member of Chesapeake PSR.