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Addressing climate change is a public health policy. (Photo: rmitsch/Getty Images)

We're Still in a Health Crisis. It’s Called Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuel pollution killed an average of one in five people, causing nearly 9 million deaths in 2018 alone.

Cara CookHelena Randle

Our nation is facing a health crisis—and it's not just the coronavirus disease pandemic. Around the world, fossil fuel pollution kills millions of people every year. As health professionals representing doctors, nurses, and more, we're calling on Congress to tackle the fossil fuel health crisis as swiftly as possible by passing President Biden's American Jobs Plan.

We desperately need federal action on climate change. We needed it yesterday. President Biden's American Jobs Plan is an essential first step.

While the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the globe, fossil fuels continued to burn. Coal plants continued to poison communities—particularly low-income communities and communities of color—with particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury, leading to black lung disease and premature deaths. Oil and gas wells—associated with increased leukemia, asthma attacks, heart problems, and health problems for infants—leaked and flared. All told, fossil fuel pollution killed an average of one in five people, causing nearly 9 million deaths in 2018 alone.

But that's not all. Climate change—caused by fossil fuels—will likely turn out to be an even bigger public health crisis. Global warming-worsened heat waves killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest, and may be responsible for more than one-third of heat deaths globally. Sea level rise will make hurricanes even more deadly.

We desperately need federal action on climate change. We needed it yesterday. President Biden's American Jobs Plan is an essential first step. The infrastructure proposal provides $400 billion in direct payments to build out renewable energy and sets a goal for 80% clean electricity by 2030 and 100% by 2035. The health benefits of this switch to clean energy will be enormous. A new study led by researchers at Harvard University and others found that the immediate benefits of cleaner air would be "immediate, substantial, and widespread." Specifically, the policy for 80 percent clean energy by 2030 would result in 93,000 fewer premature deaths and 317,500 lives saved by 2050, as well as $1.13 trillion in health savings. The researchers also found that every state would experience benefits, but the greatest benefits will take place in non-Hispanic Black communities, which have been historically sited near toxic coal plants.

This is no coincidence, as the Plan rightfully focuses on justice: a full 40 percent of climate and clean infrastructure investments will go to disproportionately impacted communities. It will also invest in rural communities and workers who may lose jobs in the fossil fuel industry due to the transition to clean energy. We support that the Plan targets energy investments in this way to share the benefits of a twenty-first century energy system more fairly.

Not only does the Plan promote the transition to clean energy but it also provides $111 billion for clean drinking water by replacing lead pipes and upgrading water systems, $30 billion for future pandemic preparedness, and $28 billion toward the modernization of federal buildings including VA hospitals, which are vital to help us build back better for health. And it will support healthcare workers themselves, providing $400 billion to home-based or community-based care and improving the wages of caregivers.

Of course, one bill—or set of bills—won't solve climate change. There are dangerous fossil fuel projects that are currently under construction, like Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline for tar sands in Northern Minnesota. An administration fully committed to climate change will reject this project and others as we push for positive clean energy legislation. We're glad to see that Congress is moving towards an agreement as a first key step—but now they need to pass the provisions as quickly as possible, through the infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation measures.

Addressing climate change is a public health policy. It will improve lung health, maternal health, mental health, and more. Over the past year, the importance of public health has been laid bare—as well as the importance of protecting it.

We've put our lives on the line to battle the coronavirus pandemic and save as many lives as we could. We've walked down streets at the end of the day to applause, honks, and cowbells of thanks. But there's something we want more than applause. We want to see change. We want to see bold investments in climate solutions and clean energy—which will move us toward protecting health now and for future generations. With the American Jobs Act, we'll be on our way.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Cara Cook

Cara Cook, MS, RN, AHN-BC, and Director of Programs at the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.


Helena Randle

Helena Randle is Partnerships Co-Chair of Medical Students for a Sustainable Future.

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