Climate change and human health are inextricably linked. Stepping back from the fight against climate change will also be a massive loss for public health.
The Clean Power Plan has been a big win for health. According to the EPA, cutting exposure to particle pollution under the CPP would have averted up to 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks in children, and 1,700 heart attacks each year.
According to the Global Burden of Disease project, more than 5 million people die worldwide each year because of air pollution — and emissions from coal-fired plants are a major risk factor here. It's one reason why health experts have been pushing policymakers to rapidly phase out of coal.
For miners, the immediate health risks include black lung disease and scarring of the lung tissue. But the pollutants emitted when coal is processed — including sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and mercury — have much more far-reaching effects on many more people.
In one large study involving 450,000 Americans followed between 1982 and 2004, researchers found that increased exposure to the particles in fossil fuel emissions increased the risk of death from heart disease — and particles from coal burning were five times more damaging than other similar particles.
Reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants also makes it easier to breathe. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change has been a significant driver of that trend. Air pollution triggers asthma attacks, contributing to lung abnormalities, particularly in the developing pulmonary systems of children.
Our health needs to be a big part of the discussion. It is not just the fate of our planet that is at risk if we scale back our commitment to fighting climate change.
The benefits of moving beyond our focus on energy.
When we talk about "energy", certainly in terms of policy, we usually mean what fuels our cars and heats our homes. Let's look at energy in a very basic sense, as in what happens when sunlight meets the ground. Say you have pavement, or land marked by degraded, exposed soil – the condition of much of the world's surface. When the sun beams down on that bare soil, solar energy is absorbed; it becomes sensible heat, or heat you can feel. Now amble over to a nice meadow, or well-managed rangeland with a thick carpet of grasses. Here solar energy touches down on plants that are transpiring. The solar heat is dispersed and becomes latent heat, embodied in water vapour, to be condensed and released as rain.
Climate is not a function of one sole metric; it is not a single story. And this is where we find opportunities.
When faced with an environmental predicament, it can be useful to inquire as to how nature has approached similar scenarios. For instance, in the case of wildfire, one can ask what processes used to keep that landscape hydrated and therefore resilient to fire. We learn that in the American west, beavers created wetlands and acted as "shock absorbers" that minimised fire risks. And when we ask what maintains our climate, the answer is water.
Were it not for the blanket of water vapour that buffers the Earth, our planet would be too cold to inhabit. The phase changes of water – from solid to liquid to gas, and back – represent an extraordinary transfer of heat. According to Australian microbiologist Walter Jehne, water-based processes in the atmosphere and the oceans, over land and across ice, govern some 95% of Earth's natural heat dynamics. It is the sheer immensity of water's role in climate that led scientists to conclude that humans could not have interfered with it. And yet, once we understand how water works – and how water intersects with factors we can influence, such as land use and plant cover – we can help to restore the processes that sustain the heat and energy balance, and therefore sustain our climate.
A deforested area in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Photograph: Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Image
Peter Andrews, a farmer and author in Australia, made a statement that has stuck with me: "Plants manage water. And in managing water, they manage heat." Worth noting: we have de-vegetated a quarter of the planet – including destroying most of our natural forests.
Every square metre of Earth's surface receives an average of 342 watts of solar energy a day. Because of how humans have altered the environment, we now radiate back about 339 watts per square metre – a difference of less than 1%. If we managed our ecology better, how might we make up that three-watt differential? How about if we had a lot more plant cover and a lot less bare ground?
A new study by Dr. Guiling Wang from the University of Connecticut and her colleagues has made a surprising discovery. Their work was just published in Nature Climate Change. They report that the peak temperature (the temperature where maximum precipitation occurs) is increasing in a warming world.
The idea is shown in the sketch below. Details vary with location but, as the world warms, there is a shift from one curve to the next, from left to right. The result is a shift such that more intense precipitation occurs at higher temperatures in future, while the drop-off moves to even higher temperatures.
Increasing precipitation curves as the world warms
In my state, we have had four 1000-year floods since the year 2000! Two years ago, Minneapolis, Minnesota had such flooding that people were literally fishing in the streets as lakes and streams overflowed and fish escaped the banks.
It falls upon city planners and engineers to design infrastructure that is more able to accommodate heavy rains and manage water. This means designing river containment areas or flood plains, reinforcing buildings and houses, and increasing the capacity of storm drainage, just to name a few.
Since it was established in the 1990s, the Energy Star program has saved U.S. consumers some $360 billion, mostly in electricity and water costs. According to a program report, consumers and business saved $31.5 billion in 2014 alone, while costs were about $57 million. That puts the return on investment for taxpayers at about 550 to 1.
The concept is simple: When someone goes to buy a washing machine (or drier, or blender, or light bulb), she looks at a number of factors — the price, the capacity, the size, maybe the brand name — and picks the one that is the cheapest while meeting her needs. But it's not always obvious what the ownership cost of a washing machine is. How much water does it use? How much electricity? In other words: How efficient is it? The Energy Star program (which has a whopping 85 percent brand recognition rate in the United States) offers that valuable information.
And largely because of that high recognition rate, the program also incentivizes manufacturers to develop and offer more efficient products. Energy Star sells.
But maybe not for long. President Trump reportedly aims to kill the program entirely.
India is planning to cut coal consumption by dialing coal plants back so they are running less than half time over the next 5 years.
"CEA has also estimated that all coal-based thermal power plants need to brace for drastic fall in capacity utilisation to as low as 48 per cent by 2022 as additional non-thermal electricity generation capacities come on stream." [India Times]
Beijing has announced a plan to replace all 67,000 fossil-fueled taxis in the city with electric cars. [Clean Technica]