Climate change: A threat to public health
Here in the Ocean State, carbon pollution from fossil fuels – mostly from out-of-state sources – is fundamentally affecting the air we breathe, the waters off our shores, and even our weather. Recently, one of President Obama’s top environmental advisors joined me in Providence to talk with Rhode Islanders about the dangers from carbon-driven climate change, and our state’s innovative approaches to protect against those dangers.
As the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Nancy Sutley works to coordinate our government’s response to climate change. She brought a clear message: “Climate change poses a very real threat to public health – both now and in the future.”
The warning signs are clear. For starters, it’s hotter. Annual temperatures in the Northeast have increased by almost two full degrees Fahrenheit since we began keeping records, and we could see as much as 10 degrees more by the end of the century. When it is hot and sunny, harmful ozone forms more quickly, leading to the “bad air days” we all hear about on the news.
This is serious for the thousands of Rhode Islanders with respiratory conditions. About 12 percent of our children and 11 percent of adults suffer from asthma. On bad air days, children with asthma are told to stay inside their homes. In 2011, there were nearly 1,500 hospital admissions for asthma-related illness, each costing over $17,000 on average. Here we need a federal response, because pollution dumped on us by Midwestern coal plants is beyond the reach of our state authorities.
Heat in the atmosphere also raises the temperature of the oceans and disrupts marine ecosystems. University of Rhode Island scientists report that Narragansett Bay is already several degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than a half-century ago. Warmer Bay temperatures promote harmful blooms of algae, and make it harder for historic Narragansett Bay species like the winter flounder to thrive.
As the seas warm, they expand, so sea levels rise, leading to more erosion and flooding. Tide gauges in Newport show an average sea level increase of nearly 10 inches since 1930. Storm surges riding on those higher seas can batter our shores farther inland. Last year, Hurricane Sandy tore up beaches, homes and roads in Matunuck and Misquamicut, and threatened to cut off hundreds of families from emergency services and running water.
The effects of carbon pollution don’t just hit our coastal communities. Much of Rhode Island’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is located in flood zones. During the 2010 floods, heavy rainfall caused millions of dollars in flood damage to Warwick’s treatment plant and spilled raw sewage into the Pawtuxet River. Heavy rainfall is up 74 percent in our region since the 1950s – the sharpest increase in the nation.
Mother Nature is sounding alarms. It is time for us to wake up and be responsible.
I’m proud that Rhode Islanders are leading the effort to combat climate change and prepare ourselves for its effects. The Rhode Island Climate Change Commission identifies risks to important infrastructure from catastrophic events like Hurricane Sandy and the 2010 floods. The URI Graduate School of Oceanography is a world leader in understanding the effects of climate change on our waters. Our cross-sector Ocean Special Area Management Plan paved the way for offshore wind farms to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. And the Rhode Island Climate and Health Project, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is helping the state assess and prepare for health effects linked to a changing climate. Rhode Island is doing its part.
Sadly, I cannot say the same for Congress. Polluter interests in Washington ignore the science; indeed they pollute the debate with industry-generated phony “doubt” about the science, so they can stifle solutions that would be economically inconvenient to them. Rhode Islanders, and the majority of the American people, understand that climate change is serious and real, and they want our country to act. But special interest influence in Congress is a barricade.
So in June, President Obama laid out an executive plan to reduce carbon pollution and prepare our country for the effects of climate change. Ms. Sutley explained how the president’s plan will curb dangerous emissions from dirty power plants, help states and communities make smart investments to address the changes we can see coming, and galvanize international action to stave off irreparable harm. His plan is a solid one and it deserves our support.
Rhode Island is already feeling the effects of climate change, and scientists tell us that if we do not change course, our children and grandchildren will suffer from our negligence. It is well within our power to protect our way of life, and forge smart policies to preserve the health and safety of all Americans, now and in the future. But to do that, we have to be serious and responsible.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a U.S. Senator for Rhode Island, and a co-chair of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change.