We are at the height of Danger Season, the time of year when extreme weather events driven by climate change are most prevalent across North America. The power sector is the second highest source of climate pollution in the U.S. Thus, it is crucial that we address carbon emissions from power plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently published a proposed rule which would limit carbon pollution from fossil fuel burning power plants, a move which is critically important, statutorily required, and long overdue.
Dr. Marc Futernick, an emergency physician in Los Angeles and steering committee chairman at the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, spoke with me about how the rule would impact public health and how as a medical professional he participates in the public process to help influence these standards.
BRADY WATSON: How does the power sector impact public health?
DR. MARC FUTERNICK: It’s all connected to fossil fuels. Burning gas and coal leads to carbon dioxide emissions and air pollutants. Carbon dioxide is the main cause of global warming overall. Air pollutants contribute to all of the leading causes of death, such as heart disease, strokes, cancer, and respiratory illness. Now we have increasing evidence air pollution contributes to dementia as well. So, all the fossil fuel burning power plants on the grid have a direct public health impact as well.
BRADY WATSON: What do public health professionals have to do with power plants?
DR. MARC FUTERNICK: Because public health professionals care about the health of entire communities, anything is fair game. For example, something that was not directly medical but relevant to the greater community was mandatory seat belt laws. They were championed by public health officials decades ago. Similarly, air pollution is having enormous negative impacts on our health right now, and because a significant amount of that pollution comes from power plants, as a public health professional it is important to me to be aware of what is happening in the energy sector. Many public health and other medical agencies have clearly declared climate change as the number one health threat in humanity’s immediate future, and because power plants burning fossil fuels are one of the leading contributors to climate change in the U.S., I care greatly about this subject.
BRADY WATSON: Sometimes the EPA is thought of as focused on the environment, but protecting human health is actually a core part of its mission. Does the EPA listen to public health professionals? How do they incorporate consideration of public health impacts?
DR. MARC FUTERNICK: EPA listens to all input, including that from public health advocates, subject matter experts, and industry lobbyists—plus the general public. It is a difficult job finding the right balance among all these interests. Public health professionals like myself believe air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions regulations should be as strong as technically and economically feasible, and to that end there is still lots of room for improvement. Because of the significant public health impacts posed by the power sector, the EPA has specifically mentioned the public health sector as an interest group whose comments will be strongly considered as the rule is finalized.
BRADY WATSON: How could this proposed climate rule potentially impact public health in both the short and long term?
DR. MARC FUTERNICK: There are multiple studies that show current air pollution levels are causing between 7 and 10 million deaths worldwide, every year, plus all the non-lethal disease burden impacting people. This proposed climate rule would decrease toxic emissions from power plants, particularly in our densest cities, and that would have tremendous health benefits immediately. For instance, in California, a study of pregnant women in the vicinity of power plants demonstrated that closing those plants led to a significant decrease in pre-term birth in the local area. A rule like this impacts entire lives, starting at birth.
BRADY WATSON: There is a lot of discussion about the potential of hydrogen power and carbon capture and storage as alternatives to fossil fuels. From your perspective as a public health professional, what should we keep in mind?
DR. MARC FUTERNICK: This is a situation where the devil is in the details. CCS can theoretically be done so the energy used to perform CCS is renewable, the process achieves the carbon capture goal, and health-harming pollutants at the site and upstream are limited. The next question is whether that type of CCS can be done economically and at scale in the near future. If this can be achieved, CCS will be a valuable component of our battle to curb climate change. However, this ideal form of CCS has not emerged, so it’s important that we focus primarily on renewable energy that we know is affordable and effective, right now.
Hydrogen has many of the same question marks related to how it is produced and if it can be economically scaled. Once again, renewable energy, which is available at scale now, is the way to go.
BRADY WATSON: Because of the high stakes for public health that you’ve outlined, it’s clear public health professionals should care about this rule. How can public health experts like you, or community members who care about public health engage in this rulemaking process?
DR. MARC FUTERNICK: To be successful in this fight to curb carbon emissions and reduce the worst impacts of climate change, we need all hands on deck. Every resident and organization is able to provide public comments to the EPA on this and other regulations. Our elected and appointed officials need to know that the public wants to clean up our air and protect our future. We can show this by flooding the EPA with our comments, being more vocal in more settings, and setting a very clear path forward with specific recommendations.
For instance, my input to EPA on the power plant rule focused on including even more power plants because as the proposed rule is currently written, many are excluded. I also told the EPA in my comments they should add more interim goals that must be met over the years so that pollution and emissions decrease promptly.
By Brady Watson, courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.
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