White House summit highlights link between warming, health

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Some of the nation’s top medical authorities will converge on the White House this afternoon to hammer home the risk climate change poses to human health.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy headlines the summit, which is part of the Obama administration’s weeklong public relations push celebrating the second anniversary of the president’s Climate Action Plan. It also comes as Republicans on Capitol Hill mull legislation to scrap the administration’s flagship climate policy, U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan (E&E Daily, June 22).

President Obama and his team have frequently cited the role warming will increasingly play in fueling respiratory illness, heat-related sickness and infection. But that message was given new steam today when The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, coincidentally published a high-profile special report on how climate change may undermine a host of global public health gains made over the last half-century (ClimateWire, June 23).

Today’s White House gathering will include doctors, deans of medical schools, disease advocacy groups and other experts, and will feature a videotaped message from Obama. The White House released a fact sheet ahead of the event announcing new programs by agencies and partnerships with the private sector, including a Department of Health and Human Services map to inform health officials and emergency managers about residential areas where there are a high concentration of people dependent on medical devices that would be compromised during a power outage.

Deans of 30 medical and nursing schools have pledged to incorporate climate-related medical concerns into their curricula, and the administration’s Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice will add a subcommittee devoted to climate change, among other actions.

“The sooner we act, the more we can do to protect the health of our communities, our kids, and those that are the most vulnerable,” the White House said in this morning’s statement.

Lyndsay Moseley of the American Lung Association, who will attend today’s event, applauded the administration’s focus on this issue. ALA has become a frequent proponent of climate mitigation policies, citing the fact that higher temperatures work with particulate pollution to exacerbate asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Medical officials are becoming increasingly aware of these environmental triggers, Moseley said.

“But they’re limited in what they can do, which is why there is a growing call for action in the policy arena,” she said.

Today’s event is part of a suite of actions and study releases the White House has planned for this week. EPA released a report yesterday that sought to estimate the costs and benefits of climate change action or inaction on the global scale. It found that if nations work collectively to keep warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the United States can avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths and billions of dollars in costs related to health, infrastructure and damage.

The Lancet article from the Commission on Health and Climate Change was authored by an international group of medical, economics and policy experts, and drives home not only the health impacts of warming but policy options to mitigate them — including a shift away from coal use in electricity.

Elizabeth Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club, said the health message is important because it personalizes what can often be viewed as a remote issue. While some polls show an uptick in belief in warming, she said, health and other issues are viewed as more immediate.

“When it becomes a conversation that you have with your doctor, you’re going to a whole other sphere of influence, and I think that that’s why this is so critical right now,” she said.

EPA is set to finalize the Clean Power Plan and rules for new and modified power plants this summer, and Republicans are already launching their offensive against those rules. They have added riders to EPA appropriations measures in both chambers — the House is expected to vote on its version this week. And bills are moving in both chambers to allow states to defer complying with the existing power plant rule or opt out of it altogether.

The House version by Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) will come to the floor this week, and the sponsor has cast the bill as a way to stave off costly and economically dangerous regulation.

The bill, titled the “Ratepayer Protection Act,” will “protect hard-working Americans across the country from higher electricity prices and threats to electric reliability,” Whitfield said in a statement last week.

“EPA’s unprecedented proposal threatens serious economic harm to the American public and this commonsense legislation will protect ratepayers, reflecting our commitment to job growth and affordable energy,” he added.

The White House has already said Obama will veto the spending bills if they arrive at his desk with riders to kill the carbon rules. But today’s event and yesterday’s report carry the message that the cost of inaction will burden the U.S. economy more than regulations will.