Greenhouse Gas Endangerment Finding Hearing - Seattle
Evan Kanter, MD, PhD
May 22, 2009
I joined others from the Washington and Oregon chapters of PSR in testifying today at a public hearing in Seattle held by the Environmental Protection Agency. The hearing considered the EPA’s recent finding that greenhouse gases endanger the public health, opening up the possibility for regulation of greenhouse gases under the authority of the Clean Air Act. About 200 citizens, starting with the Governor of Washington State, stepped up to voice strong support of the EPA‘s endangerment finding. The hearing continued late into the evening to accommodate all the speakers. Law, medicine, and science were all well represented. There were high school students and university professors. Notable also were the wide range of voices from the business community. I learned in detail how global warming is bad for coffee companies and bad for fisheries.
At noon on the waterfront pier next to the conference center where the hearing was held, I spoke to a spirited crowd of 2000 at a rally urging action to stop global warming, build a clean energy economy, and protect public health. Other speakers included Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who has been an outspoken leader for climate action at the municipal level.
For photos of the rally, click here.
Here are my comments from the rally:
Look at this crowd. There is hope for the planet here today.
Today’s hearing considers the EPA’s finding that “greenhouse gases in the atmosphere endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”
As National President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, I represent thousands of health professionals and we speak with urgency and conviction in support of this finding. The science is clear and we must act immediately to limit the potentially catastrophic impacts of global warming. It is unconscionable to continue on the present course.
Why are greenhouse gases a threat to public health? The short answer - because we are messing with the ecosystems that provide our very food, air, and water.
The World Health Organization estimates that global warming is already responsible for 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year. These come in the form of malnutrition, diarrhea, and mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. So far the impact has occurred predominantly in poor countries, but the health effects are also evident here in the developed world and will be increasingly felt if we do not take action.
There are four main categories of health effects.
First - increased frequency and intensity of heat waves. The associated health problems of heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke will become increasingly common.
Second - increased air pollution. Increased temperatures cause increased production of ground-level ozone, the main component of smog. This will increase rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Third – infectious diseases. Climate change is altering the range of disease carrying organisms. West Nile Virus, carried by mosquitoes, was not seen in the US until recently. More than 25,000 cases and more than 1000 deaths have now been recorded.
Fourth - extreme weather events. These include severe storms, increases in both drought and flooding, and associated features such as erosion and wildfires. We do not have the public health capacity to respond to increasing numbers of large scale disasters that are difficult to predict.
I’m not here to foretell the end times, but if this sounds like a scenario of Biblical plagues, then you are hearing me correctly.
We urge the EPA to move forward on their finding and take action to regulate greenhouse gases. We are also encouraged by other activity within the executive branch. The Centers for Disease Control has reported in detail on the health effects of global warming. And you may be surprised to know that planners at the Pentagon have a keen interest in global warming. They are well aware that resource depletion and population displacements resulting from climate change create tremendous potential for social violence and major armed conflict. According to the International Red Cross, climate change disasters are now a greater cause of population displacement than war and persecution.
Then there is the legislative branch. That Congress is actually drafting climate and energy legislation after years of denial and inaction is laudable, but there are loopholes in this legislation big enough to drive SUVs through. We must push hard for improvements in the bill so as to result in meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases.
I will close by telling you about one thing that PSR is doing – the Code Black campaign. You’re probably familiar with the term “calling a code”: Code Blue for a cardiac arrest, other colors for other medical emergencies. We have declared Code Black on coal. The campaign focuses on coal-fired power plants as the leading global warming culprit in the U.S., accounting for more than 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. They also are one of the largest sources of air pollutants, including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. Energy companies have proposed building more than 100 new coal-fired power plants across the country.
We have had enough success at blocking these proposed plants that we can now turn our attention to existing coal plants, like the Centralia plant here in our region. The Centralia coal plant is responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Washington State, the single largest source. We must work to shut it down sooner rather than later.
Many are not aware that Puget Sound Energy, headquartered in Bellevue, derives 37% of its electricity from coal-fired plants. The plants are not in Washington, they are in Montana. The traditional pollutants wind up in someone else’s backyard, while the carbon emissions affect us all.
Thank you again for coming out today. Physicians for Social Responsibility will continue to provide a medical and public health voice for a powerful coalition of Northwest environmental organizations. Support us, support the EPA finding, put pressure on Congress and the President, and we will realize the vision of a healthy, sustainable world for our children.