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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Roll Up Our Sleeves and Get Started: A solutions-oriented approach to climate and energy policymaking from PSR Arizona

Posted on January 13, 2011

By Barbara H. Warren, MD MPH FACP

This essay is in response to: How can we integrate scientific evidence into our climate and energy policy choices?

Policy making at the Federal level has been frustratingly bogged down with political agendas that have virtually halted the implementation of a progressive- and solutions-oriented clean and renewable energy bill. At the same time, a number of very useful tools and resources have made it through the stimulus package and other legislative avenues to help us achieve constructive steps towards mitigating climate change at state and local community levels. Consider the Electric Vehicle funding to assist states with increasing the use of electric vehicles with a significant charging infrastructure, other transportation assistance programs, solar research and development funds, and so forth. Also consider the fact that the CDC, EPA, NOAA, and other Federal agencies are now seeking proposals to fund states and communities to study regional climate change risks and implement major climate adaptation plans.

There are many state and local level opportunities to roll up our sleeves and get started with climate-related work as health professionals. Scientific information and expertise is critical to the success of climate change mitigation and adaptation at many levels. Our work in Arizona exemplifies this approach.   We face the challenge of dealing with the hazardous chemical effects of our traditional sources of energy: toxic coal mines, coal burning utility plants and waste products, the largest nuclear power plant in the country, and outdated and potentially explosive natural gas lines. But, as one of the sunniest places in the country, we also have the opportunity to use our most abundant resource for future energy production.  

We have garnered a number of opportunities in public forums to lay out the scientific facts about the health impacts of climate change, the hazards of coal mining and combustion and waste accumulation, and the hazards of nuclear power at all levels of mining, energy production, and waste accumulation. The speaking opportunities have ranged from local political forums (e.g. League of Women Voters, sustainability workshops, political party educational meetings) to community-wide educational events, such as our University Medical Center based conference on the Health Effects of Climate Change that was financially supported by many community organizations and civic leaders. We have testified at City Council, Board of Supervisor, and energy commission hearings on toxic exposures. We have supported public film showings and discussions about coal mining impacts and the hazards of coal waste.

However, we firmly believe that working as oppositionists is not enough. We need to be a part of the solution to the problems we identify. Our scientific data and information sharing is even more useful in this aspect of our work. Therefore, we have sought out those government agencies, organizations, and individuals who have stepped up to the plate to begin the hard work of making substantive change in our communities. And they have been sorely lacking scientific input from the health professional community, until now.

Here’s where we found we could be useful, so far. These are opportunities available in one form or another in every community and state:

We found that our state’s energy commission (called the Arizona Corporation Commission or ACC) wanted medical experts to testify about the health hazards of coal and support the development of a rule to require energy companies to include human health (as well as environmental) impacts in the cost of energy production. We also were successful in producing a local television program, with a PSR member and one of the Corporation Commissioners, that has run twice a week for the last 8 months on the health hazards of coal and the need to include this as an “externality” cost of energy production. There is a continuing need at the ACC for testimony and establishment of public record on health impacts. The long term results, of course, would be that the cost of energy using sources that damage environmental and human health would rise; and clean, renewable resources (solar in our case) would evolve as the least costly and the least destructive.

Another significant opportunity arose when the Tucson City Council charged the city’s staff to form an Advisory Committee of experts in scientific, business, and educational arenas to develop a climate mitigation and adaptation plan. Two of our PSR members were invited to serve as medical and public health experts to address adaptation to the health effects of climate change. We have served with climate scientists, business people, local government officials, and other key community representatives to study and recommend the most effective climate change mitigation and adaptation measures for our community. We found we have continuously needed to remind the group of the need for considering the health effects and benefits of any problem and any proposed change. We will engage the medical director of the local public health department, academic medical center experts, and emergency response teams as we move forward.

Finally, on a personal level, a number of us who are PSR members have endorsed as well as adopted our own clean renewable energy, organic and healthy gardening, alternative transportation and water harvesting, and healthy and environmentally friendly outdoor activities. And one of our new Community Health Center buildings is LEED certified! We must walk the talk in every aspect of our own community as well as our scientific lives.


Mary Ellen Harte said ..

Nice. At a broader level, PSR or some major concerned organization should organize a major conference of concerned NGOs to draft a general plan everyone can push (for ex., google "push the big push" for our latest huffingtonpost piece)to pressure local to national government to transition to clean energy. To market this, how about seeking out celebrities that also "walk the talk" and distribute posters with them promoting clean energy? Along with posters, showing average Americans, and T-shirts with the message "I Saved" to show how many others are already doing it?

January 14, 2011
Dave King said ..

Here in Portland some folks are trying to bring the issue of unemployment together with global warming. We believe that only a massive mobilization of resources on the scale of WWll will be effective in dealing with the necessary reduction of carbon emissions. Such an effort would provide work for everyone able to work and then some. Bringing this idea to unemployed people and their supporters has proved to be an effective way to interest people in learning more about climate change.

January 14, 2011

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