While the pandemic was the driving health story in 2020, it was not the only major global health story. From coast to coast in the United States, the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of Americans was directly affected by climate change driven catastrophes – including massive forest fires, and unprecedented hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding. We’re now learning firsthand why the World Health Organization has identified climate change and air pollution as the number one threat to health in the 21st century.
As we enter into the third decade of the century, we’re certainly encouraged to see an incoming president who will quickly reverse many of the massively damaging environmental decisions of the outgoing administration. But we need to have our eyes wide open. We would be naïve to think the federal government is going to lead the U.S. out of the slow-burn environmental crisis. Looking backwards, from labor laws to ending slavery to voting rights, the states have always led the way forward. When the momentum swings far enough in enough states, the federal government follows.
The major global fossil fuel companies collectively take in trillions of dollars annually. (The revenue of the top 20 was $3.9T in 2018.) To protect the status quo, these businesses strategically spend enormous sums lobbying the federal government, while also throwing up carefully designed smoke screens about shifting their business models toward “clean” energy. Like the idea of “trickle-down economics,” that idea stays afloat because many people are naïve about what actually drives modern capitalism – excessive growth and simple greed. In a nutshell, protection of an unsustainable status quo is why the Congress has been ignoring the science on climate change for almost 40 years. So, what’s the answer? The answer is a rapid and unrelenting groundswell of support for the passage of smart policy ideas in towns, cities, and states.
The best way to learn about smart policy that makes sense where you live is to roam around on the websites of clean energy advocacy organizations in your state. Most of the people reading this probably know that here in New England, the two main sources of carbon pollution are transportation and heating and cooling buildings. If we don’t handle those problems, the rest is moot. On the transportation side, the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) (www.transportationandclimate.org) would bring billions of dollars into the clean energy economy in the northeastern part of the country. The governors of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine need to join the governors in the other New England states in signing on to TCI. At the other end of the transportation spectrum, Cambridge, Massachusetts now requires that gasoline pumps have a bright yellow sticker that states the burning of gasoline has “major consequences on human health and the environment including contributing to climate change.” Simple, powerful idea. Why aren’t we doing that everywhere? Similarly, there are plenty of equally smart legislative proposals on the building-energy side (many described right here in this issue of Green Energy Times).
Then what? Talk to a legislator in any New England state and you’ll get the simple answer. Other than election day, the vast majority of people who think of themselves as caring about the environment are silent. Not that other voters are exactly knocking down legislators’ doors. But, if you’re a legislator and you hear from ten people who are against a new idea versus three people who support it, that’s enough to make your decision.
It all comes back to a core value most of us share: the health of our kids and the people who live in our communities. For those of you who grieve about where things are headed on the environment, the way forward is simple. Reach out to local and state advocacy groups, learn what they are up to, and then support the high impact ideas. That’s a prescription for personal mental health, and the health of our families and communities. Pure and simple.
Dan Quinlan is a consultant whose work focuses on the intersections of climate change, clean energy, community health and impacts on vulnerable populations. His work is a mix of policy and communication work for non-government organizations and financial and technical consulting services to health care system leadership teams. He is also the founder of SolaVida, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding the community of people taking action to reverse global warming, promote clean energy, and advance the dialogue on climate change. Learn more at www.solavida.org.
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