This summer, we’ve been hearing a lot about climate change. In July, the Pope reminded us that preserving the climate is a moral issue with outsized impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations. In August, President Obama unveiled the federal Clean Energy Plan, calling on us all to do better in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Here in Napa, the historic drought and punishing fire season have reminded us all what a hotter, drier climate could look like.
One dimension of the climate crisis is a little less obvious: public health. Rising temperatures are placing a heavy burden on the sick, the very young, and the very old, where punishing heat waves can kill tens of thousands as happened in 2003 in Europe. The death toll is estimated at 70,000, with France hit particularly hard.
Our changing climate also spreads insect-borne diseases, increases respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and contributes to food and water insecurity. More immediately, air pollution causes serious health problems – and California is home to the most polluted cities in the nation. Over seven thousand Californians die prematurely each year from air pollution. Five million Californians – including one million children—suffer from asthma.
As a doctor practicing in the Napa area, I watched the frequency and intensity of adult asthma attacks nearly double. People with no history of asthma or allergies would fill the clinic during Spare the Air days, having their first experience with wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Many found it hard to believe that polluted air could cause such a thing and felt stigmatized by being labeled as an “asthmatic”, and accepted the prescription but did not use it. It was hard getting an octogenarian, who had lived her entire 55 married years in Napa without a single wheeze, to accept that she had reactive airway disease when exposed to air pollution — 150 years of spewing smokestacks and tailpipes had finally caught up with us.
Make no mistake: they were experiencing hyper-reactive airway disease due to inhaled pollutants like ozone and small airborne particulates less than 5 microns in size. Our air pollution was getting so bad, it was making “normal” people sick with symptoms identical to asthma. In fact, after growing out of childhood asthma, I personally experienced my first adult asthma attack living in the Napa Valley.
Fortunately, California is already showing that we can take serious steps to fight climate change while improving public health and the economy. In 2006, the Legislature set a goal to reduce statewide greenhouse gas pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. Just under 10 years later, we are more than halfway toward meeting that goal.
Our efforts have paid off when it comes to public health. The percentage of children in California with significantly impaired lung function has been cut in half. By 2025, our Low Carbon Fuel Standard and Cap & Trade programs are expected to prevent 600 heart attacks, 880 premature deaths, 38,000 asthma attacks, and nearly 75,000 lost work days, From a more mercenary perspective, we are also on track to cut billions in health costs for the state.
In the process of cleaning up our air, we’ve actually improved the economy as well. In the Napa area, California’s climate policies have attracted $695 million dollars in investment in renewable energy, supporting 4,669 clean energy jobs. We’ve also seen 6,345 solar installations, including 103 subsidized installations for low income families; 3,527 grants to improve energy efficiency; 15 grants to fund clean energy schools; and 1,055 electric vehicle rebates.
This year, our representatives will vote on even more ambitious emission reduction targets and investments in the clean energy economy. Landmark bills Senate Bill 32 and SB 350 would accelerate our transition to clean energy sources like solar and wind, and make important strides toward cleaning up our air and improving public health.
We have made great progress to improve California’s polluted air and make this state a safe place to raise a healthy family. But there is more work to be done.
These bills are the next important step toward meeting our moral obligation to prevent catastrophic climate change and improve near-term public health. California must serve as a leader for the nation and the world by continuing to push for more ambitious climate protection goals.
Bosch is an medical doctor who lives in Napa.