The most interesting conversations happen at the dinner table, particularly as I engage with my 6 and 4 year-old daughters. I was preparing to go on a quick trip to New York for work and my 6 year-old says “I know what you do mom, you are a federal political analyst, and you help to keep pollution out of our world.” Before I could respond, my 4 year-old asked her big sister the next logical question, “what is pollution?” So I jump in and tell my youngest that pollution is when the air and water are really dirty and can make people sick. And then my 6 year-old chimes in, “Yeah, like carbon dioxide is pollution…everybody knows that!”
I sat there at the dinner table, with my mouth wide-open, amazed that my 6 year-old knew what carbon dioxide was, this invisible pollutant that comes out of cars and power plants, that can cause serious damage to the earth and human health. If I could only have this much influence on members of Congress…I’d be unstoppable.
Carbon dioxide is one of the most potent greenhouse gases out there because it not only changes the weather conditions over a long period of time, but our daily lives. I’m not sure if you were around for 2012, but the U.S. experienced some of the most extreme weather: extreme heat, drought, hurricanes and flooding as a result of super storms like Sandy and the infamous women of weather. There is no doubt in my mind and thousands of other scientists minds that emissions of carbon dioxide must be reduced to protect the health of our most vulnerable populations — our children.
So how does Carbon dioxide impact our health? Well, I’m glad you asked. Carbon dioxide, or CO2,
- Makes it really hard for people to breathe in the summertime, especially children with respiratory concerns. For example, asthma affects more than 7.1 million children per year under the age of 18, with more of the burden on African American children.
- Increases the frequency and intensity of heat waves. While this might not seem like a big deal, extremely hot weather can increase heat stress on our children. Extreme heat can also make “safe places” a health-hazard. For example, schools and homes become serious health hazards because it is harder for children’s bodies to cool as efficiently, or in technical terms their bodies cannot ‘thermo regulate’ when they are overheated.
- Contributes to more intense flooding, per a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and rising temperatures in the ocean can be part of the reason for more hurricanes and storms, like Superstorm Sandy. In addition to the physical damage that can result from extreme weather, there is also psychological stress that results when families are forced to relocate because there home is no longer suitable for habitation. This is a challenge for low-income families that typically live in less resilient housing structures and do not have access to resources to re-build their lives.
So how do we combat such a seemingly insurmountable challenge? Well, we must start by combating the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions: existing power plants that generate the electricity that you and I use everyday. For the next couple of months, the Environmental Protection Agency (otherwise known as the EPA or the federal agency responsible for protecting our environment) is hosting listening sessions across the country to get advice on what should be a part of the new rules they are writing to reduce emission from plants that produce electricity, currently the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions. I participated in the October 23rd listening session held in New York City. Amidst the testimonies of scientists, environmental organizations, business owners and coal company representatives, the most compelling stories came from members of communities that had been impacted personally by climate change. But I wound venture to say that some of the best advice, came from the mouths of youngest environmentalists, our youth. The message to the EPA is simple:
- We need more stringent standards on existing power plants to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.
- Carbon dioxide is one of the drivers of climate change and we must shift to cleaner, renewable sources of energy.
- Those that are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change are typically: communities of color, those that are low-income, the elderly and our children.
I encourage you to share your voice about the impact of carbon dioxide emissions and make sure that we hold our government accountable because it is there job to protect our health. You can attend a listening session, email or mail comments to the EPA echoing the three messages above. (See this link for more information). They are accepting comments up until November 8th. We all deserve the right to breathe clean air and it’s our obligation to become better stewards of the environment, the place where our children and our children’s children will grow and thrive for years to come. October is recognized as children’s health month. Let’s make sure we take care of our most precious commodity. Because I know if I don’t say something about carbon dioxide pollution, my 6 year-old will.
Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is WE ACT’s Federal Policy Analyst, based in Washington, DC. Prior to joining WE ACT, Jalonne was the inaugural Kendall Science Fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), engaging in independent research on climate change adaptation and public health. While matriculating through the Environmental Health Sciences Department at the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health, her dissertation research focused on understanding the public health impacts of extreme heat events, specifically related to indoor heat exposure and how the urban-dwelling elderly adapt to hot weather. She spent a lot of her time translating her research into action through community outreach and engaging local policy makers and leaders on related issues.