If your child can’t breathe, nothing else really matters.
My 13-year-old son has asthma. As a child, I suffered from it as well.
So while my colleagues continue to debate, and in some cases overly politicize the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to reduce overall carbon emissions by 30 percent over the next 16 years, my strong support for the new clean air rule is very basic.
My son’s doctor has advised him to avoid potential asthma triggers, especially anything that burns. But that’s hard to do when you live in St. Louis, because in Missouri, 80 percent of our electricity is still produced by coal-fired power plants.
These power plants are the single biggest source of carbon emissions and other dangerous pollutants like sulfur dioxide. That’s true in my congressional district and in many other parts of the country too. Not surprisingly, in the St. Louis area, our rates of asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases are off the charts, especially for children.
Some members of Congress will surely support this new EPA proposal because it will slow the damage from climate change, protect the habitats of endangered species and spur new innovations in clean energy technologies. Others will likely oppose the new rule because of concerns about increased costs for businesses and consumers.
While all of these points are worthy of debate, for me, this new clean air rule represents something far more fundamental:
It is a clear and urgent test of our national political will to protect public health. And that trumps every other consideration.
In his recent statement in support of the new EPA rule, American Lung Association National President and CEO Harold P. Wimmer laid out the inescapable facts. He said:
“Power plant pollution makes people sick and cuts short lives. We are pleased to see significant health benefits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which would prevent up to 4,000 premature deaths and 100,000 asthma attacks in the first year they are in place, and prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks in 2030.
Cleaning up carbon pollution will have an immediate, positive impact on public health; particularly for those who suffer from chronic diseases like asthma, heart disease or diabetes. Steps to clean up carbon pollution can reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, both poisonous emissions from coal-fired power plants that are also major precursors to lethal ozone and particulate matter pollution.”
According to recent data from the Missouri Department of Public Health, 10.1 percent of children ages 17 and younger in my home state have been diagnosed with asthma.
But in the city of St. Louis, that figure soars to 19.6 percent, and African-American children account for 91.9 percent of all emergency room visits for asthma attacks.
Last year, 472 young people were hospitalized for asthma, and tragically, five of them died.
In a very moving letter to EPA Director Gina McCarthy, dated May 29, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rightly pointed out that adopting this new clean air rule is not only a moral and scientific imperative, it is also a profound matter of faith and social justice. They wrote:
“We are pastors in a faith tradition that teaches, as Pope Francis recently stated, ‘Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.’
“The best evidence indicates that power plants are the largest stationary source of carbon emissions in the United States, and a major contributor to climate change. Power plants have often been located near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Air pollution from these plants contributes to respiratory problems, especially in the young and the elderly.
“Efforts to address climate change must take into account creation and its relationship to ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25).”
My mother church has clearly and correctly framed this decision as a matter of morality and environmental justice.
The immediate and long-term benefits to human health are obvious, and the heavy cost of inaction is much too high.
I applaud President Obama and McCarthy for their strong leadership to help America breathe easier. For the sake of my son, and for all our children, the new EPA rule on carbon emissions should be fully implemented.