Gina McCarthy to Congress: We Must Act Boldly on Climate to Protect Public Health

It’s not an either–or: Urgent climate action will save lives and boost the economy. The solutions are in reach.
A view of the smokestack of the Cheswick coal-fired power plant in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Local residents complain about the amount of pollution from the power plant that have impacted their health and respiratory systems.
Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

It’s not an either–or: Urgent climate action will save lives and boost the economy. The solutions are in reach.

Today I’m testifying in front of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to make clear that the biggest public health threat we face today is climate change. And here’s what I plan to make clear: The longer we wait to reduce harmful carbon pollution, the more lives we lose, the sicker people become, and the higher economic costs rise. But there has never been more on the line—and the solutions are also there for the taking.

I also plan to share with them the experiences and data that brought me to this view and why I’m so committed to this fight.

That commitment starts at home. I have three children. And I’m lucky enough to have two grandkids to love and cherish. They’ll be 32 and 31 years old in 2050—the year science tells us we must have a zero-carbon economy if we want to avoid the most destructive climate impacts. It's my responsibility to defend a healthier and brighter future for all of our kids. Our climate fight is that personal.

When I led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, our success was measured in lives saved, healthier kids, and fewer asthma attacks. Climate change was in our purview, because the mission is protecting people from pollution…just like the carbon pollution fueling this crisis. This should not be a partisan issue.

I recently took the helm of NRDC because I couldn't sit on the sidelines. We need to restore science as the foundation of sound public policy. We need to change how we fuel our global economy. And frankly, we don’t have time to put our heads in the sand or muzzle scientists.

We must recognize that carbon pollution is not an equal opportunity killer. Climate-warming pollution targets our children, the elderly, the poor, and the powerless—especially communities of color, who often live closer to power plants and busy roads. Four million kids each year develop asthma simply because they have the misfortune of living near a major roadway. If you’re a parent and your child uses an inhaler, these statistics are all too real for you. Shame on all of us who could be doing something about it.

The health risks associated with climate change carry a steep economic cost. NRDC and the University of California, San Francisco recently teamed up to quantify that cost. When you stack up fewer than a dozen climate-related events in 2012—including wildfires in Colorado and Washington, Lyme disease in Michigan, and algal blooms in Florida, among others—you get $10 billion in health costs. About 65 percent of those medical bills were paid for by Medicare and Medicaid, pointing to the outsize harm of climate change to older adults and low-income people.

Yes, climate change is the world’s biggest public health challenge today—but also our biggest public health opportunity. And we have solutions that move us toward clean energy and healthier communities.

  • Nationally, the cost of solar and wind power dropped more than 25 percent last year alone. From 2010 to 2018, wind, solar, and geothermal more than tripled its proportion of our national energy mix.
  • Energy efficiency is essential to decarbonization—and employs 2.3 million people, twice as many as the entire fossil fuel industry.
  • The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast—a multistate effort to cut carbon pollution from the power sector—has delivered billions of dollars in health benefits. It's led to cleaner air and lower infant mortality rates.

I just don’t buy any argument about economic hardship resulting from public health protection: RGGI states have continued to grow their economies while cutting carbon pollution nearly in half. That’s a snapshot of a nationwide and worldwide truth.

In my new role at the helm of NRDC, I plan to continue working alongside local and state governments, communities, as well as this congressional committee, as we recommend bold policy initiatives that can chart a different course on climate. Together, we can ensure healthier, more just future—all while creating jobs and reducing health care costs at the same time.

That’s the kind of future I want for my kids and grandkids. They are my moral compass. They are what I fight for. They are the reason I’m testifying today.


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