Health Threats from Climate Change: Why I Fight for Clean Energy in Michigan

Talking about climate change can quickly devolve into a total nerd fest of numbers, percentages, and energy system modeling. I love the details as much as anyone, but sometimes the focus on data obscures what's most important for me about climate change: the impact of climate-related health threats for our children, grandchildren, and future generations.

Worsening air quality, extreme heat, extreme precipitation and flooding, and greater exposure to dangerous diseases are just a few of the health threats related to a warming planet fueled by carbon pollution. Climate-driven threats to health are what motivate me to tackle climate change by fighting for clean energy in Michigan and other Midwest states.

The American Lung Association's "State of the Air 2015" found more than 4 in 10 people in the U.S. live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate pollution, which contaminate the air and are dangerous at even low levels. Vehicle tailpipe exhaust contributes to ozone creation, the main ingredient of smog. Particulate pollution is created from dust, soot, and sediment in the air, whether from coal-fired power plants, industrial smokestacks or cars.

Michigan's annual "State of the Air" review contained good and bad news. The good news is that air quality can improve with standards such as those found in the Clean Air Act that reduce power plant emissions and require cleaner cars and trucks. Five Michigan counties improved its particulate pollution levels including Bay, Chippewa, Kent, Monroe and St. Clair Counties. But air quality worsened in two Michigan counties: Manistee and Wayne. Twenty counties in Michigan earned a failing grade for high ozone days, according to the American Lung Association's 2015 report.

Fighting for healthy air will become more challenging over time as climate change makes it harder to keep pollution levels low enough to prevent harm to human health.

Higher temperatures increase levels of ozone and particle pollution, which may shorten lives by contributing to strokes, heart attacks, and severe asthma attacks. Particulate pollution can contribute to lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization, which is the top cause of cancer deaths in the nation. The elderly, infants and children, and lower-income people face particularly acute risks from climate-related health threats, which will exacerbate health disparities and other challenges already faced by these populations. Even healthy adults, especially those who work outside, are at higher risk of health issues from unhealthy air.

Extreme heat and heat waves are expected to become more common in the next few decades in Michigan and nationwide. It's expected that Michigan can expect to see more than twice as many days over 90 degrees F in 2084 as there were during the heat wave of 1988, the year Detroit experienced 39 days of 90 degree heat, and five days of 100 degree temperatures. Heat-related deaths are projected to increase as well, with Detroit potentially facing more than double the current number by the 2080s, within the lifetime of our children.

Michigan can protect future generations from the worst impacts of climate change but now is a time for bold action, not baby steps, toward a clean energy future. The EPA's Clean Power Plan process can help Michigan transition to safer, cleaner energy sources that will lessen levels of harmful pollution and create a healthier future for our children. Michigan is in the driver's seat when it comes to creating a state plan moving ahead: redoubling the state's investments in energy efficiency, and renewable wind and solar power is the best strategy for reducing pollution, creating jobs, saving money on electricity bills, and improving the health of Michigan's greatest resource, its people.