Climate Justice and Public Health
By Jean Stewart, Chair, Earth & Environment Task Force
The Northeast and Atlantic seaboard have recently been exposed to the health hazards of particulate matter—soot—from widespread wildfires in eastern Canada. We’re accustomed to seeing smoke coming from wildfires out West, but generally not having to breathe it because it’s too high in the atmosphere to reach our lungs. This week we personally experienced what so many of our fellow Americans in the West have had to breathe over and over again from the increasing number of wildfires there. Now, because the weather conditions have pushed the eastern Canadian smoke into our lower atmosphere where it has resulted in air so polluted that breathing it was dangerous for everyone, we’ve felt their pain. We were cautioned to stay indoors, or if that wasn’t possible, to break out the N95 COVID masks again. Outdoor activities were postponed or moved indoors.
Our recent personal encounters with hazardous air pollution can focus us on one of the biggest and most immediate dangers of the climate crisis. A warming world changes weather and atmospheric patterns, in many places drying out soil and vegetation, making wildfires not only more likely but much more intense, so hot and furious that they create their own weather. Unusual airflow patterns can easily bring the smoke and soot into far-flung areas not actually experiencing the fires themselves. Warmer air retains more water vapor, which further dries out soil and vegetation. In some places the additional water vapor lets loose into unusually intense rainstorms, dropping inches of rain in less than an hour, or storms remaining in one spot for days at a time. Tropical storms do not necessarily occur more frequently, but are often more powerful. Instead of fires, we have floods which bring their own threats, not only to infrastructure, but to the health of the communities affected. Flood water picks up all the pollutants in the soil, from vehicles and buildings, from pesticides, animal waste, sewage, and toxic chemicals from flooded factories.
Adding to these immediate dangers to public health is the arrival of the El Niño weather pattern, a periodic cycle of changes in ocean temperatures and wind currents. El Niño is a natural climate oscillation that produces a warming effect, but “Scientists believe extreme El Niño…patterns may develop more frequently…. [G]reenhouse gas emissions cause the planet to continue warming [making]…El Niño’s own warming influence more pronounced and dramatic.” More frequent and extreme El Niños would “fuel more intense storms, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires.” Extreme heat is more deadly to health and life than either fire or flood.
Frightening and overwhelming, these threats can lead to paralysis, to the feeling that doing anything is hopeless. However, like politics, climate action is at least partly local. Here in Washington DC, the city government has already taken some ambitious actions to reduce our carbon emissions: DC is committed to transition its electricity supply to 100% renewable sources (principally wind and solar) by 2032.
The term “natural gas” makes it sound healthy and green: it is anything but. It is actually mostly made up of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, generally obtained through fracking, a dirty and leaky process that exposes people living nearby—usually lower-income communities—to toxic chemicals in the surrounding air and water. As the fracked gas is transported to consumers it can leak from pipelines, and can result in explosions from these leaks.
The DC City Council is now considering proposed legislation called The Healthy Homes Act that would provide both federal and city funding to enable low- and moderate-income households to change from gas to clean electricity. Contrary to what right-wing politicians say, this is not some government mandate that will “take away your gas stoves.” It instead enables low- and moderate-income residents who want to change from gas to electric but cannot afford it, to install modern heat pumps and induction stoves—much more efficient, effective, and over time cheaper systems for heating and cooking. Above all, this is a public health measure, because research has made it clear that burning methane gas indoors produces nitrogen dioxide, a strong irritant to the lungs that can cause asthma in children, exacerbate it in those who already have asthma, and add to the breathing difficulties of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Chronic respiratory illness and attendant cardiovascular diseases are much more common in our more vulnerable communities than among DC’s more affluent residents.
Three groups of climate justice advocates have linked up to take action: the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), and Interfaith Power and Light (IPL). They are allies in the local fight for climate justice, advocating for passage and funding for The Healthy Homes Act, testifying at Council hearings and lobbying Council members and officials of government agencies. In addition, the DC Sierra Club, WIN, and IPL are marshaling teams of volunteers to conduct a “citizen science” project this summer. Volunteers are being trained and will go to 500 homes with gas stoves whose residents are interested in learning about indoor pollution levels from cooking with gas. The citizen scientists will visit residents who have signed up for the project, and using a meter to measure the nitrogen dioxide emitted by stoves when burners and ovens are turned on, will record the results. The data from the completed project will be presented in a written report, announced in a press release, and shared with local media. The purpose of the project is to educate, to provide solid data on indoor pollution from methane gas, and to incentivize local residents to consider changing their heating and cooking fuel from gas to all electric.
The final report may even be part of convincing a wider public that gas is not green, and that people’s health and the health of the planet will benefit by moving to clean electricity from renewable sources.
These critical issues can be drowned out by our current barrages of political attacks and counter attacks. There are many excellent sources for keeping up with factual environmental news: environmental journalists writing in newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times; websites of The Climate Reality Project (created by Al Gore), the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Sierra Club, the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Beyond Gas (beyondgasdc.org).
 Washington Post, May 9, 2023, Health and Science section.