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Janis Petzel of Islesboro, a doctor, is on the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine Chapter.
Public health works on the premise that it’s best to prevent diseases that you cannot cure. Clean water, clean air and vaccinations are examples of wildly successful public health measures. We know that pollution from fossil fuel use is a public health calamity which will cost our country $167 billion in direct health care costs from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases alone over the next 35 years. And that doesn’t begin to count the cost to health of climate disruption. So, what’s the most logical next public health intervention to prevent disease and excess mortality?
Pollution from fossil fuels respects no boundaries. We know this in Maine, as the “tail pipe” of the nation. The damage — physical, mental, and economic — from fossil fuel pollution falls heaviest on the poor and vulnerable.
Maine’s asthma rates are some of the worst in the country. Why? The Maine Center for Disease Control lists high summer ozone levels, increasing pollen counts (both worsening with the warming climate) and pollution from burning fossil fuels that brings damaging airborne particulates such as smog, smoke and soot to Maine on prevailing winds as factors that increase risk for asthma. That’s just one example linking fossil fuels to disease.
Living on an island as I do, climate change is more than an abstract threat. Lyme Disease is endemic here. The road to the ferry, our lifeline to the mainland, will likely be under water during storm surges by 2030, and submerged at high tides by 2050. Like the rest of Maine, our power goes out so often that we fill up water jugs as soon as the wind begins to blow. Rising ocean and atmospheric temperatures means existing infrastructure is at risk from increasingly violent storms, which are themselves a direct risk to human health.
Luckily, clean technology exists. We don’t have to wait for some magical invention to come along. But it’s not enough for individuals to adapt to this technology on their own. Even if a Maine family acquires solar panels, heat pumps, an electric vehicle and battery storage for the renewable energy they produce on their rooftop, they still live in a world with electrical grids that struggle to accept all the wind and solar energy that Maine wants to make, their children still ride in diesel-burning school buses over old bridges and their classrooms and small businesses still need broadband internet connections.
The Islesboro Energy Committee, of which I am a part, was one of 11 U.S. communities fortunate to secure technical assistance from the Department of Energy’s Energy Transitions Initiative from national laboratories including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to improve our island’s resilience to climate change.
But no island is an island, to paraphrase poet John Donne. We are still connected to the rest of the planet. And what about all the communities that are not receiving this assistance? We need infrastructure upgrades from the top down. Americans across party lines believe taking steps to prevent climate change will help their health, the economy and create jobs. They are right.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, have voiced their support for investments in clean, resilient infrastructure. Rep. Jared Golden’s infrastructure focus is on making sure rural Maine is not left behind. Thank you, Team Maine! Our children’s futures depend on your actions today.
As a grandparent, I want the world to be livable for my grandson and for all children. As a doctor, I want us to get at the underlying cause of so much illness — our antiquated, fossil fuel-dependent energy infrastructure, which is failing us, our health and our environment, and is the source of too much social injustice. Clean energy infrastructure will bring us better public health, a stronger and more equitable economy, dependable jobs and will mitigate climate change. Let’s get it done!