by David M. Introcaso
In late January the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee released a draft discussion of its COVID-prompted public health bill titled, “Prepare for and Respond to Existing Viruses, Emerging New Threats, and Pandemics Act” (PREVENT Pandemics Act). Patty Murray, HELP Committee Chairwoman and Washington State senator, defined the bill as one that would “improve the nation’s preparedness for future public health emergencies.” We need to, Senator Murray stated further, “take every step we can to make sure we are never in this situation again.” The draft is fatally flawed because inexplicably the HELP Committee, the Senate “public health” committee, does not address much less recognize ever-increasing health harms caused by the climate crisis. As a result, the committee’s bill is what Orwell would term a “flagrant violation of reality.”
Preparing for “emerging new threats” appears unrelated to the Pacific Northwest’s recent 1,000-year heat wave, made 150 times more likely by Anthropocene warming, that killed 1,400 including Chairwoman Murray constituents, moreover seniors. In sum, last year produced 20, $1 billion climate-related disasters. Over the past five years these have cost Americans $750 billion. Last summer’s heat dome also killed Senate Finance Committee Chairman constituents. Unlike the HELP Committee, Senate Finance did hold, for the first time in nine years, a climate-crisis related hearing this session. However, Senator Wyden defined the climate crisis exclusively as a tax policy problem. In his opening statement, he argued, “Getting the policy right . . . is the whole ballgame.” If only. How does tax reform remedy the 58% of excess annual US deaths caused by fossil fuel emissions particularly when greenhouse gas emissions, moreover CO2, remain in the atmosphere for upwards of a thousand years.
Among numerous other flights from reality, during last November’s UN’s climate related COP 26 meeting in Glasgow, the Biden administration refused to join 40 other countries in committing to phasing out coal-fired energy over the next decade. Refusing to do so, is, largely the whole ball game. Coal combustion is single largest contributor to Anthropocene warming responsible for nearly half of carbon emissions worldwide. This is appreciably due to the fact the US still operates 240 coal plants that generate 22% of the country’s electricity. If the US had proportionately the same number of coal plants as the UK, they would number 15.
Not to be outdone by President Obama who immediately upon returning from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord lifted the 40-year ban on crude oil exports, immediately upon returning from Glasgow, where President Biden pledged the US would “lead by example,” his administration announced largest ever sale of oil and gas drilling leases by opening 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. This despite the fact fossil fuels extracted from public lands account for 25% of total carbon emissions. The US is already the world’s largest oil producer and recently became the world’s leading exporter of liquified natural gas.
American recalcitrance in international efforts to address the climate crisis is tragically well established. In 1992 President Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) but only after requiring words meaning binding, enforceable and measurable be prohibited. Though President Clinton signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the first substantive effort to limit global carbon emissions, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd led the passage of a resolution that made Senate consent impossible. The US delegation did succeed in Kyoto in negotiating exempting military-related emissions from future reduction targets. The Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional consumer of oil. In 2009 the Obama administration helped negotiate the “Copenhagen Pledge” whereby developed countries, disproportionately responsible for the global warming, promised to pay reparations to undeveloped countries. The pledge has yet to be even remotely met. The US agreed to the Paris Accord, then withdrew, then rejoined.
The US is responsible for upwards of 40% of historical Anthropocene emissions that explain 90% of the current climate crisis. Leaving aside the US meeting its fair share of emission reductions, calculated at a 195% reduction by 2030 (or 70% in emission reductions plus funding mitigation efforts overseas equivalent to an additional 125% of 2005 baseline US emissions), the US was never on track to meet its Paris pledge to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Biden’s pledge to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 is too a fiction as long as his administration continues to refuse to decouple fossil fuels from the economy – all made poignantly evident by fellow Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin determination to have his voting record reflected in the geological record.
Despite 30 years of international efforts to reduce global carbon emissions, they have roughly doubled since 1992. For the first time in 2022 carbon emissions will average 150% of preindustrial levels. Globally, warming has reached an average of 1.2°C. Based on current pledges there is a 0% chance to keep warming to 1.5C, the “preferable” Paris Accord goal. Warming is now on track to reach 2.7°C sometime this century. This largely means two things. (Trigger Warning: extinction.)
At a certain warming threshold, thought to be between 1.6°C and 2°C, a sufficient number of tipping points or cascades will have been crossed causing uncontrollable warming. Several of these tipping cascades have already been reached. Likely most concerning is permafrost melt for two reasons. A 2019 UN report concluded Arctic temperatures will inexorably increase 3°C to 5°C by midcentury and permafrost harbors roughly two times the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. A trajectory where warming is locked in regardless of the elimination of Anthropocene carbon emissions has been termed “Hothouse Earth.” Scientists have concluded the resulting impacts would be catastrophic meaning the end of civilization.
Global warming is a significant contributor to biological annihilation, specifically the planet’s ongoing sixth mass extinction. For example, presently half of all flora and fauna in the world’s most biodiverse places are at risk of extinction. A recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study concluded a select number of over 1,000 vertebrates are facing near term extinction because their extinction rate is 117 times higher than the background rate. The problem is explained in part by the fact extinction breeds extinctions. Four of the five previous planetary mass extinctions were also caused by similarly high atmospheric carbon concentrations, largely the result of volcanism, the worst of which extinguished 90% of all planetary life.
It should be painfully obvious the health harms posed by the climate crisis, what Washington Governor Jay Inslee correctly terms a “permanent emergency,” are innumerable. This is largely because, correctly understood, the climate crisis is not an event but simultaneously a meta problem and a threat multiplier. Just ask the Pentagon. HELP Committee staff must be aware of the Obama administration’s encyclopedic 2016 volume, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment” that over eight chapters exhaustively documents human health effects related to heat, compromised air quality, extreme weather events, related vector and water-borne diseases, food and nutrition related illnesses and related mental and behavioral health diagnoses. It too must be aware of the annual Lancet “Countdown Report on Climate and Health” that quantitatively documents, among related issues, climate related health impacts, exposures and vulnerabilities.
There are numerous ways the HELP bill can and should address climate crisis health threats – particularly since they disproportionately impact Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries. Via the committee’s overarching interest in improving public health security, the obvious solutions include requiring the health care industry to join all other large industries and engage in public sustainability reporting. The committee should also require the industry again like all others to publicly report their carbon emissions, that are considerable at 8.5% of total US emissions, via the EPA’s Energy Star program and require them to eventually eliminate their carbon footprint. The HELP Committee needs to support the current National Academy of Medicine’s “action collaborative” effort to decarbonize the health care sector. That the federal government pays providers to substantially harm Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries via their emissions has always been intolerable. The HELP Committee can forward its interest in reducing health disparities by requiring the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights to examine and respond to racially discriminatory effects caused by the climate crisis in light of the Office’s responsibility to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Concerning the committee’s interest in public health workforce there is a substantial need to educate, for example Federally Qualified Health Center providers, to anticipate or prevent and effectively treat climate-related health harms. Regarding supply chain, the committee should require the Food and Drug Administration to begin to regulatorily address reducing supply chain carbon emissions that are responsible for approximately 70% of total health care industry emissions.
Should the Senate public health committee, with a Congress controlled by the Democrats, refuse to address climate crisis health harms in the very near future the conversation immediately becomes akin to arguing White Star Line health and safety policies with the captain of the Titanic.