Dan Quinlan: A message from the Vermont health community: Listen

This commentary is from Dan Quinlan of Burlington, president of the Vermont Climate and Health Alliance.

Let’s dismiss the bad news. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released a new report – the latest in a long line of chilling scientific papers that have been published for many years.

The unprecedented heat waves, massive fires and intense storms that we experienced last summer in North America have once again underscored the validity of the superb work done by the scientific teams of the IPCC. It’s no surprise, then, that the World Health Organization has declared climate change to be “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.”

Public health experts focus on the “social determinants of health”. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines this idea as “the conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes and quality of life.”

For example, your ability to feed yourself and earn an income has a huge impact on your health. Imagine our local farms being constantly flooded. You won’t buy local food and these farmers won’t be able to make a living. You also might not be able to get to a grocery store.

Play out these types of scenarios and there is only one conclusion: if we do not act, climate change will become the most powerful and important driver that will undermine all social determinants of health. That’s why medical and health professionals around the world have been demanding for years that governments and businesses start listening to climate scientists.

Fortunately, Vermont is blessed with a tireless and knowledgeable group of environmental organizations, and many legislators, who refuse to sit idly by. For 2022, advocacy groups have jointly developed the “Joint Agenda 2022”. This is a smart, high impact and fair plan. If you want to do something about climate change, read it. Then call (or write) Governor Scott and your state legislators and tell them you support this program. Or, just focus on one or two ideas that you find most compelling and talk about them.

Our hardworking, unstaffed, highly committed Vermont legislators won’t know what you’re thinking unless you tell them. They appreciate hearing from us because they care about us and Vermont.

Let’s dive into a big hitter in the common agenda. Like our neighboring states, Vermont’s transportation sector is by far the largest source of carbon pollution in the state (approximately 40%). Fossil fuel cars, buses and trucks release pollutants that aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, including asthma, multiple lung diseases, heart disease and many forms of cancer. Carbon pollution from our tailpipes also drives climate change – the cause of the much worse impacts described earlier.

For this reason, 300 Vermont healthcare professionals have signed this letter calling for a comprehensive approach to reduce transportation pollution and protect the health and well-being of all Vermont residents, especially our young children.

Our tailpipe emissions also spread throughout the northeast. Transportation pollution is a huge environmental, health and equity issue that disproportionately affects the nation’s most vulnerable residents.

In its annual “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Association found that “despite some nationwide progress in cleaning the air, more than 40% of Americans – more than 135 million people – live in places with unhealthy ozone levels.” or particulate pollution. The burden of living with unhealthy air is not shared equally. People of color are more than three times more likely to breathe the most polluted air than white people.

In February 2021, a study from Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health surprisingly confirmed these claims. The team found that more than 8 million people worldwide died in 2018 due to fossil fuel pollution (almost the equivalent of the population of New York).

Let’s get back to what we can do together. Common sense says that the Legislature and Governor Phil Scott must pass aggressive and fair laws and programs that will accelerate:

  • The adoption of electric vehicles of all types (including e-bikes), along with a commensurate increase in charging infrastructure.
  • The adoption of electric buses for public transport and school transport.
  • Use of public transport.
  • Urban planning and construction that supports and promotes cycling and walking.
  • Using federal funds allocated to Vermont for transportation to aggressively reduce transportation pollution.
  • Engagement with neighboring states in the development and adoption of a multi-state solution that leverages Vermont’s economic power by creating and implementing a new regional approach to our shared transportation challenges, such as the Transportation Climate Initiative.

For the good of all, especially those in overburdened and underserved communities, it is time to wake up and get moving. We need much more immediate, dramatic and lasting action to protect Vermont children and our communities from the devastating health effects of a warming world.

Please join the Vermont medical and health community in speaking out. Call Governor Scott and your legislators about transportation ideas or other parts of the common agenda. They need to hear from all of us today. If you do, you will feel much better in the morning.