Posted by: davidjolson | 11/20/2009

Promoting health benefits of clean energy at White House

Our blog post yesterday (see next post below) focused on the close links between population, women and climate change in developing countries, as documented in UNFPA’s new State of the World Population 2009 report released on Wednesday.

Today I spent the better part of the day in the White House focusing on a domestic dimension of that same phenomenon — the public health benefits of clean energy reform in the U.S. The Obama Administration — through Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and other senior officials of both departments — made a strong case for the many health reasons we should care about clean energy, in additional to the many environmental and economic ones we already know about.

Administrator Jackson related to the issue in a very personal way: She talked movingly about her 13-year-old son, who has been asthmatic since infancy and could not always go outside because of air quality (she said that one in 10 American kids suffer from asthma).

The hundred or so people attending the summit had come from all over the country on relatively short notice for something they believed in, and more than a few of them expressed passion, commitment and gratitude that the administration was taking this on. There were business and community leaders, advocates, activists, academics and nonprofit leaders from California, Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts and many other states.

Increasingly, the Global Health Council is learning about — and calling attention to — global warming’s effects on public health in developing countries. A major focus of our presence at the G20 Pittsburgh Summit in September was to highlight the links between global health and climate change. In an article in the official G20 magazine, our President and CEO Jeffrey L. Sturchio wrote the following:

“Whether considering cholera epidemics in Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, malaria in East Africa, the European heat wave of 2003 or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, one can see that climate change has direct, predictable and measurable impacts on health. Heat waves, floods and rising sea levels, for example, have consequences for the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. Scarcity of clean water can lead to outbreaks of diarrhoeal disease and trachoma.”

Secretary Sebelius made the same point in the White House Summit on Friday, pointing out that global warming was increasing malaria, dengue and salmonella.

The White House event had a strong domestic focus — I saw only one other person there from the global health world. But it gradually dawned on me that just about everything that was being said about how clean energy can improve health in the U.S. domestically also applied to developing countries, but even more urgently.

I wonder whether this new partnership to promote the benefits of clean energy in the U.S. will manifest itself in the Global Health Initiative proposed by President Obama in May. We hope so, because just like the most vulnerable Americans are hit hardest by climate change, the most vulnerable and poorest people in developing countries are most affected (and, as I found out Wednesday at the UNFPA event, women are particularly vulnerable), and would benefit even more from clean energy than the poor of the U.S.

The global health community — including the Global Health Council — looks forward to working with the Obama Administration to highlight the public health benefits of clean energy not only in the U.S. but in developing countries as well.

On Nov. 25, The Lancet will publish a major international study on the public health impacts of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first major study of its type.

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