Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Where climate change intersects with public health

by Dr. Ken Hilsbos

As a Fairmont physician, I am worried for my community. I am now seeing an alarming number of patients suffer heart attacks, strokes, lung disease, neurological problems and other serious health conditions. With continuing poor air quality here, I see more and more children and adults with poorly controlled asthma. We who love the outdoors are more likely to get — like I did recently — the dreaded Lyme disease, a tick-borne infection that has recently changed from rare to common in our state.

Climate change and pollution from fossil fuels threaten not only our health, but our lives and livelihoods. Fossil fuels lead to hundreds of premature deaths every year in our state. In 2016, flooding killed 23 West Virginians and destroyed thousands of homes. Floods are increasing due to climate change, with heavy rainfall increasing 55% from 2005 to 2016. A new report puts West Virginia among the four states in greatest danger of flooding. Recently, my own clinic building flooded, even though it is not in a flood plain.

Extreme heat kills more people each year than any other natural disaster. By 2050, days with extreme heat are expected to increase tenfold in West Virginia.

Many health professionals are frightened that — without a rapid transition to clean renewable energy — our grandchildren will inherit a world with safety, security and good health unattainable for many. We cannot afford to allow inaction to keep worsening the climate crisis, fossil fuel pollution and related health damage.

As West Virginians, we are proud that coal and oil powered our nation. But there are high costs — to our air and water, our forests and mountains and our health and well-being. West Virginians no longer need to pay this high price. The continuing decline in coal jobs provides an opening to innovate using clean energy technology,

Let’s urge Sen. Joe Manchin to seize this moment — this unique opportunity to continue our legacy as an energy leader. Transitioning to a clean energy economy promises the bright future that West Virginia so richly deserves. The Build Back Better Act and Clean Electricity Performance Program will provide essential support for this transition, enable us to continue powering the country in a way that benefits all and ultimately position us as a global leader in renewable energy.

Good health requires well-paying jobs. As chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Sen. Manchin can ensure that coal miners and their communities transition smoothly to a clean energy economy. The Build Back Better Act — supported by an overwhelming majority of West Virginians — will bring us outsized benefits, including billions of investment dollars to improve our infrastructure and add thousands of permanent, good-paying jobs.

Solar energy and wind turbines will save money on energy bills and boost tax revenues, allowing us to maintain roads and keep rural schools open and services running. These investments will reduce air and water pollution, revive our cherished communities, restore our beautiful natural environment, where we hunt and fish, and promote the growth of our tourism and other industries.

This clean energy transition will save lives and improve our health. A 2020 study found that the closure of coal-fired power plants between 2005 and 2016 saved an estimated 26,610 lives due to reduction in air pollution, with 5,300 lives saved in the Ohio Valley alone. Nationwide, a clean energy transition would save at least 100,000 lives annually and provide $700 billion per year in reduced health care costs and improved productivity. These health benefits will more than pay for the cost of transition.

Climate change is the greatest public health threat of our lifetime. The transition to clean energy is one of the greatest health and economic innovations of our lifetime. Nowhere is this truer than in West Virginia.

Sen. Manchin, there is still time. Please support the Clean Electricity Performance Program and Build Back Better Act so every West Virginian has the opportunity for a healthy and prosperous future.

Dr. Ken Hilsbos, a Fairmont Family Practice physician, wrote this essay with the assistance of public health scientists Drs. Kim Innes and Bill Reger-Nash.