American energy policy: Government must do what’s right for the health of its citizens

Wind farm and greenhouse gas farm, together, photo by kevin dooley via flickr

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2014 — By almost a two-to-one margin, Americans are willing to pay more for cleaner and greener energy. They are willing to support a candidate who addresses the issue of climate change. This is a very good sign as America approaches mid-term Congressional elections later this year.

The poll, conducted by Bloomberg, also gives the U.S. Administration a much needed-boost, coming on the heels of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

This confirms that the public is ready to rally on climate change. It is now up to policymakers and industry to answer the call. Given the option, rational Americans will choose an energy source much like they might choose a neighborhood in which to buy a home. Cleanliness becomes a factor, as does the overall health of the neighborhood, but so too the sustainability of the community.

READ ALSO: Climate change, high oil prices, coal pollution: Nuclear power is the answer

Energy is little different. Our energy sources must be clean enough and healthy enough for Americans and they must sustain America, economically and environmentally, long into the future. Renewability and sustainability of energy sources must be front and center in any policy decision, whether it’s finite fossil fuels or infinite solar and wind energy. That the U.S. energy sector is responsible for one-third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions is no longer acceptable.

The American public supports this thinking and are willing to pay more for energy that contributes constructively to the physical health of our citizens and the economic health of our economy. This is what policymakers must consider when protecting this country and ensuring its long-term survival. We can no longer let big polluters stand in the way of improving Clean Air Act standards to safeguard the health of American families. Nor can we let our lungs be contaminated by filthy fuels anymore.

We must, therefore, do what’s right for the health of America’s citizens. We know that America’s reliance on fossil fuels, like coal, comes with a higher risk of heart attacks, lung cancer, asthma and other health problems via pollutants like soot, acid rain, and ozone-destroying chemicals. American health has for too long been undermined by abundant amounts of sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxide in the air. Its impact on the public is profound.

READ ALSO: Near-term future for renewable electricity

America’s minority groups, for example, are disproportionately affected when it comes to adverse impact on health. Approximately 40 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant, which means they’re highly vulnerable to the negative impacts of a power plant’s toxic pollutants and particle soot. Nearly 1 in 2 Latinos reside in counties that are in frequent violation of ozone standards.  Latinos are three times more likely to die from asthma than any other ethnic group. This must change.

Consider America’s workers not lost to or disabled by heart attack, lung cancer, asthma or other health problems. Our workers are going to be able to contribute more effectively to our country’s economic productivity than a sick or dying workforce made worse by pollutants from dirty energy.  Cleaner energy means less cleanup and upkeep as there are fewer toxins eroding physical and human capital.

Consider another interest for America to cut the carbon in the air. Beyond better health and a cleaner and greener economy, fewer greenhouse gas emissions means fewer natural disasters. The relationship between emissions and extreme weather is one that our nation knows all too well. The greatest weapon against a category 5 hurricane or devastating drought is for America to cut its carbon footprint in a meaningful way.

Our imperative is clear, then, to clean up our air and clean up our energy, irrespective of any debate over our warming planet and climbing carbon emissions. If it’s doable, let’s do it, and reap the economic benefits of a clean energy economy.

If we want to save our communities from impending natural disasters, save our citizens from poisonous pollutants, and save our economy from energy options that are less than sustainable and renewable, then the choice going forward is clear: Keep it clean.

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Michael Shank
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington DC. Michael is also Adjunct Faculty and a Board Member at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Board Member at Communities Without Boundaries International, Senior Fellow at the French American Global Forum and the Just Jobs Network, and Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. Prior to joining FCNL, Michael served for four years as a congressional staffer, working as US Congressman Michael Honda's Senior Policy Advisor and Communications Director. Michael's career over the past 20 years has involved UN, government and non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as an adviser on diplomatic, economic, energy, and environmental security and policy initiatives. Michael's Ph.D. from George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution focused on Climate Conflict.
  • JWPicht

    All right, energy sources should be sustainable and clean, but when you say the public is willing to pay for that, how much are they willing to pay? And how clean is clean? What do you mean by “sustainable”? Windfarms are chopping up migratory birds and eagles at an alarming clip; does that affect their sustainability, or do you simply mean that it will provide energy forever? Is nuclear greener than natural gas?

    But first things first. Do those surveys say just how much Americans are willing to pay for cleaner energy? I’d like to buy a Tesla and put solar panels on the roof, but my wife would be really annoyed if I spent that much on a car, and neither of us is willing to cough up the money (even with tax incentives) to install solar panels. Yeah, I’m willing to pay a little more for clean energy and I’ll tell the pollsters as much, but don’t expect me to go along if “clean and sustainable” is going to double my energy costs.

    You said that people choose energy like they choose a community. Well, a big factor in my decision where to live is how much the house costs. I don’t care how sustainable and beautiful the community is or how great the schools are; I’m not buying a $2 million house on a $500K budget.

    • Steve Davidson

      Great question about how much people are willing to pay. The amount makes all the difference in the world on what people are willing or unwilling to pay for.

      So far, there isn’t a realistic assessment on the cost of the EPA proposed Clean Power Plan released June 2nd. I’ve been studying the plan and am working up an estimate. I’ll do a CDN story about it.

  • Alan Poirier

    What bothers me about all the debate about CO2 is the fact that we are looking at the problem entirely from the perspective of climate. CO2 can be a feedstock. CO2 can be used to make all sorts of food, building materials and even fuel. Imagine a fish food plant attached to a power plant which is a adjacent to a fish pond – a virtuous circle. We have got to start thinking outside the box.