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A Medical Student's View: Decisive action needed to combat climate change

Sam Stokes CerkvenikAs a medical student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, I’ve become increasingly interested in global health. One of the greatest threats to human health in our lifetime is climate change.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby is an organization that advocates for climate-change action. Its goal is to lobby local politicians to support carbon-fee-and-dividend legislation, which would place a rising price on carbon and return all revenue to households, after administrative costs.

I joined this organization because, as a future physician, I’m concerned about the effects climate change will have on the public health in coming years.

A recent New York Times article illustrated how this movement can become a bipartisan effort. Prominent Republicans like former White House Chief of Staff James Baker III and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have put forward their own ideas on how to implement a carbon tax. That plan would be similar to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s goal. George Shultz, the former Secretary of State for President Ronald Reagan, is on the advisory board for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

The carbon-fee-and-dividend plan proposed by the lobby would work by proposing a $15-per-ton fee on carbon-equivalent emissions of fossil fuels and by increasing the amount by $10 annually. All of the money collected would be given back to each household at the end of each month.

An import fee would be placed on countries that don’t adopt a similar carbon fee, preventing businesses from relocating where they can emit more carbon. These actions would result in a slow phase-out of fossil fuels while renewable-energy technology becomes more efficient.

According to Regional Economic Models, Inc., this plan would result in a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions and 2.8 million jobs driven by the economic stimulus of the energy dividend. Importantly, this would result in an avoidance of 230,000 deaths due to the reduction in air pollutants.

Dr. Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s director of public health, said that if the world’s climate continues on its current path, we’ll see more frequent heat waves like the ones in India that took nearly 5,000 lives and caused thousands of heat-related illnesses. Hurricanes, floods and wildfires, like the ones that recently ravaged the western U.S., already are putting human lives and livelihoods at risk. We’ll see more malnutrition as droughts limit food production and floods destroy crops. Changes to weather patterns will cause changes to infectious disease transmission patterns, resulting in more outbreaks of malaria, dengue and cholera.

Many of the same polluting energy choices that are driving climate change also are devastating human health. Every year more than 7 million deaths from respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer are attributable to air pollution.

A recent article by the Guardian included military leaders’ warnings of an “unimaginable" refugee crisis due to climate change. It is estimated that 30 million refugees could result, dwarfing the current Syrian crisis.

All of these effects would be devastating to global health. It would be prudent to support policy that could mitigate the acceleration of climate change.

The most effective way to enact longstanding policy change is through local politicians. That is why I’ve written to Duluth City Councilors Zack Filipovich, Jay Fosle, Howie Hanson, Barb Russ, Joel Sipress, Elissa Hansen, Noah Hobbs, Gary Anderson, and Em Westerlund. I’ve also written to U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. I’ve asked all of them to endorse this mission.

To mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change on public health, we need to take decisive action. As a future physician and leader in my community, I feel it is necessary to add my voice in support of this. I hope readers will be inspired to do likewise.

Sam Stokes Cerkvenik is a medical student at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a volunteer for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (citizensclimatelobby.org) in Duluth.

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