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Initiative 1631: investing in health and resiliency

Guest Commentary


November 1, 2018

The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in October was a wake-up call to countries all across the world. The report describes the continued rising seas, wildfires, and more frequent and extreme storms we have been facing, which are happening at a frequency and intensity that is higher than scientists had earlier predicted.

That means we now have to work even more quickly if we hope to keep climate change from stealing our health and our children’s future. But the report didn’t stop there. It went on to say that we have the scientific understanding, the technical knowhow and the economic resources we need to meet this challenge — all we need is the political will. And the report is right.

We can build on the clean energy solutions communities are already putting into action to reduce carbon pollution that fuels climate change. Just look at the Spokane Tribe’s response in 2016, when the Cayuse Mountain Fire around Wellpinit burned more 18,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Not only did the fire destroy land and property and put residents in danger, it cut power to the reservation’s water pumps, stymieing their ability to fight the fire. In response, the Tribe has embarked on a mission to achieve energy independence by investing in more than 650kilowatts of solar generating capacity and, eventually, battery storage that will allow the lights to stay on even when the power grid goes out.

Not only will the Spokane Tribe’s investment in renewable power make the community more resilient, but it will eliminate 506 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 960 pounds of nitrogen dioxide and nearly 730,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. The project will provide clean power to 14 tribal buildings, including elder housing, so now, seniors won’t have to worry about heating their homes in the winter. The project will also save the Tribe more than $2.8 million over the project’s 35 year life span.

It’s a community-driven initiative that addresses climate change from the ground up and provides health and economic benefits at the same time. But, we need action at all levels - in our local communities, at statehouses and around the globe — to get the kind of results we need to protect our planet and our communities.

Being realistic about the cost of carbon pollution — and making polluters pay for it, is a critical tool in the effort to drive technology innovation and build political momentum. So far, New England’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and California’s cap-and-trade program have been the first to put a price on carbon pollution. Their examples show us how we can not only address climate change, but also reduce localized pollution, improve health, and drive economic growth in communities that have borne the brunt of pollution from heavy industry and fossil fuel-based energy generation.

A new study published this month by researchers from the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health adds further evidence that putting a price on carbon would provide state residents immediate and direct health benefits as well as significant carbon pollution reductions. In fact, statewide carbon policy in Massachusetts was projected to save hundreds of lives and reduce carbon emissions by 33 million tons between 2017 and 2040. That’s the equivalent to taking around 7 million average cars off the road for a year.

People often worry about the impacts carbon fees will have on consumers, but there are clear economic as well as environmental benefits to acting. The Harvard study found that Massachusetts’ health benefits alone were worth $2.9 billion and the climate benefits worth another $2 billion.

California’s program required that 35 percent of the proceeds from greenhouse gas auctions in the state be used for clean energy projects that directly benefit environmentally and economically disadvantaged communities. These funds have been used for clean energy projects which save families money, increase community health and help maintain housing affordability.

On Nov. 6, Washington residents have an opportunity to do something similar. The proposed Initiative 1631 would put a fee on carbon pollution and then invest the funds in clean energy infrastructure that protects Washington’s air and water. The initiative also places the health and well-being of lower-income communities and communities of color front and center by allocating 35 percent of revenues to these frontline communities. This effort is being supported by environmental justice organizations, businesses and health professionals alike.

Smart policies that use market mechanisms to reduce pollution and direct the proceeds to climate solutions will generate the momentum and political will we need to tackle climate change. Why? Because they engage and empower the communities most impacted by climate change and most in need of the health and economic benefits of climate actions. Simply put, these policies can turn the challenge of climate change into a path towards a healthier, more just and sustainable future.

Gina McCarthy is the Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and was the U.S. E.P.A. administrator from 2013 to 2017. Stan Greschner is the Chief Policy and Business Development Officer for the nonprofit GRID Alternatives, a national leader in making clean, affordable solar power and solar jobs accessible to low-income communities and communities of color.


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