Humans Have a Right to Clean Air and a Healthy Climate

By Richard Spencer Valentine
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all people are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Whenever any technological process becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and institute new processes that will seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.   So, begins the “Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels,” which borrows from the original Declaration of Independence. Air pollution directly impacts two of the three unalienable rights, and without too much of a stretch, all of them. Our nation is founded on the principle that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental human rights. Local air pollution (in the U.S., primarily ozone and particulate matter (PM) 2.5) immediately affects life and the pursuit of happiness. Global air pollution (CO2 and other greenhouse gasses) affects all three, as the calamities associated with them contribute to political instability and the liberty of millions worldwide. The consequences of climate change are real, well-established, and happening now. Climate change needs to be addressed in four major areas: mitigation, adaptation and relief, remediation, and hope. In 2017, we saw record breaking climate impacts: hurricanes, rainfall, and wildfires. We are continuing to see them—in Maryland two “1,000-year” storms already in two years!   As we respond appropriately to the challenge of climate change, it will help clean the air. Clean air is the silver lining of climate change response. Although the warming temperatures will likely enhance ozone formation, there will be a reduction in precursors of both ozone and PM 2.5—hydrocarbon and oxides of nitrogen. Fossil fuel combustion continues to be the main source of this air pollution. So, as we move to more renewable energy to reduce CO2 emissions, it will have a beneficial impact on local air pollution.   Fortunately, we have seen reductions in the cost and effectiveness of wind and solar energy in recent years, and an increase in the willingness of individuals, families, organizations, and governments to step forward and act. We are seeing manifestations of a principle observed by Thomas Jefferson, “Wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”   In Utah we are seeing many examples of this:
  • Salt Lake City Mayor Biskupski is an ardent advocate for climate change response, serving as the Chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Alliance for a Sustainable Future and an early adopter of the “Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100% Clean Energy” goal.
  • Salt Lake County Health Department has a Climate Adaptation Plan and conducted a seminar for the community; they hosted their 4th Annual Climate and Health Symposium in April.
  • Utah Climate Action Network, led by Utah Clean Energy, provides climate leaders opportunities to share ideas and best practices on climate solutions; they are hosting Utah Climate Week in October for community members, organizations, and businesses to promote climate change awareness and action.
  • Intermountain Sustainability Summit is an annual event where sustainability professionals come together, featuring excellent speakers and concrete action examples.
  We are in a difficult situation; things will get worse before they get better, but we have better tools and increasing energy to take the actions we need to.   Richard Spencer Valentine is a Licensed Environmental Health Scientist and National Envitonmental Health Association (NEHA) Climate Change Technical Advisor.  NEHA is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health.  Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.  

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