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Opinion | Whitmer's Healthy Climate Plan: a win for our air, water, health

In her boldest environmental policy to date, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has launched Michigan's transition to a more healthy, low-carbon future that will also stimulate the economy and put people back to work.

As physicians who advocate for policies that address fossil fuel pollution, the Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action applauds Gov. Whitmer’s recent announcement of Michigan’s Healthy Climate Plan, which calls for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Elizabeth del Buono

In her executive order, the governor created the Advisory Council on Climate Solutions, which will evaluate progress and monitor implementation of the climate plan. She wants to reduce harmful carbon emissions by decreasing our dependence on dirty fossil fuels and increasing the amount of clean renewable energy, like wind and solar, used to create electricity.

Currently, renewable energy accounts for only 12.5 percent of Michigan’s power generation mix – while coal, which is a major contributor to harmful air pollution, sits at 32 percent. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Midwest accounts for 22 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide pollution. We know that outdated heavy industry and power plants continue to dot our shorelines and contribute to harmful air and water pollution to this very day.

The air we breathe, particularly for residents in metro Detroit, is filled with fine particulate carbon pollution, and toxins like ozone and mercury. Coal ash – what’s leftover when utilities burn coal to produce electricity – washes into our rivers, lakes and streams. Mercury ends up in our water, and then our fish – leading to serious problems for children and pregnant women.

Many people understand that air pollution can exacerbate asthma and chronic breathing conditions, but few are aware that air pollution contributes to a myriad of other health problems such as worsening of heart disease, an increased incidence of lung cancer, developmental delays in children, and dementia in the elderly. It is conservatively estimated that in the US, air pollution contributes to tens of thousands of premature deaths each year, while also increasing  the likelihood of dying from COVID-19.

The good news is that unlike warming greenhouse gases, which stay in the atmosphere for decades, air pollutants fall out of the air quickly once motor vehicles or other sources of carbon pollution stop emitting. We have seen this as the pandemic has stopped activities in many cities, and we have seen it historically when interstates have been closed due to construction. The quality of the air improves within hours to days and the need for health care interventions decrease in parallel. Worker productivity also improves and the amount of health care dollars saved cannot be underestimated.

While significant progress has been made since the U.S. Clean Water Act and U.S. Clean Air Act were signed, according to the American Lung Association’s 2020 State of the Air Report, nearly 5 in 10 people still live in communities in which air pollutants are frequently above levels that are considered safe by the EPA, and Detroit is listed as the 10th worst city in the country to live when looking at year-round air pollution.

Currently, we face many hurdles at the federal level to pass climate policies and realize the goals outlined in the Clean Air and Water Acts. That is why it is critical that states act. With Gov. Whitmer’s recent climate announcement, Michigan joins nine other states with carbon-neutrality initiatives that will catalyze the transition to a low carbon economy while at the same time creating new jobs, stimulating the economy, and protecting the health of our state.

Now is the time to support our governor as she implements this bold environmental and human health initiative.

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