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White House Stakeholder Briefing: The Public Health Benefits of Clean Energy Reform

Washington, DC - November 20, 2009

Thank you, Administrator Jackson. It’s a little intimidating to get up and talk about the dangers of greenhouse gases after Lisa. It’s kind of like speaking at a software conference after Bill Gates.

But I’m glad we could get together today because it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the consequences from filling the sky with carbon go way beyond harming our planet.

There are national security consequences. By relying on fossil fuels, we’re giving a lot of power to some countries who don’t like us very much. Think back to last August when the price of gas hit $4.00 a gallon.

The longer our country runs on fossil fuels, the longer we’ll have to worry about the possibility that countries on the other side of the world are going to cut off our energy supply.

There are consequences for our economy. As President Obama said earlier this year: “From China to India, from Japan to Germany, nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to produce and use energy. The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

If we stick with old ways of making and using energy, we risk falling behind. That’s what we realized when I was Governor of Kansas.

Kansas has one of the heaviest per capita carbon footprints in the country. But it’s also the land of the prairie winds. Scientists say it’s one of the 2 or 3 windiest states in the country (even when the legislature is not in Session).

So we looked at our over-reliance on imported fossil fuels and our homegrown advantages and we decided it was time for a change.

And before I left my position as Governor, we had stopped the construction of two new coal-fired plants and almost tripled the wind power produced in our state.

As a nation, Americans are starting to understand these challenges. You hear more policy-makers and regular people say: this isn’t just an environmental concern. This is about energy independence. This is about global competitiveness.

But we’re here today because there’s another category of consequences that we’ve been slower to see: the consequences for our health and our children’s health.

You’ve already heard from Lisa and Carol about some of the research on the public health costs of greenhouse gas emissions.

We’ve seen the same results in cities and states across the world: when greenhouse gas emissions go down, so do deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

To give you just one more example, when they held the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, they developed some new measures to cut down on traffic in the center of the city. After the Olympics were over, they were curious about whether there were any health effects. And when they went back to look, they found an astonishing result: asthma hospitalizations for kids were down by up to 40 percent.

Now picture the same reductions in every city in America, and you can start to see why the National Academy of Sciences estimates that we could save $120 billion in health costs a year if we stopped burning fossil fuels.

To put that in perspective, that’s more than six times the annual health cost of asthma in America.

There’s no longer any doubt that relying on fossil fuels harms our health. But we still have a lot to learn. That’s why my department continues to support research on the connections between greenhouse gas emissions and public health, especially through our National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

In fact, we have some very compelling research coming out next week. So if you’re interested in learning more about the health costs of our fossil fuel addiction, I’d encourage all of you to go out and get the latest issue of a journal many of you probably know called the Lancet. And if you find the research to be as striking as I did, spread the word.

But we know that this isn’t just a pollution problem. Greenhouse gases also pose a broader threat to our health. By heating up our planet and changing our climate, they can accelerate the spread of disease. Infections like malaria, dengue fever, and salmonella all peak during warmer months.

To prepare for this threat, we’re stepping up our surveillance of climate-related disease spread around the world. And we are constantly honing our national preparedness and response plan so that federal, state, and local government, business, and NGOs will be ready to work closely together if we do face a wave of climate-related disease.

There’s also another, less direct connection between greenhouse gas emissions and public health: it turns out that a lot of personal behaviors that are bad for our planet are bad for us too.

For example, we know that depending on gas-guzzling cars to get around is heating up our planet. But it’s also bad for our health since it can lead us to get less exercise and increase our risk for cardiovascular disease.

This creates a natural alliance between the public health and environmental communities. I know that doctors and engineers don’t get together in the same room very often. But in these areas, we’re often working towards the same goals.

You already heard about the $80 billion in the Recovery Act for clean energy. But there’s also $650 million to promote proven community public health strategies to reduce obesity and smoking. And many of these strategies like building more walkable communities are also strategies for reducing the amount of carbon released into the air.

I’ll admit that this hasn’t always been a top priority for the Department of Health and Human Services. But as we’ve learned more about the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and public health, we’ve been expanding our activities across the department. And we have some of our leaders on these issues with us today from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our Office of Public Health and Science.

This is not an afterthought for my department; it’s a natural extension of our broader public health strategy.

More and more, we understand that health is not just something that happens in doctors’ offices. Whether you are healthy or not depends on what you eat and drink, what you breathe, how you get around, and where you live.

That’s why even if our planet was not in jeopardy…even if energy independence was not crucial to our national security…even if clean energy was not a huge economic opportunity…reducing greenhouse gas emissions would still be an urgent priority for us. It’s a key to building a healthier country and a healthier world.

What we are learning is that the health of our planet and the health of our people are tied together. It will be hard for one to thrive without the other. That’s why anyone who’s interested in promoting public health should take on a new cause: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

After all, if you campaign to reduce pollution, you’re also campaigning for lower rates of asthma and heart disease. If you lobby to end our dependence on fossil fuels, you’re also lobbying for more active and healthier lifestyles. When you argue that we need to slow climate change, you’re also helping to slow the spread of infectious disease.

We cannot afford to delay action. This is not a distant, abstract problem. This is the health of our children today, the jobs of tomorrow, and the fate of our planet for generations to come.

We need to get to work.

Thank you.