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Public Health Impacts of Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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Washington, DC November 25, 2009

Good morning. I wish I could be with you today, but I’m at home in Kansas seeing family. To everyone else who will be enjoying stuffing and mashed potatoes tomorrow, I want to wish you a happy Thanksgiving.

I also want to acknowledge our other speakers this morning: Secretary General Moon, who you just heard from; Secretary of State for Health Burnham; and Director-General Chan.

The more we learn about the climate threat, the more we understand that this is a problem that no country or organization can solve on its own. It doesn’t matter who puts the greenhouse gases into the sky. We all face the consequences. So this is one problem on which we have no choice but to work together.

That’s why gatherings like this one and the Copenhagen meeting a few weeks from now are so important. If we’re going to build a clean energy future that benefits all the people of the world, we need to share what we’ve learned, listen to each other’s good ideas, and work together. That’s our only chance to meet this challenge.

And let me be clear: this isn’t just about danger for our planet. Filling the sky with carbon dioxide has national security consequences. It has economic consequences. And as we continue to learn, it has health consequences too.

Relying on fossil fuels leads to unhealthy lifestyles, increases our chances of getting sick, and in some cases, takes years off our lives.

That’s the message of the Lancet study we’re talking about today. And I want to thank the international research team that conducted the study and all the funders including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences because you’ve called attention to a connection that we’ve sometimes been slow to see.

We know that depending on coal power plants that spew greenhouse gases is bad for our planet. But it’s also bad for our health since it increases the prevalence of diseases like asthma and cancer.

We know that the growing share of meat in our diet is bad for our planet. But it can also be bad for our health if it means we don’t eat balanced meals.

We know that depending on gas-guzzling cars for transportation is bad for 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.

We’re seeing more and more studies that show these connections. The same results are showing up in countries across the world: when greenhouse gas emissions go down, so do deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

This is not a small effect. A recent study by our National Academy of Sciences found that here in the United States, burning fossil fuels leads to almost $120 billion in health costs a year.

Most of those costs are premature deaths. And we know that the cost in human lives can be even higher in countries with emerging economies that have fewer resources to improve air quality.

For all of these reasons, President Obama and I understand that we cannot wait any longer to act.

President Obama has made it clear that he is committed to passing comprehensive energy and climate legislation that will create millions of new jobs, and secure clean energy sources that are made in America and work for America.

But in the meantime, we’re looking for ways that we can start reducing this threat right now.

Last Friday, I saw some of you at a White House stakeholder briefing I hosted with Lisa Jackson, the administrator of our Environmental Protection Agency.

At that briefing we talked about many of the steps my department is taking in this area from funding research on the health costs of greenhouse gas emissions…to investing in communities to help them respond to climate-related disease…to slashing greenhouse gas emissions at our own buildings.

This is not an afterthought for my department. This is a key part 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.

A world that is heating up and powered by coal-fired plants that fill the sky with harmful greenhouse gases is going to have fewer healthy people than a world that runs on clean, renewable energy.

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.

Now, we know that the kind of changes we need to make won’t be easy. There are a lot of entrenched industries that profit from the status quo. And we have a lot to learn about the best ways to reduce these harmful effects, especially when it comes to health.

But we can’t afford to delay action. This is not a distant, abstract problem. This is the jobs of tomorrow and the health of our children today.

We need to get to work.

Thank you.