Two years ago, I experienced my “climate moment.” It was the moment when I could suddenly see and understand the ways climate change threatened all the things I care about. Rubbing the cobwebs out of my eyes as I woke up, I read the day’s headlines on my phone. Today, it could’ve been news and horrifying images of wildfires ravaging the West Coast. But in 2018, one headline stuck out to me: “Strong risk of crisis as early as 2040,” describing a major UN climate report. I walked downstairs with a pit in my stomach to find my pregnant wife and said with a cracking voice, “I think this is a lot worse than I realized.”
My first reaction was guilt. How could I miss how big this is? As a physician, I’ve dedicated my work to caring for vulnerable communities. Mitigating climate change is critical to my patients' health. With two young children now at home, my sense of responsibility for future generations has become heavy.
There are the regular stresses of parenthood: Did they eat enough? Why are they crying? Will we ever get a full night’s sleep again? But late at night after the kids fall asleep, I wrestle with a deeper, darker concern that grows out of the scientific understanding that we need a dramatic shift of course to halt climate change.
Climate change can be confusing, and it can be hard for people to understand how it impacts us and our loved ones. To unsure voters, I’d like to share some things I’ve learned:
I now know that during pregnancy, heat exposure and air pollution can increase the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. Burning fossil fuels dirties our air, and sends children with asthma to the hospital. Climate change increases the risk of getting infectious diseases. And protecting our environment is one of the most important things we can do to prevent the next pandemic.
Pennsylvania’s children are exposed to significant climate-related health risks. Philadelphia, for example, could have almost 100 days a year of over 90- degree temperatures in the future, more than triple the current number. By 2080, the city could feel like Memphis, Tennessee does today. Pennsylvania, which already leads the country in cases of Lyme disease, saw these cases triple 2007 to 2017. And Allegheny County gets an F on the American Lung Association report card for their ozone and particulate air pollution.
Pennsylvania has fought back with some strong policy, promising to decrease emissions by 80% by 2050. But it needs help from the federal government, which is lacking. The Trump administration has rolled back important policies like fuel efficiency standards for our cars and restrictions on pollution from coal and gas power plants. Another four years of such policies will cause profound and irreversible damage.
But the Democrats' climate policy—reflected in Joe Biden’s climate plan that was informed by a wide range of advisors, including former Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers Lonnie Stephenson—makes a $2 trillion dollar investment into a clean and healthy future. It also commits to a carbon free energy system by 2035. This will slow Pennsylvania’s overheating. It will clear the air and keep the infectious diseases at bay. It will keep children out of the hospital and save lives.
We live in a time of deep polarization characterized by fundamentally different opinions about how our country should be governed. But we also know this — there is nothing a parent won’t do to make sure their child is safe and healthy. Parents perform extraordinary acts of courage everyday to care for their children, even more so amid the profound challenges of COVID-19. Within our love for our children lies the infinite power to fight for their future.
As a physician, I know that passing effective climate policy is essential to protecting our children’s health. As a parent, I know parents across this country can find common purpose in the sacred responsibility we share to ensure that all of our children succeed in the world.
It’s time to support and pass bold climate policy and help our children inherit a safe, healthy planet.
Dr. Gaurab Basu is a primary care physician. @GaurabBasuMDMPH