Climate change is the greatest threat to public health of the 21st century, with disproportionate harm borne by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged New Jerseyans among us. Fortunately, a 21st century clean technology solution is available.
Transition to an electrified transportation system will reduce the use of petroleum-fueled cars, trucks, and buses, which cause nearly half of New Jersey’s greenhouse gas emissions, the most significant driver of documented climate change since the middle of the last century. Not only will climate change unravel the last 50 years of advances we have made in public health policy, but the effects of climate change are a clear danger to the health of Americans now. As leaders in health, we know a 21st century electrified transportation system must be designed equitably, to address the impact of climate change where it is most excruciatingly experienced.
Climate change and the health impacts are real. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average temperature in New Jersey has increased 3°F over the past century. Residents of urban communities, especially young children and the elderly, are most likely to reap the negative health consequences, typically in the form of asthma attacks and heat stress.
Warmer summer temperatures and extended heat waves increase the risk of dehydration and heat stroke, as well as aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular disease, especially for seniors, children, and those lwithout access to air-conditioning or cooling centers.
Urban heat islands, areas that are significantly warmer than their rural surroundings due to constant human activity, increase the effects on already burdened communities subjected to transportation-related air pollution. Individuals with preexisting conditions, such as asthma or cardiovascular disease, are most vulnerable. When combined with smog forming ozone and particulate matter from diesel buses and trucks, summers can be life-threatening.
Climate change deeply impacts the atmosphere and lead to other troubling impacts. New Jersey residents have experienced extreme heat during the top 32 warmest months on record, which have resulted in longer allergy seasons and an increase in disease-carrying pests. Over 50 million Americans suffer from nasal allergies, and that figure could double by 2040 if we do not cut greenhouse gas emissions and take steps to combat climate change.
Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of cases of tick, flea, and mosquito-related diseases tripled from 2004-2016 across the United States. Nine new pathogens and outbreaks of West Nile, Chikungunya, and Zika have been introduced in the U.S. New Jersey was the third highest for the total number of reported diseases from ticks, after Pennsylvania and New York during that same period.
Over the past 10 years, we have witnessed an increasing frequency of extreme precipitation events in New Jersey. Sea levels along the New Jersey coast have risen about 16 inches since 1911. That is double the global average. The continued and frequent threat of extreme weather events can induce anxiety, depressions, post-traumatic stress, and other mental health disorders, particularly for people who have no way to escape.
Further, the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy seared into our collective memory a diversity of impacts from the devastation, including exposure to mold and environmental contaminants, as well as more systemic health concerns, such as inability to manage chronic health conditions or to access health-care delivery systems. That storm killed 34 people in New Jersey alone, and permanently damaged the lives of many others. Superstorm Sandy decimated the Jersey Shore, flooded Newark and Trenton, and caused an estimated $29.4 billion in repair, response, and restoration costs.
The costs to human health are real and identifiable. We must heed the call now.
We need to transform New Jersey’s transportation system to meet our 21st century needs, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and be equitable, accessible, and affordable, including transition to electrically fueled public transit, commercial fleets, and ride share options. While we are seeing the impacts of inaction on climate change to our environment in real time, we are also treating it in our emergency rooms and doctors’ offices every day. The state Legislature must pass strong transportation legislation, and Governor Murphy must sign it — for our health and our lives.
Barbara Rosen is first vice president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the largest union of registered nurses and health-care professionals in New Jersey. Debra Coyle McFadden is executive director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council. Both organizations are partners in the Jersey Renews coalition working toward state-based policy solutions to address climate change.