Governor should reconsider policy decisions that will hurt the environment

January 19, 2022 12:02 am

Gov. Glenn Youngkin is sworn in to office in front of the Capitol on Jan. 15, 2022. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Tracy Kelly and Neelu Tummala

As health professionals in Virginia, we look forward to working with Gov. Glenn Youngkin to promote a healthy environment for families in the commonwealth.

As a nurse and a surgeon, we see the impact of climate change in the stories and faces of our patients. This is why we are asking the newly-inaugurated governor to reconsider two initial climate policy decisions that will affect the health and welfare of all current and future Virginians.

On his first day in office, Youngkin signed nine executive orders, one of which aims to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. States participating in this program and  neighboring states have experienced significant health benefits as a result of reductions in air pollution resulting from RGGI. This includes lives saved, thousands of avoided asthma attacks and over 100 fewer preterm births, some experts have estimated

Virginia has already brought in more than $228 million from selling carbon allowances in this regional cap and trade program in the first year alone – which is being reinvested in every corner of the commonwealth to create more energy efficient affordable housing units, help low-income families reduce energy bills and enhance community flood prevention and protection efforts. Virginians deserve to benefit from reduced air pollution, improved energy efficiency and protection against worsening floods.

In addition, we strongly recommend the reconsideration of the governor’s nomination of Andrew Wheeler as Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.  Wheeler has a record of troubling decisions during his tenure as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency pertaining to public health. He consistently worked against the recommendations of our nation’s leading medical organizations by weakening pollution standards that protect the health of all Americans. As clinicians, we therefore have significant concerns about this nomination’s impact on the health of Virginians.

In his role at the EPA, Mr. Wheeler dismissed and replaced an advisory panel of scientific experts that recommended tighter control of particulate matter to protect public health.  The panel had advised that reducing this air pollutant would save thousands of American lives from illnesses such as heart disease and lung cancer. Instead, Mr. Wheeler retained the weaker particulate matter standard, prompting strong opposition from health organizations including the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environment.

Mr. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, also led an effort to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which limits the release of over 80 toxic air pollutants from coal-fired plants.  Passed in 2011, the original standards have been instrumental in reducing the release of potent neurotoxins such as mercury and lead. These pollutants are particularly harmful to children, whose developing brains are vulnerable to permanent damage and disability from toxic exposures.  Mr. Wheeler’s efforts to weaken MATS were so concerning that they prompted legal action from leading medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association.

And finally, under his watch, the EPA reversed a 2012 emission standard for new cars and trucks that mandated cars average 54 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025.  The new rule, called “The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule” weakened the fuel economy standard to 40 mpg by 2026, increasing carbon emissions and air pollution from vehicles.  Numerous medical organizations including the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Lung Association warned of the health dangers posed by Mr. Wheeler’s action and four automakers agreed to voluntarily adhere to a stronger pollution standard.

Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action was formed with one goal in mind: to advance climate solutions that protect the health of Virginians. We are motivated by the patients that we care for in our hospitals and clinics. Children with asthma who have trouble breathing because of the air pollution in their schoolyards.  High school athletes who develop heat exhaustion and heat stroke from worsening summer heat waves. Families who have moved to our practices after losing their homes to floods associated with more extreme rainfall and sea level rise. Virginians are experiencing climate change health impacts today and we need solutions that protect our children and families.

Virginia has become a national leader in climate solutions that protect our health and safety. In addition to joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative last year, the passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act has put Virginia on the path towards a 100 percent carbon-free electric grid by 2050. On the heels of such success, now is the time to reap the health and economic benefits of these policies for our families. Going backwards puts our environment, our health and our children’s future at risk.

Healthy Virginians need a healthy climate. As health professionals, we strongly recommend the new governor reevaluate both of these decisions so all Virginians can feel confident we are working together to protect and promote the health of their children and families.

Tracy Kelly, DNP, MSN, CPNP-P/AC, is an assistant professor and the program director of the Pediatric Acute Care NP program at the UVA School of Nursing.  Neelu Tummala, MD, is an ENT surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.  Both authors are on the Steering Committee of  Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action.

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