Every day, parents protect their children from a myriad of risks. By strapping them in car seats, placing them on their backs to sleep and cutting their grapes into quarters, parents do everything in their power to insure their children against harm. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be called many things in the upcoming months, but it is ultimately an insurance plan. It is insurance for our children against the dangers of carbon pollution and resulting climate change.
Carbon pollution presents a major risk to the health, safety and security of current and future children. Rising atmospheric carbon is making our planet hotter. While skeptics may say this remains uncertain, our major scientific organizations (NASA, NOAA, IPCC) tell us it is at least very, very likely. With this increased heat, many other climactic changes are already occurring, including melting glaciers, rising sea levels and worsening storms. These fundamental changes ultimately impact human health, and children are amongst the most vulnerable to these changes. Some impacts are already affecting children today and are being seen by pediatricians like myself.
Allergic rhinitis, for example, affects about 10 percent of American children. With later first frost and earlier spring thaw due to rising global temperature, the allergy season has become longer. In the Northern Virginia region, where I practice, it has lengthened by about two weeks. More northern regions of the country have experienced greater lengthening. Higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also causes ragweed plants today to produce more pollen than in preindustrial times. Allergy season is therefore both longer and more severe.
Some infectious disease patterns have already been impacted by climactic changes. As global temperatures rise, many plants and animals are migrating poleward. They are bringing diseases, like Lyme disease, with them. There is now Lyme disease in Canada, and large increases in reported cases of Lyme have occurred in the northern U.S. Maine had 175 cases in 2003 and 1300 cases in 2013, while New Hampshire had 262 cases in 2002 and greater than 1300 cases in 2013. Children under five years old, who spend the most time outside playing in high-risk areas, have the highest incidence of Lyme disease.
Increasingly long and severe heat waves also place children at risk of heat-related illness. While the elderly are at highest risk from extreme heat, some groups of children also appear to be vulnerable. Infants less than one year, for example, have immature thermoregulation, and infant mortality has been found to increase due to extreme heat. A study from MIT found that by the end of the 21st century, under a “business as usual” scenario, infant mortality rates would increase by 5.5 percent in females and 7.8 percent in males due to heat-related deaths. U.S. student athletes are a high-risk group for heat injury. Teenage boys, most commonly football players, made up 35 percent of the roughly 5,900 people treated yearly in emergency rooms for exertional heat illness between 2001 and 2009. According to the CDC, heat illness is a leading cause of disability in high school athletes, with a national estimate of 9,237 illnesses annually.
Health impacts on individuals and communities will grow significantly if we allow carbon emissions, and global temperatures, to rise unchecked. Power plants contribute approximately one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Reducing emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants represents a major step towards altering our emissions, and climate, trajectory. Obama’s Clean Power Plan is, ultimately, like a car seat- an insurance plan for our children against a significant risk of harm. The road of climate change will be long and hazardous. Our children deserve to be strapped in.
Dr. Samantha Ahdoot is pediatrician in Alexandria. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and a member of the Executive Committee of the AAP’s Council on Environmental Health.