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Climate Change, Social Justice and the Governor of Indiana

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence recently declared that Indiana will not comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan, calling it “ill-conceived.” However, it is Pence’s position that is ill–conceived, since it will endanger the health of the most vulnerable residents of our state and is based on dubious, unsubstantiated economic analysis. Here’s why.

The Clean Power Plan aims to slow down global warming by reducing the carbon dioxide emissions from their largest source in the U.S. – power plants.   The planned reductions are modest.   They are adapted to local conditions in each state; and states are given flexibility in how to achieve them.   The plan was developed by experts in environmental science, health and economics and subjected to intense public scrutiny since it was proposed a year ago.

The effects of not reducing global warming will hurt all Hoosiers. However, the brunt of the health burden will be felt by the elderly, minorities, the poor and those with disabilities, mental illness and chronic diseases.

Consider, for example, heat waves, which many studies have shown are likely to increase due to global warming.   Heat waves can cause numerous deaths: one in Europe in 2003 led to approximately 70,000 of them. Another in Chicago in 1995 left about 700 dead.

In heat waves, the elderly always have the highest death rates.   Physiologically, their bodies are least able to adapt to temperature extremes. High rates of cardiovascular and other chronic disease make them even more vulnerable. A variety of medications that they may be taking increases their sensitivity to heat stress.   The elderly often live alone and do not have support systems that could help them deal with a heat wave.   Disabilities and social isolation may keep them indoors, subject to intense indoor temperatures and lack of ventilation. Those with low socioeconomic status, lack of air conditioning and lack of access to healthcare services are also more likely to suffer.

Mentally ill individuals are also at much greater risk, for many of the same reasons.

There also are large racial disparities.   In the 1995 Chicago heat wave, non-Hispanic Blacks were 50% more likely to die compared to non-Hispanic Whites. The two Chicago neighborhoods with the highest rates of heat related death had Black populations of 99 percent and 96 percent.

Take another example: Atmospheric models predict that temperature rises will mean more frequent episodes of peak ozone air pollution.   Ozone triggers asthmatic attacks in children and makes them more susceptible to infections.   These peak exposures will occur most frequently in areas that already have high levels of pollution – which often are also areas with high minority populations.    For example, the six counties with the largest Black populations in Indiana, all recently received the grade of “D” or “F” with respect to air quality, from the American Lung Association. And not only do low income and minority people generally have higher exposures, they are also more susceptible to the diseases caused by them.   Black children have nearly twice the asthma rate of white children.

Unchecked, global warming targets the most vulnerable people in our population and will widen already existing inequalities.

Because of its extensive use of coal power, Indiana, with only 6.5 million people, is the 5th largest contributor among states, to the carbon emissions driving climate change. Indiana’s carbon emissions are not confined to state boundaries and adversely affect everyone in the entire region.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Indiana ‘s energy producers have already achieved 50 percent of the carbon emissions reduction called for by 2020 in EPA’s Clean Power Plan .

Pence claims that further reductions will increase the costs of electricity and cause jobs to be lost.   In fact, several studies show that any predicted changes in the cost of electricity are small, and that that the clean energy plan is likely to substantially increase job growth. The cost of electricity is predicted to rise minimally or even decrease, especially if the state achieves compliance by using credits awarded for by increasing energy efficiency. And many new jobs are expected to be created in implementing emission control systems and developing non-coal sources of power generation.

Pence claims that his administration could achieve long term energy sustainability and cost-efficiency if the federal government would “stop piling on costly regulations”.  But he has opposed legislation promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy, and he opposes the EPA Clean Power Plan. In doing so he puts at risk the health and welfare of Indiana residents, people in the surrounding region and particularly large numbers of people who are most vulnerable to the effects of heat waves and air pollution.

This column originally appeared in the Lafayette (Indiana) Journal and Courier.

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