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Trump’s war on climate policy is also a war on public health

Obama’s Clean Power Plan would have averted asthma attacks. Trump wants to undo it.  

Trump’s attack on climate change policy is an attack on public health.
Gage Skidmore/NASA/Getty

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is expected to sign a proposed rule on Tuesday that would roll back a key piece of President Obama’s climate legacy. But what’s largely been lost in the conversation is how much the attempt to repeal the regulation on carbon dioxide emissions will impact people’s health.

Pruitt wants to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the signature Environmental Protection Agency policy that aims to cut emissions from existing US power plants — a big driver of climate change — 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

While the big focus of the plan was reducing carbon emissions, it also aimed to keep hundreds of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution out of the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases are not only harmful to the environment but also increase the risk of everything from asthma to heart disease.

The Clean Power Plan, in other words, though never implemented, was a big win for health. According to the EPA, cutting exposure to particle pollution in the order the CPP does would have averted up to 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks in children, and 1,700 heart attacks each year.

Which means that the White House’s move to repeal the Clean Power Plan “is a one-two punch to human health and the environment,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Greenhouse gases are an enormous risk to human health. So this means we’ll continue to be exposed to these gases, which exacerbate asthma, heart disease, strokes.”

According to the Global Burden of Disease project, more than 5 million people die worldwide each year because of air pollution — and emissions from coal-fired plants are a major risk factor here. It’s one reason why health experts have been pushing policymakers to rapidly phase out of coal.

For miners, the immediate health risks include black lung disease and scarring of the lung tissue. But the pollutants emitted when coal is processed — including sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and mercury — have much more far-reaching effects on many more people.

In one large study involving 450,000 Americans followed between 1982 and 2004, researchers found that increased exposure to the particles in fossil fuel emissions increased the risk of death from heart disease — and particles from coal burning were five times more damaging than other similar particles.

Reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants also makes it easier to breathe. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change has been a significant driver of that trend. Air pollution triggers asthma attacks, contributing to lung abnormalities, particularly in the developing pulmonary systems of children.

For the White House, bolstering the coal industry seems to trump these other matters. “The war on coal is over,” Pruitt said Monday in Kentucky when he announced the move.

For now, the environmental community and some state governments are expected to oppose the rule in federal courts. The public health community should be there too. Health isn’t a big part of the conversation about Trump administration assault on climate change mitigation policies but it needs to be. It’s not just the future of the planet that’s at stake here.