NYSNA’s own Sean Petty, RN, spoke with Phil Aroneanu, U.S. Campaign Director/Co-Founder of 350.org.
The connection is very clear. Scientists have been warning us for years that storms like Sandy will hit major population centers like New York City. This fall, the average temperature of the Atlantic Ocean was 5 degrees warmer. This made a huge difference in terms of the size of the storm. The warmer water also impacted the Gulf Stream which pushed the storm further north into part of the country where it wouldn’t normally go. In addition, the unprecedented melting of arctic ice sheets resulted in a one foot rise in the sea level. All of these factors combined to make a storm that would have normally been destructive and turn it into a complete disaster.
I think there’s a lot of diff ways to approach it. Most of them fall into two main categories. The first is adaptation, which is basically means planning for a world of rising sea levels and the effects of a warmer climate. The other category is what I would call mitigation, which means figuring out how to slow the actual warming of the planet. This has to do primarily with reducing our economy’s dependence on fossil fuels. Mitigation involves a whole set of activities that that have to happen on a global scale, whereas adaption is localized and has to do with changing infrastructure.
There are lots of ideas. One approach would be to consider not building where the destruction is likely to be. We could also rebuild infrastructure that’s not solely dependent on huge, centralized utilities, where individual units or small communities produce their own power using alternative source of energy like solar and wind. This would in contrast to, say, building thousands of coal plants in China, which is currently happening.
There are things we can do at the state level. We could mandate that major utilities obtain 30, 40, or 50% of their energy from alternative sources. We also have to make sure that those alternative sources of energy don’t also release greenhouse gases, such as hydrofracking for natural gas. In terms of our infrastructure, energy efficiency is the biggest bang for our buck - we could reduce 30-40% of our electricity demand purely through energy efficiency.
But when discussing all of these plans in terms of rebuilding, there is danger in ignoring to future costs and consequences of not focusing reducing fossil fuels. We can’t wait any longer to address climate change. Sandy cost individuals and the government well over $50 billion. What will the next one cost? $100 billion? $150 billion?
Because the fossil fuel industry is the most powerful industry in the history of the world, many of our institutions and their decisions are rigged in their favor.
Dr. James Hansen, one of the most prominent climate scientist in the country, testified to Congress in 1988 about the disastrous consequences of our continued reliance on fossil fuels and existence of global warming. From that point on, fossil fuel companies have spent millions of dollars placing doubt in the public mind about the existence of climate change. Since then, the United States, the largest producer per capita of greenhouse gasses, hasn’t taken any significant steps towards reducing emission, which then has given other countries an excuse not to change. Exxon, Shell, the Koch Brothers, who made their fortune in the fossil fuel industry, and countless others have spent millions of dollars in a massive public relations effort to stop any challenge to the dominance of their industry. The group Oil Change International has a website, dirtyenergymoney.com, where you can see how much this industry gives to both parties in Congress. It’s more money than any other industry. More than even the pharmaceutical industry. Most people would be happy to run their lives on alternative fuels. We just don’t have a choice. It’s too expensive right now for most people right now, and the prices of fossil fuels are artificially low.
When you look at Germany, 10 years they were in same position as the United States in terms of the how much their energy production came from fossil fuels. Now 25-50% of their energy comes from renewable sources. Most of it is by solar power on residential rooftops. So it’s definitely doable. It’s not a question technological savvy. It’s a matter of political will and willingness to push back on powerful interests.
And these powerful interests have had an impact on our very understanding of climate change to where a good percentage of people don’t actually believe in climate change…
That’s true, but Sandy, along with other recent disasters this past year - like the wildfires in the west or near complete melting of the arctic ice sheets – have really changed the public opinion to where 70-80% now believe in global warming. But, unfortunately, that just means (the fossil fuel industry ) will just switch tactics from trying to shift public opinion to backroom deals out of the public eye. It's up to us to force them to debate these issues in public.
There’s a whole epidemiological perspective on climate change. For example, the kinds of diseases like Malaria that were normally found in tropical areas are moving north and south. There’s human health impact of the natural disasters that result from climate change, like with Sandy. When Sandy hit Haiti, it reignited a major cholera outbreak. Coastal flood will have a major impact on sanitation systems and strain public health infrastructure. There’s a lot of evidence more carbon dioxide in air results in poorer air quality, which has an impact of people with asthma and other respiratory diseases. This is in addition to the more localized impact of particulates produced by coal and gas plants and also the extraction of fossil fuels themselves. Chemicals used in hydrofracking and particulates released from mountain top removal coal mining have severe health consequences for the local areas surrounding these operations. Particulates from coal plants in China have even been carried as far as Los Angeles.
One of the most significant impact of climate change on world health is that when the climate is warmer, droughts increase, which has a severe impact on hunger and malnutrition. In many developing nations (and even the US this past summer), when farmers can’t grow food, food prices rise and millions of people suddenly can’t afford to eat. India, Bangladesh, much of Africa. These places will be hit the hardest.
Eventually what we have to say is if you dump carbon emissions into the air, you have to pay. The same way people have to pay for their trash to be disposed of properly, the same has to be true for fossil fuels. Our atmosphere is a public trust: it insures that people can live here on this planet. The companies should pay if they are abusing the atmosphere.
There’s a lot of different pieces to making this happen, but mostly it’s about building a movement. We can’t overcome their power without millions coming together. The clean technology industry will play a role in continuing to develop more effective solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries for storing power.
The finance industry has a role to play. They need to make a choice: invest in climate sustainable enterprises or keep investing in industries that will make this planet unlivable. One of the most promising campaigns that we’re involved in is trying to get universities, pension funds, churches, etc., to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Thiscan be one of the most effective ways express the kind of outrage that exists around this issue.
The fossil fuel industry has plans to extract five times the amount of carbon underground in proven reserves than the earth can actually handle. People need to understand that it’s a rogue industry. The business model is a failure, in the sense there’s not possible for the industry to succeed and for everyone to continue to live on the planet. They can’t extract, process, and burn that much fuel without burning up the planet at the same time.
I think there a couple of really critical roles. As health professionals, nurses are unique voice in the movement. You are dealing with people directly affected by health consequences of climate change. You are also the first responders in situations like the aftermath of Sandy. Families in the Rockaways suffering with no heat, no power, dealing with flooding: you can tell those stories.
Nurses and their unions have an interesting role to play in the divestment campaign. Unions have these large pension funds that are inevitably investing in fossil fuels because they are general indexed funds. Unions can take a very high profile lead in saying that they won’t invest in fossil fuels any longer. As nurses, you could say that from a public health perspective, we’re making our jobs harder by investing in companies that are ruining the health and well-being of our communities. Unions have influence in huge pension funds like NYCERS (the pension fund for New York City employees). Check out more information about divesting from fossil fuels at Gofossilfree.org.
Find out more about the movement for climate justice – and sign up for updates – at www.350.org.