State’s next looming health crisis is climate change

What kind of world do we want to live in, and what kind of world do we want our children to inherit? Do we want to be faced with recurrent and prolonged extreme heat waves, wildfires and hurricane seasons? Our climate crisis is not simply an environmental issue, it is a health crisis that has the potential to be more damaging than even our current pandemic in the long-term. As fellow Texans and medical students, we invite you to join us in supporting key bills currently in the Texas Legislature to fight climate change and protect our friends and families.

Texas summers are only getting hotter. Without further action to combat climate change, we could see almost two months of extreme heat each year in the next few decades, compared to fewer than 10 days now. This puts infants, young children, and people over 65 at risk of heat exhaustion and stroke. For the nearly 2 million Texans who have an underlying cardiovascular disease, heat waves make their hearts have to work much harder, which causes more emergency room visits, severe illnesses and deaths. Our homeless population and low-income communities who struggle to keep the A/C on will have to fight to stay alive during such overwhelming heat.

With these heat waves come megadroughts, which significantly increase the risk of wildfires, such as the massive 2011 Texas wildfire that burned almost four million acres. For the over 2 million Texans with COPD or asthma, wildfires severely exacerbate these and other respiratory diseases. Pregnant mothers exposed to wildfire smoke and air pollution have much higher rates of preterm birth, low-birth weight infants and stillbirths. If we don’t act, the terrifying red skies and black clouds we saw all over California last year may become common in Texas, too.

Heat and wildfires are not the only threats. Texas will be hit harder by hurricanes and flooding. The surface waters of the Gulf are warming up, and this heat creates an ideal environment for monstrous hurricanes. As we witnessed with Hurricane Harvey, these severe storms destroy homes and health care infrastructure, damage sanitation systems, and cause great physical and mental harm.

Let’s talk about how to fix this climate and health crisis. While we’re proud to be Texans, it is alarming that if Texas was a country, it’d be in the top 10 carbon emitters worldwide. We contribute heavily to climate change, and we are doing Texans a disservice if we say that the oil and gas industry provides quality jobs. The industry occupational fatality rate is seven times higher than that of general industry, and their employees are frequently exposed to dangerous chemicals and particulates that have major long-term health consequences such as lung disease and cancer. Transitioning to more sustainable energy sources translates into safer, more reliable jobs, which are healthier for employees and our communities.

The state legislature must recognize this urgent crisis and take long-overdue action to protect our beautiful state and its people. There are specific steps we can take. The Texas Legislature needs to pass HCR 22, HB 1044, SB 243 and other legislation to address climate change. HCR 22 and HB 1044 would be instrumental in setting the stage for future sensible, nonpartisan legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to these extreme weather events. SB 243 will improve energy efficiency, lowering demand on the electrical grid while providing weatherization to people’s homes and businesses. These are just a few of many critical bills that will safeguard our future. Please contact your state legislators today and ask them to support these bills. Let’s make sure our kids and grandkids will have a state and planet worth living in.

Hancock and Tee are medical students at Dell Medical School at UT-Austin and executive board members of the school’s Environmental Health Interest Group.

Canaan Hancock and Michael Tee

Austin American-Statesman

April 28, 2021

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