This Sunday, an estimated 400,000 people from across the country and around the world filled the streets of Manhattan for the People’s Climate March asking UN leaders to take aggressive actions towards climate mitigation. 400,000 people can create a lot of noise. Cheers that traveled from one end of the march to the other were moving, energizing and generated a ground swell of hope for this very long movement towards change. The question remains, however, around whether or not that swell can be heard back here in Kentucky.
When posting about the health concerns a group of health professionals and I represented at the march, a local friend responded, “I don’t believe a bit of it.” Okay. Let’s take a moment and recognize that, yes, this is not something to believe in. It’s something that just is whether we believe it or not. Science quantifies things that exist. We measure temperature. We measure intensity of storms. We measure rain fall and years of drought. We measure rates of disease, asthma attacks, and cases of vector borne diseases. When changes occur in those patterns we shouldn’t say it’s something we believe in. We must recognize that it just is. Climate change is what it says- a changing climate.
Bill McKibben, writer, environmentalist, and leader in the climate conversation walked the crowds before the New York City march, the largest ever of its kind. He approached the physicians, nurses, and other health professionals in their white coats and told them, “This is what matters. Right here. The health message is really what we need to be getting out.”
So the question remains, why is this such a challenge in Kentucky? Louisville is home to the worst heat island index in the country. Hotter weather has assisted insect borne diseases like West Nile and Lyme disease to creep across our state at alarming rates. The heat also magnifies the impacts of asthma and cardiovascular disease.
We are fixed on a notion that our economy and the environment don’t intersect. One crucial place where it does is our health. It is true that without a good job we can’t support our families with the shelter and nutrition we need to stay healthy. Yet without clean air and water we will always have elevated cases of asthma, heart attacks, cancer, and the impacts of a rapidly shifting climate.
Kentucky needs a vision that encompasses both realities- an economy that is shifting away from coal and a climate that is moving towards more extreme, health-impacting weather. This conversation during campaign season is about as favorable as a first grader’s opinion of a doctor’s appointment for school vaccinations. Yet if we don’t take steps today to address all of Kentucky’s complex economic and climate realities, we’re going to be feeling much worse when the ailments finally set in. Let’s be proactive and start the climate and health conversation in Kentucky today. Our children will appreciate it, and so will the politicians whether they like it or not.
This blog post was published as an op-ed for the Courier Journal, and is available here.