President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is a Win for Health Rights

By Antonia Chan

On Monday, President Obama unveiled a landmark plan to combat climate change: new regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that require states to meet carbon emission reduction standards based on their individual energy consumption. If the regulations go into effect, power plants would be directed to reduce carbon emissions by 32% overall from 2005 levels by 2030. Obama’s Clean Power Plan has far-reaching implications for public health and health rights: by limiting pollutants produced by power plants (particularly from coal), the proposal is estimated to avoid between 2,700 and 6,600 premature deaths per year by 2030.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change. We’re the last generation that can do something about it,” Obama told his audience at the White House on Monday. HHR’s Special Issue on Climate Justice and the Right To Health is in lockstep with this view. For too long, governments have procrastinated on implementing programs to combat climate change, despite rigorous reports that detail its multifaceted threats: increased prevalence of heat-related illness, food insecurity, and waterborne/vectorborne infectious disease, especially among vulnerable populations in developing countries. HHR authors Meason and Paterson described how Chikungunya, an arbovirus causing significant morbidity and mortality, has spread across Southeast Asia in large part due to rising global temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns that have allowed mosquito-borne diseases to thrive; they extrapolated that Chikungunya will become increasingly prevalent in Europe and North America. In another paper, Chang et al. reviewed a similar link between climate change and the expansion of dengue fever, concluding that institutions must address the climatic and socioeconomic trends behind the burden of diseases such as dengue.

Obama has previously discussed the public health threat posed by climate change. In April, at a roundtable discussion with Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, he said, “[W]e’ve got to do better in protecting vulnerable Americans…ultimately, though, all of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can’t cordon yourself off from air or climate.” As the world’s second-biggest carbon emitter behind China, the US has its own population health to worry about: exacerbating respiratory conditions like asthma, worsening allergies, and encroachment of tropical diseases into previously cold climes. The intergenerational health effects of climate change are global in scope, however. From its association with greater collective violence to the human costs of supporting the fossil fuel industry, climate change threatens basic health and human rights while disproportionately afflicting the poor and marginalized. Enacting policies to limit the progression of climate change is thus a vital obligation of all States. The Clean Power Plan recognizes this obligation.


Read more HHR papers on Climate Change and Health Rights:

Special Issue: Climate Justice and the Right to Health

Editorial: The Great Procrastination

Chikungunya, Climate Change, and Human Rights

Social Justice, Climate Change, and Dengue

Climate Change, Children’s Rights, and the Pursuit of Intergenerational Climate Justice

Collective Violence Caused by Climate Change and How It Threatens Health and Human Rights

Wrong Side of the Tracks: The Neglected Human Costs of Transporting Oil and Gas
Watch President Obama’s announcement here