As a general pediatrician, most of my time is spent in a clinic or hospital. I am venturing out of these settings to write this piece because I know climate change is one of the largest health threats facing children in Colorado. Climate change is not just an environmental issue but a health issue. It is also not a future issue, but a now issue. There have been great steps taken with climate legislation over the past few years in Colorado. But we have more work to do. By passing Senate Bill 21-200 and signing this bill into law we have the opportunity to take one more practical step to protect the health of children in Colorado.
Children are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to health effects of climate change. These effects include increased heat related illness, physical and mental effects of natural disasters, decreased air quality, changes in patterns of infectious diseases and water, food and housing insecurity. The record wildfire season in Colorado during 2020 was a terrifying awakening to the summers we will encounter if we do not put further legislation in place to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Of the ten largest wildfires in Colorado’s recorded history, seven have occurred since 2010. Exposure to wildfire smoke means higher rates of breathing difficulty for children with asthma. It also means that even children without asthma may be unable to play outside, compounding the already challenging restrictions of COVID-19.
As temperatures rise, rates of ground level ozone also increase, leading to yet another source of breathing difficulties for children. In the Denver metro area, a recent report by the American Lung Association placed us 8th in the nation for these debilitating high ozone days when we are all urged to limit outside activity. Because children breathe faster than adults, the health effects of these respiratory toxins are further compounded. In addition, as we are already seeing higher temperatures in the United States, rates of heat related illness are increasing. Infants under one year of age as well as student athletes can be especially vulnerable to these effects.
The impact of climate change on children’s mental health and development is also significant. In the past year through my work as a pediatrician I have seen the effects that the societal disruption of a global pandemic has on children’s lives. Children need communities, social interactions with peers and stability in their home life to thrive. If we do not put an actionable path in place to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, similar disruptions will occur from wildfires, heat waves, and forced relocations for families due to climate related disasters.
This legislative session we have the opportunity to take necessary and practical steps to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions. Through passing SB21-200 we will ensure that our state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap can be put into action. As a pediatrician, I know the importance of detail and follow-through for a plan to be effective. I cannot talk to a family with a child who is struggling with obesity and simply advise that they eat more healthfully and increase their physical activity and expect that the child and the family are going to be successful. I need to talk to the family about specific goals and have appropriate follow-up in order to set them up for success. I also know that change is uncomfortable. Shifting habits around health-related behaviors is one of the hardest parts of my job. Just like making personal changes for health, establishing clear targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is challenging. The good news is that with a growing renewable energy sector meeting these targets is more possible now than ever.
The proposed legislation also provides necessary support for engaging disproportionately impacted communities around issues of air quality and associated health impacts. We need this type of funding for environmental justice staff to ensure greater representation for children from low income and minority communities in Colorado who are at greatest risk of experiencing negative health impacts related to climate change.
I support SB21-200 and urge our state legislators and Gov. Polis to do the same. To not pass this legislation into law would be to do an injustice to our children and to our state as a whole. These are challenging times and also times full of opportunity to make the changes that our children and future generations of Coloradans need us to make.
Jessica Miller, M.D., is a Colorado pediatrician who works with Healthy Air and Water Colorado at the intersection of public health and climate change. She lives in Fort Collins.