In its push for cutting greenhouse gases in the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration has leaned hard on the health argument for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

President Obama pitched his carbon proposal last year from Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he met with children suffering from asthma. In the first year it goes into effect, U.S. EPA’s carbon plan for existing power plants would avert up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks, the president noted.

In April this year, Obama made the case personal when he told ABC News that his daughter Malia suffered an asthma attack when she was 4, leading to an emergency room visit. Though her condition improved, the specter of allergies has haunted the first family, leading to precautions like choosing a hypoallergenic pet dog.

The White House also released a fact sheet that reported that asthma rates have doubled over the past 30 years.

Like individual hurricanes and droughts, it’s not possible to say that Malia Obama’s asthma sprang from a changing climate. But the White House argued that rising carbon dioxide levels worsen the allergens and pollutants that sensitize people to asthma, and that cutting greenhouse gases also cuts particulate pollution, making a compelling case for EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under its health mandate in the Clean Air Act.

Opponents of the regulation, however, didn’t connect the dots in the same way.

The Heartland Institute, a think tank that claims that science doesn’t support regulating greenhouse gas emissions, published an article in April that claimed that poverty, not air pollution, is the key driver behind childhood asthma.

The article’s author, Alyssa Carducci, cited a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that looked at the roles of poverty, ethnicity and geography in asthma prevalence.

“A new study authored by a research team led by Dr. Corrine Keet [sic] of John’s Hopkins Children’s Center [sic] has found no link between outdoor air pollution and childhood asthma,” Carducci wrote. “Dr. Keet’s findings point to poverty, not air pollution, as a leading factor in childhood asthma.”

Doctor says Heartland Institute is wrong
The article went on to say the study undermines EPA’s rationale for limiting carbon dioxide, as well as other pollutants like ozone, for which EPA is considering stricter rules. Regulations, on the other hand, can lead to a death for every $7.5 million in compliance costs to the economy.

Carducci did not respond to a request for comment.

Corinne Keet, however, rejected Heartland’s take on her work. “I did not agree with that interpretation,” she said.

The scope of her study, she explained, was how asthma changes among different groups of people between urban and rural environments. The team found that household poverty and ethnicity were bigger risk factors for asthma than simply living in a dense, inner-city neighborhood.

The study challenged the idea that city living raises asthma risks, but it didn’t control for specific asthma triggers, like ragweed or soot.

“We didn’t look at pollution at all,” Keet said.

She observed that air pollution isn’t limited to where it’s produced and that wind can spread harmful compounds from cities to the countryside. In some instances, ozone levels are higher in the suburbs than in nearby cities.

In addition, a recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine found that long-term air quality improvements led to “statistically and clinically significant positive effects on lung-function growth in children.”

The back-and-forth debate on health is critical to the Clean Power Plan because the provision of the Clean Air Act the Obama administration is invoking, Section 111(d), according to EPA’s website, “requires EPA to develop regulations for categories of sources which cause or significantly contribute to air pollution which may endanger public health or welfare” (ClimateWire, Apr. 10).

Diesel exhaust, wood burning and industrial emissions all have immediate effects on hearts and lungs. However, carbon dioxide isn’t toxic on its own, and the effects of global warming are slow and parceled out over time, which means the justification for invoking 111(d) has to bridge between a long-term problem and its short-term effects.

‘EPA has been pretty damn conservative’
Sylvia Brandt, an associate professor of resource economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said the links between greenhouse gas emissions and visits to the doctor are robust and getting stronger.

Pollen allergies are one example. Rising temperatures mean longer and more intense seasons for ragweed and tree pollen, leading to more runny noses and watery eyes. Researchers have also found that carbon dioxide exposure can directly raise pollen production in certain allergenic plants (ClimateWire, Nov. 10, 2014).

“That is two hops from climate change to kids in the emergency room,” said Brandt.

As for costs to the economy, Brandt said the benefits from curbing carbon dioxide emissions drastically outweigh the risks from regulation, though current accounting methods may not accurately reflect the scale of the impact.

“The way we think about costs is much more complete than the way we think about benefits,” she said. “We’re undervaluing kids’ health, and we’re undervaluing caregiving time.”

The health dividends of mitigating climate change are even greater over the course of decades but are even more difficult to price. Extreme weather events like hurricanes and drought are poised to get worse, which can cause immediate injuries as well as harm from hunger, disease and poverty as infrastructure crumbles.

“My view is that EPA has been pretty damn conservative in attributing health effects of climate change,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of law at the Vermont Law School.

However, the Clean Air Act is not the ideal vehicle for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Parenteau said, suggesting that pricing carbon would yield better and faster results than setting compliance targets for individual states.

Nonetheless, the Clean Air Act does have a successful track record of cutting other air pollutants. “What’s different [about carbon dioxide] is the scale and the disruption in the energy system from having to transition from carbon-intensive fuels to carbon neutrality,” he added.

One looming concern is that once the law cements the link between carbon dioxide and health problems, big emitters may face lawsuits for their greenhouse gases. “The day is definitely coming where the fossil fuel industry will be held to account for the damage they’re doing,” Parenteau said. “Sooner or later, they are going to pay the piper.”

The Clean Power Plan is now under review at the White House, and the Office of Management and Budget projects a final release sometime in August (E&ENews PM, June 2).

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500