Barbara Gottlieb, Director for Environment & Health, Physicians for Social Responsibility. Photo courtesy Barbara Gottlieb.

Barbara Gottlieb, director for Environment & Health, Physicians for Social Responsibility. Photo courtesy Barbara Gottlieb.

This month’s theme for APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health is clean energy, underscoring the link between energy use and production and climate change, and its impact on human health. Barbara Gottlieb, director for Environment & Health, Physicians for Social Responsibility, discusses how improving energy efficiency can reduce global warming pollution, improve our health and more.

Climate change threatens us with terrible dangers: a future so unbearably hot, with storms and droughts so extreme and sea-level flooding so dangerous, that it is impossible to live as we now live.

There is no cure for climate change; there is only prevention. To do that, we must drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels. and stop burning petroleum products, coal and natural gas.

That won’t be easy; we are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. But the transition to other fuels has begun, and there is a first step that is easier and faster than most: energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency means using less energy to do the same work. Let me say that again:  less energy, same work. You can keep your computer fired up — and keep reading about the Year of Climate Change and Health. You can keep the lights burning in your house.

And our economy can remain industrialized, digitized and motorized.  It can also become more modern, less expensive, more fully employed and healthier.

How do we attain these wonderful benefits?  In ways both large and small.

For starters, Physicians for Social Responsibility suggests 23 easy and affordable ways to reduce energy without reducing your quality of life. Read our fact sheet, Everyday Energy Efficiency. To learn about energy efficiency’s benefits to health, try this fact sheet by Physicians for Social Responsibility and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

But to control climate change, large-scale efforts are also necessary. One familiar example is improved gas mileage. In recent years, auto makers have successfully designed cars and trucks that do their work while burning less gasoline and diesel. By reducing how much we put in the tank, we cut global warming pollution. We also reduce dangerous air pollutants — particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and more — thus improving conditions for our lungs, hearts and brains. And we save money. Win-win-win. Unfortunately, the president recently proposed to slow fuel economy standards. From a health perspective, that’s entirely the wrong direction to go.

Here are three ways you can reduce your transportation-related fuel consumption:

  • When traveling, choose trains instead of flying. You’ll generate 60 percent less global warming pollution per passenger mile, compared to a typical car carrying one person. Or go by bus and generate 55-75 percent less global warming pollution.
  • Planning to buy a car? Buy a smaller car, or a hybrid electric or an all-electric.
  • Next time you run to the drug store, try actually running — or walking or biking.  Active transportation cuts global warming pollution and can improve your health, since physical inactivity contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other chronic health conditions. Just be sure conditions are safe, and check with your doctor before making any sudden changes in your exercise level.

Insulating your home also yields energy efficiency and health protection. A weatherized house protects you from cold and drafts. More energy dollars in your pockets can also mean more money for nutritious food and health care. Weatherization also generates jobs — an important source of income, health insurance and a factor in mental health.

To reduce global warming pollution on a larger scale, we must address electricity generation. Most U.S. power plants burn fossil fuels, and many let huge portions of the energy they create go up the chimney — or smokestack — in the form of wasted heat. As little as 30 percent of the energy created may end up in the power grid. Combined heat and power plants, known as cogeneration plants, use the excess heat energy to power a heating and cooling system and can achieve 80 perecent efficiency.

Bear in mind, they’re still burning fossil fuels, so this is only an improvement, not a solution. The real solution lies in switching to renewable forms of energy like wind and solar, where nothing is burned and the “fuel” comes for free. But that’s a subject for a future blog.

Together, technical innovation and careful personal choices can reduce energy waste, reduce global warming pollution and give us cleaner air, better health and more savings. Let’s do it.