Robert Areson: Climate change bills can’t wait

Editor's note: This commentary is by Robert Areson, MD, of Williston, a primary care practitioner at the Georgia Health Center. He is a graduate of the UVM Larner School of Medicine, a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Vermont Climate and Health Alliance.

Addressing climate change on a statewide level is something that must happen for the current and future health of my patients and my family. S.185 is a deliberate step in the right direction, and I urge members of the House to pass the bill as expediently as did members of the Senate.  

S.185 acknowledges the profound threat that climate change represents to us all, and subsequently helps develop “resilience” to the impacts that we will increasingly witness in our communities. This includes specific measures ultimately constructed by the Vermont Department of Health with the input of emergency technicians, social workers, and other professionals to help protect those least able to care for themselves.   

Though Vermonters can feel good about many of our state’s initiatives, we can’t stop there. The truth is that our carbon emissions are continuing to rise and the effects of climate change are impacting more of us every day.  It may not surprise some readers to recall that Vermont had the highest rate of Lyme cases in all of the United States in 2017. As a family physician, I rely on the guidelines released by the American Academy of Family Physicians for my daily practice. This academy in 2019 joined over 100 other health care organizations and declared climate change a public health emergency, going on to cite the clear relationships between rising temperatures, cardiovascular health effects of increasing fossil fuel emissions, and the more rapid spread of infectious diseases. The latter of which hardly needs highlighting in today’s times.

If nothing else, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how quickly the health and wellbeing of Vermonters can be put at dire risk. Unlike the current pandemic however, climate change does not to the same extent disproportionately affect our older residents or those with a higher number of medical comorbidities. From dairy farming to maple sugaring to the outdoor recreation industries in Vermont, the truth is that we all rely on the health of our communities to sustain our livelihoods and support our mental health. I’m confident I’m not alone in stating that I deliberately moved to Vermont because of the experiences it affords my growing family and me. I live here because I value the wellbeing of my surroundings and want to be around others who share similar values. 

There is significant time sensitivity to passing meaningful legislation. The effects are no longer theoretical and the impacts already tangible. Whether these be in the form of heat related illness, increasing infectious disease prevalence, or more widespread cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.  Vermont is neither as forward thinking or as prepared as it needs to be.  Thankfully, with bills such as S.185 and hopefully others to follow, we have the opportunity to promote public health, address climate change, and ensure the health of the state we love for those we hope to raise here.  Please reach out to your representatives and urge them to support this bill.   

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