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Baltimore must lead the way on environmental advocacy

A team of top scientists is telling world leaders to stop congratulating themselves on the Paris agreement to fight climate change.

I didn't come to Baltimore to address the health consequences of our environmental policy, it just happened that way. As a recent Howard graduate with degrees in biology and community health, I thought health policy, not environmental advocacy, would be the tool I would use to address the issues in this city. I saw disparities that I believed I could help solve with initiatives promoting behavior change and access to resources. But as I spoke to residents throughout the city, I began to hear themes emerge in the conversations: complaints that pointed to something broader than any individual program could address. I heard from students forced home with debilitating asthma attacks and from elderly residents wary of venturing into blistering heat waves. Their worries went deeper than health care; they spoke to the challenges posed by environmental inequality and a changing climate, and they demanded action.

When I biked to the Baltimore City Health Department this summer, I usually arrived as the temperature approached 90 degrees. I tolerated the heat for a few minutes during my ride, but too many in the city don't have the refuge of an office when the temperature becomes unbearable. Too many people succumb each year to heat-related illnesses — more than 700 nationwide and a handful in Baltimore City alone — numbers that are only expected to increase as the planet warms. The BCHD has initiatives to help residents stay cool, but in the absence of a sweeping shift on climate, our challenges will only mount.

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Even more, our changing climate has cascading impacts, taxing emergency services as flooding, power outages and extreme weather become more common. As climate change accelerates, endemic tropical diseases are spreading, chronic conditions are being aggravated by intensifying heat waves and allergy and asthma seasons are getting longer. Everything from malnutrition to cardiovascular disease is worsened by a warming climate, and all too often, the consequences are concentrated among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in each community.

Baltimore straddles these risk factors. Its perch on the Chesapeake makes it vulnerable to rising sea levels; its high-rises and concrete sidewalks make it a "heat island," exaggerating temperature shifts; extreme poverty makes many less likely to access health resources; and its dense industrial and manufacturing zones contribute to pollution, leaving Baltimore with the highest emissions-related mortality rate in the country. And it isn't just shocking incidents like Monday's inadvertent acid cloud release that drive the deaths — pumping toxic chemicals into our environment has become standard procedure for many businesses.

We won't all be equally impacted by climate change. In a city where the percent of black households contaminated with lead increased even as levels decreased in white households, it is naïve to assume that the consequences of global warming will fall evenly on all our shoulders. If you have the means and political efficacy to keep environmentally devastating trash fires out of your neighborhood, you might insulate yourself from the brunt of the impact, but those without means can't afford safer housing, filtration, cooling or escape. The most vulnerable among us suffer for our apathy.

We can no longer pretend that the protection of our environment is an indulgence — climate change and pollution already impose significant costs on human life, and will continue to do so until we take action. Baltimore has so much to lose from climate change; it is only right that it should be among the nation's strongest advocates for sustainability. By adopting emissions standards above and beyond what is required by state or federal law, by implementing partnerships that promote environmental justice, by supporting renewable energy technology — this is how we help this city remain one that cares for all its residents.

I fell in love with Baltimore this summer, and I'm proud of the work we do at the health department, but no agency can address these issues alone. Though climate change has public health consequences, the work to mitigate it will require the cooperation of every agency and community partner. The cost may be significant, but the rewards could be incredible.

When I walk past the the row houses that line my street, I see roofs that could be verdant canopies, sidewalks that could prevent flooding and curbside planters that could hold gardens. I see traffic lights that could run on solar power, trash cans that could be compost bins and buses that could run on renewable energy. I see a city where the people can breathe without fear of being poisoned by the air and go outside unthreatened by the sun. I see a city with so much potential to be a leader in health and sustainability — if only we chose to invest in our future.

Cameron Clarke served as a Health Equity Fellow with the Baltimore City Health Department; he is studying as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom this fall. His email is cameron.davis.clarke@gmail.com; Twitter: @camerondclarke

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