By Jonathan Witte
For The Herald
My friend, Bill, was a fan of sunrises. Every morning he posted to his Facebook feed a photo of the sunrise from his back deck overlooking the Snohomish River Valley.
When I look out at recent red-hued sunrises and sunsets I know that even if beautiful, they are not normal. They are a result of abnormally high levels of pollution in our atmosphere caused by widespread wildfires burning throughout the western United States and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere.
Climate scientists conclude that the increase in wildfires is tied to climate change, caused primarily by humans burning fossil fuels.
As a retired physician, my concern is with the multiple adverse health effects that climate change is causing. I could describe how patients with asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema find it increasingly difficult to breathe. I could report on how patients with allergies are suffering because the pollen season has become progressively longer and more severe over the last decade or so, due to rising annual temperatures. I could also point out the direct health impacts that hot temperatures has on vulnerable individuals: the very young, the very old and those who work outdoors.
My primary motivation for speaking out on these issues comes not only from my perspective as a physician but because of Bill’s story.
Last summer Bill told me he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He underwent a thorough evaluation to determine the best course of treatment for him. He was excited and hopeful when he learned that his tumor had certain genetic markers that made him a candidate for new immunotherapy. Many patients with similar cancers had responded remarkably well. Just as he was scheduled to begin treatment, smoke from summer wildfires moved into the area.
The air quality was terrible. Many individuals with respiratory conditions became ill. Bill was one of them. He was hospitalized and despite aggressive treatment he never recovered enough to begin treatment for his cancer. Bill died within two weeks.
I can’t say for certain that Bill would be alive today had a strangling layer of smoke not thickly hung over our area, but I do believe his condition was compromised to such a degree that potentially life-extending treatment was never given a chance. Tragedies like this will become all too common unless we take action to halt the progress of climate change and its devastating effects.
Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility of which I am a member is a major sponsor of Initiative 1631, which will appear on November’s ballot. WSPR joins a coalition of more than 100 other organizational endorsers, including environmental groups, labor unions, health care organizations, tribal nations, faith communities, business groups and community of color organizations.
If approved by the voters, I-1631 will levy a fee on carbon emissions generated by the largest corporate polluters in our state. It will not be imposed on individuals or on the vast majority of businesses.
If passed, the money generated is mandated by law to be spent on measures that will help reverse the effects of burning of fossil fuels. Because this is a fee and not a tax, no portion of it will go into the state’s general fund.
It is estimated that in the first year I-1631 would generate $1 billion. The funds will be overseen by a public board made up of experts in science, business, health and trusted community leaders. Seventy percent will be invested in clean energy: wind, solar, transportation alternatives, cleaner fuels, energy efficiency; 25 percent will be invested in state natural resources, helping forests clean our air and ensuring our drinking water and rivers are healthy; and 5 percent will go to mitigating climate impacts that disproportionately harm the communities hardest hit by pollution and poverty.
As I looked out my window last week hazy smoke hung in the air, oppressively thick and unhealthy to breathe. I think about my friend Bill, who died this time last summer. I worry about all of the folks like Bill, afflicted with respiratory disease, who are struggling to breathe.
Please vote YES on I-1631 on Nov. 6. Consider joining the growing coalition working to support this measure. Check out the campaign at yeson1631.org. Act as if your life depended on it. It does, and so do the lives of your children and grandchildren.
Learn more about the adverse health impacts of polluted air and climate change and find out how passage of I-1631 can help at tinyurl.com/WPSRclimatereport .
Dr. Jonathan Witte is a member of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and of 350 Everett, the local chapter of 350.0rg, a naitonal advocacy group fighting climate change. Witte who lives in Everett, worked as a rheumatologist at The Everett Clinic from 1982 until his retirement in 2016.