Fire and Smoke: How Communities’ Health Suffers From Climate Change—And How the Energy Transition Can Help

This blog post was originally published in Health and Climate Solutions Blog: George Mason University.

Rocky Mountain Institute, the nonprofit I lead, has been a part of the community of Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley since its founding 37 years ago. Our Innovation Center headquarters is there, and the people of that valley are our colleagues and our neighbors and our friends.

All of us were put at risk on a hot July day last year when a wildfire exploded out of control. The Lake Christine Fire, as it is called, would burn for months, destroy several of our neighbors’ homes, force many of our colleagues to evacuate, and rage within a quarter-mile of our Innovation Center building in Basalt. My coworkers watched as airplanes dropped fire-retardant slurry on their rooftops, praying the firefighters would save their homes and wondering what they would have left to go back to. Those who lived farther from the fire’s edge watched nervously as the flames licked closer to a vital electric transmission line that carries power over the mountains to our valley. If it had burned, we would have been plunged in the dark for an extended time.

Many communities are not surrounded by alpine forests, as ours is, but wildfires are a problem for us all. Two summers ago, Basalt did not burn, yet our community still suffered from fine ash from distant fires in the far West, carried on the wind for hundreds of miles to irritate the lungs of ourselves and our children.

By now we all know that reducing emissions from coal-, oil,- and gas-burning power plants and vehicles gives us considerable direct environmental and health benefits. Chief among these is reduced pollution—the power plants that gave us energy for the past century produce the same particulate emissions as burning forests. But the news is still spreading that cutting the emissions that drive climate change has a critical effect on reducing the frequency and severity of natural disasters, not only fires like the Lake Christine Fire, but also the floods, tempests, droughts, and heat waves that increasingly harm our communities.

This connection between climate change and disasters and extreme weather events has been made clear, time after time. Last fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the 1°C of warming our planet has already experienced is causing more extreme weather. The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has been publishing research each year since 2011 quantifying how natural disasters are made more likely by human-caused climate change.

Such disasters damage property, injure people, and take lives, and so are an increasingly urgent threat to our communities. But our communities are also the places where we can solve these problems. Cities account for more than 70 percent of global carbon emissions, which is the chief driver of climate change. Our communities have the power to cut those emissions, reduce climate change, and mitigate the damage it causes is by changing the ways in which we obtain and use energy.

The Energy Transition Is Crucial to Climate Change

Community energy systems are not just another piece of vulnerable infrastructure that climate-related disasters can disable; they are the key to preventing such disasters in the first place. The energy transition that is underway in communities across the country is also an opportunity to improve community health and well-being in the short term. We have the technology to do this already, and my work has taken me to communities around the country that are changing their lives for the better.

A growing number of cities and towns have made commitments to transition to 100 percent renewable energy, but many are racing to meet their goals ahead of schedule because of the plummeting cost of renewable energy resources like wind and solar power and battery energy storage. Wind power is already cheaper than power from coal-fired generators, and will soon be cheaper than power from gas-fired generators in many areas of the country. Communities downwind of a fossil-fueled power plant now have no reason to put up with the pollution—and negative health impacts—that they produce.

Rocky Mountain Institute is also working in communities like Austin, Texas, that are transitioning to shared and electric mobility solutions instead of gas-powered personal vehicles. Our work in Austin helped scale up the use of new mobility solutions while helping residents get to healthy food sources—solving the common urban problem of “food deserts”—and social spaces.

Austin is a liberal city, but new energy solutions make the kind of hard business sense that transcends politics. Police and fire stations and other municipal buildings in Kansas City, Missouri, are now producing their own solar power from rooftop arrays. Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of those cities that are making progress toward a 100 percent renewable energy goal, in part by the large-scale procurement of Utah’s abundant solar energy. Columbus, Ohio, is procuring and producing solar power, too, and the cars conducting city business on that city’s streets are now largely clean, electric vehicles.

The energy transition holds the key to an immediate reduction in harmful pollution and an eventual slowing and reversal of global warming. These changes are technically feasible and economically advantageous, and we should get on with them as quickly as possible. More and more, that means making change where we live. The energy transition is needed for our communities’ health, and communities can lead the way.