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Climate change endangers our public health

Health impacts aren't frequently raised as a global warming issue, but they are a very real and serious threat.

Scientists warn of increased disease and food scarcity as our planet's climate changes and more severe weather patterns increase.

And yet some lawmakers would have us ignore the threats. In mid-December, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, announced she will file a "disapproval resolution" in a bid to halt the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that global warming pollution endangers human health and welfare.

After years of research, scientific debate, court cases, public hearings and comments, Murkowski is suggesting that we simply choose to "un-learn" that climate change is happening and that it endangers human health and welfare. But we simply can't choose to ignore that global warming will lead to hazards to the public's health in the United States and around the world.

The Alaska Republican's latest stunt to reject the science of global warming is another cynical ploy to turn back the progress being made. It's an effort to place a blindfold over America when it comes to climate change's impacts.

The EPA's finding isn't based on a politician's whim. It's grounded in sound science we've seen demonstrated on many fronts.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote that "Human beings are exposed to climate change through changing weather patterns (for example, more intense and frequent extreme events) and indirectly through changes in water, air, food quality and quantity, ecosystems, agriculture, and economy."

According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, global warming's health effects are vast: injury and death from natural disasters, heat-related illness, pest and water borne diseases, malnutrition, and air and water pollution. The organization says children, the poor, the elderly, and those with a weak or impaired immune system are the most vulnerable.

Burning fossil fuels causes health effects that will only get worse as our climate changes. For example, increased smog brings with it worsened respiratory illnesses such as asthma. PSR also reports that burning coal alone contributes to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

We watched the world gather in Copenhagen for international climate talks. We saw the many nations talking about the health impacts they have already experienced: increased droughts, lower crop yields leading to hunger, and more.

We must work together to fight global warming, not throw up roadblocks to refute already proven science.

This may sound as if I'm painting a dire scenario, but in reality, environmentalists are calling for action on this because we're optimistic America can meet this challenge. The U.S. has tackled many challenging problems in years past. We can tackle this too. We can switch to clean energy and make our homes and buildings more energy efficient -- which wouldn't only lower the global warming pollution that threatens our health, but also boost our economy and create jobs.

To do so, we need to act as quickly as possible to begin building this clean energy economy and reduce global warming pollution. And it's also extremely important to continue to allow the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency do their jobs -- namely, protect America's clean air and public health. As the process of crafting legislation moves forward, the EPA -- directed in this case by the Supreme Court -- must act to protect communities from pollution.

Communities beginning to feel the impacts of climate change can't take a "time-out" and we can't choose to deny that this pollution isn't harmful any longer. Furthermore, action to fight global warming will help build a clean-energy economy that generates less pollution, more jobs, and greater security.

Carl Pope is executive director of the Sierra Club, America's oldest, largest and most influential grass-roots environmental organization.