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Rural doctors see need to invest in people, fight climate change

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Joel Charles

Joel Charles 

Rural doctors have a unique view into people’s personal pain and struggles. In our exam rooms, we treat good, kind and hardworking people. Most of them are struggling to get by.

These private struggles cause insecurity and fear, making our communities vulnerable to division. That division not only threatens our democracy, but it has also caused unnecessary death and suffering during this pandemic and makes us all vulnerable to the growing threats of climate change.

While our patients’ struggles may feel private, they are not unique: Many are overworked and underpaid. There are parents who can’t afford time off work to be with their child in the critical months after birth or care for their own ailing parents near the end of life. They cannot afford daycare or lack access to preschool. Others can’t find adequate home care for their aging parent.

Each of these burdens alone would make a person feel undervalued, but many of our patients experience all of them over the course of a lifetime. These unaided, private struggles can be stoked into fear that divides us and makes us vulnerable. We are blinded from our shared interest, from the fact that each of us does better when we all do better.

What does this have to do with climate disruption? Climate change is making people’s lives harder and sowing division. 2021’s catastrophic heatwaves, floods, fires, and smoke are only a glimpse of the chaos and instability coming on our current path.

While the threat of climate disruption is severe, we will all benefit locally and immediately from transitioning to clean energy. Fossil fueled air pollution causes stillbirths, preterm births, delayed cognitive development in children, asthma, heart attacks, cancer, strokes, and dementia. We are all impacted. At least 100,000 Americans die every year from fossil air pollution at a price tag of at least $800 billion dollars a year in healthcare costs and decreased productivity.

We have affordable technologies to build a healthier world. If we electrify all possible energy use, especially transportation and buildings, we would save at least 1,900 Wisconsin lives each year and $21 billion per year in avoided health damages. The money saved from health costs alone would more than pay for the cost of transitioning to a clean energy economy.

Meanwhile that transition would add 160,000 jobs and increase GDP by $14 billion. Rural Wisconsin can produce the clean energy needed by urban and suburban Wisconsin. Instead of sending their energy dollars out of state, our cities can save money and get cleaner air while sending their energy dollars to rural Wisconsin, boosting jobs and bringing in revenue to keep rural schools open and roads repaired. If we embrace this transition everyone wins.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The public has an appetite for robust government action, interest rates are low, and we still have time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Low-interest financing and fair taxation of the wealthy can fund wildly popular federal investments in human and hard infrastructure to relieve longstanding problems from which our patients suffer, all while addressing climate disruption.

We need common-sense climate policy including a clean energy payment program for 80% clean electricity by 2030, as well as robust investments in clean energy, buildings, and vehicles that prioritize and incentivize living wage jobs for frontline communities. Legislate a carbon price rebated to middle- and low-income folks. Create a Civilian Climate Corps to build this clean energy transition while helping prepare our communities for impending climate disasters.

Let’s invest in the most important and most neglected part of our infrastructure: our people. Make permanent the expanded child tax credit. Fund daycare and universal pre-K, paid family and medical leave, tuition-free community college, and home care for the frail. Expand Medicaid and Medicare. These basic supports will give people enough breathing room to thrive and not just survive while increasing trust in one another.

Undervalued people who are struggling define their communities narrowly, worsening society-wide division and dysfunction. This division has threatened our ability to care for each other during this pandemic. It is eroding our democracy. Left unhealed, it will severely limit our ability to protect ourselves from the growing threat of climate change.

Our members of Congress have an opportunity to address the struggles that divide us and profoundly improve people’s lives. Their action can shore up our democracy and ensure a livable future rather than unstable climate chaos.

Urge your members of Congress to boldly invest in people and pass effective climate policies. Congress must use this fleeting moment to invest not just in roads and bridges but in our people, to improve their lives in a way that binds us together and makes us resilient to the threats we face.

Joel Charles MD, MPH is medical director of Kickapoo Valley Medical Clinic and president of Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action.

Jeff Thompson served as Gundersen’s chief executive officer from 2001 to 2016.

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