This election, environmental health is on the ballot
Like many things this year, this election season has been anything but ordinary. With the emergence of COVID-19, the barrage of tropical storms hitting the Gulf and Atlantic coasts (1,2), in addition to the relentless wildfires raging in the Western US (3), the connection between the environment and our health is more apparent than ever. The impacts of climate change have become hard to ignore and many Americans are now beginning to feel its effects (4,5,6). Additionally, with the increased focus on health because of the coronavirus pandemic, issues of air, water, and soil pollution and healthy buildings are taking center stage in many people's daily lives.
You probably know that Election Day is coming up on November 3rd, 2020 and that mail-in ballot voting is already underway in more than half the states (7), but did you know that environmental health issues are on the ballot? Voting this election year has never been more important in helping decide how our country moves forward to address widespread environmental health concerns that affect your health and your family's health. Read on to find out what you can do to help and why this issue is so important.
Why Voting Matters for Environmental Health
While we all want clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, ensuring this for everyone requires proper environmental safeguards to better protect public health. As we've already seen this year with the increase in tropical storm and wildfire damages, there is a direct effect on people's health caused by their surroundings, whether it be in the form of air pollution, flooding, or smoke (8). Many people may not think that the presidential election will impact their lives in a real and tangible way, but who wins can have a big impact on environmental policies. In his first term, Trump has already moved to roll back and dismantle up to 100 environmental regulations passed by his predecessor, Obama, meant to further safeguard and protect the environment and human health (9,10,11). Notable repeals have included the Clean Air Act, the Clean Power Plan, as well as the Waters of the US Rule (12). These rollbacks have resulted in reduced fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars and light trucks, the repeal of a rule requiring coal-burning power plants to reduce carbon emissions, and a decrease in the number of federally protected bodies of water under the Clean Water Act (12). Other environmental regulations that have been targeted for repeal focus on controlling greenhouse gases, coal ash waste, water pollution, mercury, and smog (11).
Rolling back environmental regulations such as these go against the scientific recommendations of scientists who advocate for the enforcement of these standards to combat air pollution and its health hazards (25). Air pollution, caused in part by greenhouse gas emissions (26, 27), is a dangerous health threat that is responsible for a rising number of deaths around the world due to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ischemic heart disease, stroke, and respiratory infections (28, 29, 25). The Global Burden of Disease report identified air pollution as one of the leading risk factors for disease burden in 2012, and in 2016 the WHO labeled it the single largest environmental health risk we face today (29, 28). Trump's denial of climate change (13) and encouragement of wider fossil fuel use and development within the US (14) not only goes against strong scientific consensus and advice (25, 28), but also risks increasing air pollution-related health hazards and mortalities.
There are many ways in which a new administration could bolster much needed environmental health protections. Biden has proposed a plan focusing on clean energy production to shift the US away from its dependence on fossil fuels and achieve a 100% clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050 (15,16,17). Biden's plan also includes engaging with local areas to create community-based solutions to climate change issues, establishing an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the US Department of Justice to revise current environmental justice policy, and recommitting the US to the Paris Agreement that Trump initially withdrew from in 2017 (16,18,19,20). By transitioning away from fossil fuels and prioritizing clean energy, this would reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere and help strengthen the US's response to global warming (27). Since climate change has a direct effect on people's environmental health, directly combatting it would help ensure cleaner air, safer drinking water, sufficient food, and more secure shelter for everyone (30). Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would also help ease the burden of ambient air pollution, which causes nearly 3 million deaths every year (30).
These regulatory decisions have far-reaching impacts that go beyond a single presidency, and one of the most important ways citizens can make their voices heard on these issues is to vote in the upcoming national election in November.
Local Elections Matter Too
While large national elections have historically had higher turnout compared to state and local elections, it's actually these closer-to-home elections that decide how a community deals with important local issues (21). In local elections, citizens vote for a mayor, city council members, special districts, school board members, and a District Attorney, among others, to deal with local and countywide ballot measures (24). Local issues include land use and development, housing, transportation policies, parks and libraries investment, and even immigration policies to an extent (24). Electing leaders who care about climate change and environmental stewardship at the local level is just as important as national elections.
Not only are these local issues crucial to the functioning of a community, but local and state regulations can also have a big impact at the national level, especially when it comes to consumer protections. For example, California just enacted the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act this past month, which bans 24 toxic ingredients from cosmetic and personal care products. It's likely that product manufacturers will make these non-toxic products and sell them throughout the US so that they don't have to make a separate version just for California. Other times, federal and state policymakers look at the success of local ordinances when drafting new environmental protections. So make sure your voice is heard on issues you care about and don't forget to vote in your local elections as well!
How to Get Involved
If you are over the age of 18 and a US citizen, you are legally allowed to vote—huzzah! Here are a few things you can do to make sure you're able to properly participate in the election process and make the most out of your experience.
- Stay informed! Read up on political issues (both local and national) and figure out where you stand.
- You can register to vote here and check your registration status here. Make sure you register to vote by your state's election deadline. Once registered, you can request an absentee ballot and vote by mail if you prefer or you may choose to vote early if your state allows (early voting exceptions include CT, KY, MO, MS, NH, and SC) (22). There are no drawbacks if you decide to vote by mail, and all mail-in ballots will be counted once they are received and properly approved.
- You can find your State and Local Election Office website here. This provides you with more information on your state and local elections, which are just as important as the larger national and presidential ones. Don't forget to vote in these as well!
If you are not yet 18 or are not a US citizen, no worries! You can still get involved and help out. Here are some great ways to start flexing your political muscle if you're not yet ready to vote.
- Stay up-to-date! Learn about topics you care about and why they matter to you.
- Talk to others. Don't be afraid to use your voice! You can start by talking with friends and family about the issues you care about. Once you feel more confident, you can also voice your opinions on social media, in the local newspaper, or in other public forums (23).
- Volunteer. There's a number of ways you can volunteer for a cause or campaign. Phone bank calling, door-to-door outreach, and writing letters are just a few ways you can directly help with a campaign. Contributing to a cause or campaign by volunteering can be a very rewarding feeling.
Whatever your choice or stance, voting is one of the key pillars in American democracy that helps society function in a way that should be representative of all. Your vote matters and is a way to let the government know your position on the issues you care about and what you find important. With so many things that may seem out of our control this year, there is one thing that we do have control over—our vote! We'll see you at the polls this November.