OTF Voices

To tackle air quality, N.J. needs to make fossil fuel polluters pay

South Jersey Times

By Dr. Elizabeth Cerceo

Since we just commemorated Earth Day, I have thought a lot about where New Jersey is as a state in facing up to the declining health of our planet. As a physician and a mother of six, it’s easy for me to be pessimistic.

This past week, the American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air” report, which ranks Camden, where I work, as one of the 25 worst areas of the country with respect to both particulate matter and ozone levels, caused largely by burning fossil fuels. I see the effects of increasingly toxic air every day in my patients who developed lung cancer with no history of smoking, and the ever-growing hospital admissions for severe asthma or emphysema.

Still, I am hopeful. Hard-working, smart and creative New Jerseyans understand the true problem. It’s not that we don’t know how to address pollution in our cities. The problem is our political leaders have yet to find the will to do it. However, the work of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and the Legislature indicate that New Jersey is waking up. At the federal level, the Biden administration’s focus on climate change and clean energy signal that the nation is waking up, too.

A growing number of leaders across our region are taking a major step toward reducing harmful vehicular pollution through the the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative Program (TCI-P). The governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the mayor of Washington D.C., have agreed to sign on to require big oil and gas companies to pay for the pollution those companies cause within their borders, generating funds that can be reinvested into reliable, safe, and clean public transit .

If New Jersey joins TCI-P, we could raise as much as $250 million per year to expand and electrify our outdated rail and bus networks and, as a result, improve access to jobs while reducing traffic congestion and pollution. By signing New Jersey into the program, Murphy would bolster his reputation as one of the country’s most progressive climate leaders. According to polls, the vast majority of New Jersey residents support this approach as a way to meet our state’s ambitious public health and climate goals.

The science is clear. In 2019, the World Health Organization declared carbon pollution to be “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.” Not long after, 110 U.S. national and state medical and health organizations declared climate change to be “a true public health emergency.

In February, a study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that more than 8 million people worldwide died from fossil fuel pollution in 2018. The number of deaths attributable to burning fuels like coal and diesel was roughly equivalent to the population of New York City.

So, what can you and I do? Well, the state Department of Environmental Protection has found that the primary source of New Jersey’s carbon pollution is transportation. This is why it is so important that New Jersey take up the TCI-P initiative. State leaders can use funds generated by the program to reduce emissions by electrifying school buses, building electric vehicle charging stations and investing in clean public transit.

We need to tell lawmakers to embrace these ideas. And, if we believe in health equity, we need to demand that the solutions address the disparate impact that pollution and lack of access to reliable public transit has on our Black and brown communities.

As a physician, I see the toll that pollution imposes on my patients. As a mother, I fear for the future of my children and my community. Two of my children have asthma, and the invisible threat of air pollution from transportation and other sources makes it worse.

We have to take every opportunity we can to help heal New Jersey. Our leaders have an opportunity to address these emissions by implementing the common-sense, equitable Transportation and Climate Initiative Program. In the long run, TCI-P will have a durable and beneficial impact on the health and lives of New Jersey families and children.

Dr. Elizabeth Cerceo is an associate professor of medicine at Cooper University Hospital, its associate program director of internal medicine, and its co-chair for physician engagement.

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