The statistics are shocking – around the world, more than 250,000 people will die every year because of climate change. The culprits are varied and sometimes familiar – poor air quality leading to respiratory distress or intensified storms flooding out communities.  But they are also surprising, too.

More than a decade ago, almost 40,000 people in Europe died due to an extreme heat wave – and global temperatures have only risen since then. The truth is that the health effects of climate change are the biggest public health crisis the nation, and the world, are facing.  And it is a problem that can be solved, in part, by implementing carbon pricing at the state level.

Residents of New England have particularly good public health reasons to pass a type of carbon pricing called carbon fee and rebate.  The region has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, with one out of every nine individuals suffering from the illness.  Air pollutants and airborne allergens are some of the triggers for asthma attacks, which are as costly as they can be terrifying to sufferers and their loved ones.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, asthma costs the nation $56 billion each year and kills an estimated nine people per day. 

Given the global nature of this public health crisis, it is tempting to think that it is a problem too big for one state to solve.  But the truth is that public health – like politics – is local.  And if Massachusetts can continue to provide leadership by implementing innovative public policies to reduce carbon emissions, we can guide the way for the rest of the nation.  The carbon fee and rebate proposal is one such policy. 

Two current proposals at the State House would create a common sense carbon pricing system in Massachusetts, similar to one that has worked well in British Columbia, where fuel consumption has decreased by 16 percent since 2008. One proposal, S. 1747, would charge fossil fuel importers a fee based on how much carbon dioxide pollution the fuels release when burned. The fees would go into a special fund for rebates and be passed on directly to households and employers in order to minimize any increased costs in living and doing business. Each resident would receive an equal rebate from the fund. Since low- and moderate-income households tend to use less energy than wealthier ones, on average they would come out ahead, but everyone would have an incentive to reduce their use of fossil fuel in order to pay less in fees. Businesses, nonprofit organizations, and governments including municipalities would receive a dividend from the fund based on their share of the state’s employment.

Another developing proposal – S. 1786 - follows a similar model but would invest a small portion of the funds in clean energy and public transportation. In both cases, Massachusetts would be implementing a policy that encourages residents and businesses to use less fossil fuel, thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions while helping the Commonwealth’s public health and its economy.

It’s important to point out that Massachusetts passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) in 2008, which mandates that the Commonwealth cut carbon emissions to 25 percent below the 1990 level by 2020 and to at least 80 percent below 1990 by 2050.  Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld provisions of the GWSA that require limits for multiple emission sources to decline annually.  Further, even though we have made some progress, there are recent reports that carbon emissions from the region’s power plants rose in 2015, after years of decreases.  We will need to adopt new initiatives in order to meet the legal benchmarks required by the GWSA.  Carbon pricing is only one policy that the Commonwealth will need to implement to meet those mandates, but it is the single most effective one – it gives us the “biggest bang for the buck” – to reduce emissions and improve public health. 

Like so many communities here and around the world, Massachusetts will continue to pay the expensive public health price of climate change – in both lives and dollars.  But we have the chance today to pass a policy that will reduce those costs, while generating more jobs and helping the communities that are disproportionately harmed by climate change.  Let’s address this global health crisis by starting local. Let’s pass legislation that creates common sense carbon pricing in Massachusetts. 

Richard Clapp is a Professor Emeritus at Boston University School of Public Health who taught students about the relationship between climate change and public health.