RGGI provides a path to protect kids’ health

by Tim O’Mara, MD FAAP

Originally published in Virginia-Pilot on March 17, 2020.

Healthy children need a healthy planet. Pediatricians are leading the medical community in support of policies that will ensure a bright future for our patients. In 2020, we know that this includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet and pollute the air our kids breathe. That is why the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is proud to have strongly supported Virginia’s joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. This policy protects our patients’ health today and their future tomorrow.

As a pediatrician, I first became concerned about climate change in the summer of 2017 when I met Noah, an energetic 10-year-old with asthma. Noah’s asthma was well-controlled with a daily inhaled medication until July. Extreme heat caused him to become short of breath whenever he played outside.

His parents ultimately chose to remove him from camp and keep him in air conditioning for the rest of the summer. Pediatricians encourage all our young patients to be active outdoors. Yet as summers get hotter every year, we have to question whether this is even safe.

Across the country, children are being harmed by climate change in numerous, interconnected ways. Children in Maine are getting Lyme disease in skyrocketing numbers as rising temperatures allow ticks to survive in warming northern regions. In California, children are losing their homes, schools, and communities in catastrophic wildfires fueled by record heat and drought.

Here in Virginia, higher carbon dioxide levels and warmer temperatures are fueling earlier and more intense allergy seasons. The peak pollen count in Richmond is 35% higher than 30 years ago, making it much harder for pediatricians like me to control the asthma and allergies of my young patients.

Our children’s future is also at stake. In November The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, released a report on the effects of climate change in the United States. The leading message is about kids.

The report concludes “A business as usual trajectory will result in a fundamentally altered world… The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”

This is not the future we want for our children.

The Virginia chapter of the AAP was the first medical organization to support Virginia joining RGGI. This program will enable our state to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. RGGI also improves air quality and has brought major health benefits to participating states. It is estimated that in Virginia, RGGI will prevent more than 8,000 asthma attacks, 200 asthma Emergency Department visits, 300 premature adult deaths and 40,000 lost workdays annually.

These are real health benefits for real Virginian families. According to the Virginia Department of Health, in 2016, 4,120 Virginia residents were hospitalized for asthma. This number included one of every five moderately persistent asthmatic children in our state. The average cost of an asthma admission in 2016 in Virginia was $21,359. Maintaining the status quo, not aggressively pursuing carbon emission reductions, is tantamount to a tax on our public health every day.

As pediatricians, it is our mission to speak out for children. We are proud to have supported the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and to see Virginia on the path towards a bright future for all children in our state.


Tim O’Mara, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician in Fairfax who serves on the climate change committee of the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.