Can how much you drive and what lights up your home impact your health?

Emily York, climate and health program coordinator for the Oregon Health Authority, told participants at the Oregon Public Health Institute’s Community Conversation on Climate Change & Health that Oregon was one of only six states to receive initial funding from the Centers for Disease Control for climate change pilot programs.

Now -- as three years of work in Multnomah, Benton, Crook, Jackson and the North Central region that includes Sherman, Wasco and Gilliam counties transitions to the next phase – Emily York, climate and health program coordinator for the Oregon Health Authority,   said Oregon is starting to prepare a state-level plan based on what it learned in that mix of rural and urban areas.

“Our health and safety are at risk,” York said. “Some communities will be affected more than others” from heat, drought, wildfires, floods, sea level changes, allergens, infectious disease and indirect impacts such as economic instability and chronic stress.

Those most impacted by climate change, York said, are least responsible for it, including low-income households, communities of color, and the elderly.

Angus Duncan, chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, and founder and president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a non-profit seller of renewable energy and carbon-offsetting Green Tags, said Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 1999, a decade before the rest of the country.

While Duncan heralds some progress with the state’s policy of requiring electric utilities to meet 25 percent of their load with new renewables like wind or solar power by 2025 and the legislature’s recent passage of a clean fuel standard, Oregon will need to reduce emissions another 19 percent from 2010 emission levels to meet 2020 goals.

“This is a tough, wicked, vexing problem. Each one of us is one of the point sources,” Duncan said, “of greenhouse gas pollution.”

In 2010, light-duty cars and trucks accounted for a quarter of all Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions and coal-fired electricity use in all sectors including residential accounted for another quarter.

Duncan said PacifiCorp, the utility serving most of the state, receives 66 percent of its power from coal-fired plants and another 17 percent from natural gas-fired sources. Portland General Electric, serving most of Portland, gets nine percent of its portfolio from coal and 63 percent from natural gas.

“People think because we live in the Northwest we’re [receiving power generated by] hydroelectricity but we’re not,” Duncan said. In 1965, carbon-neutral hydroelectric power accounted for 95 percent of all Oregon electric generation but now Duncan says Oregonians get 34 percent of their power from coal-fired sources, 14 percent from gas-fired generation and just 42 percent from hydro. Wind power makes up another 5 percent of Oregon’s electricity mix.

To reach emissions goals, Duncan said, it’s essential to encourage less polluting sources of energy at both the national and state levels.

“You make the decision of what you’re going to shift into,” said Duncan, who predicted that natural gas will be used to meet peak demand and to fill in the gaps when other resources are offline, alongside more energy efficiency to meet the growing demand.

“In the first 30 years of the Northwest Power Act, efficiency made up for the equivalent of two Grand Coulee dams,” Duncan said, referring to power production facilities on the Columbia River that are among the largest in the world, generating some 6,809 megawatts of electricity.

In the next 20 years, energy efficiency measures could save the equivalent of another three Grand Coulee power stations “at a third of the cost of building new power plants,” he said.

Policies to prevent climate change do more than prevent environmental catastrophe, York insisted. Co-benefits from energy independence, green jobs, livable cities and clean water “create a better world.”

Jan can be reached at [email protected].

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