Ky. Voices: Overdue climate initiative also about health, safety

President Barack Obama released his new climate action plan, a set of measures to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the vast array of challenges our country will experience from a warming planet.

Many welcome this package as long overdue. Heat waves and powerful storms are showing up with life-threatening frequency. Carbon dioxide has accumulated in the atmosphere at levels many fear are irreversible. Diseases that have only affected people in tropical climates are now moving into the southern U.S.

Others, including most of Kentucky's federal legislators, think the climate action plan is a war plan.

But creating an enemy of the federal government on a climate plan is picking the wrong fight.

When it comes to coal and health, we should be paying more attention to the enemies that are harming our bodies and less attention to the political banter.

The same pollution that's leading to a shifting climate is also affecting the way we breathe, our hearts and our mental development.

In Kentucky, coal plants are the number one source of methyl mercury, a heavy metal known to affect mental development; we are primarily exposed to this highly potent form of mercury when we eat fish. Every single body of water in Kentucky has a fish consumption advisory, which is particularly strict for pregnant women and children.

Other enemies include the very fine particles released by power plants that our bodies can't expel when we cough. These particles can lead to asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke and even impaired fetal development.

Greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants are linked to powerful storms that have killed and injured hundreds and left innumerable families homeless.

These emissions are also connected to the increasing numbers of heat waves that lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke and drought-induced food insecurity. These pollutants, too, are the enemies that can take an indiscriminate toll on our citizens.

If the president's climate plan is a threat to Kentucky, it is because for too long our elected officials have ignored the need for diversification of our energy sources and meaningful investment in the local economies of Kentucky communities that have been dependent for decades on coal.

Mechanized mining, less usable coal and natural gas prices are just a few of the reasons why coal has been on the decline for decades, long before a U.S. president decided to take action on climate-altering pollution. Now, the transitions that Kentucky needs will not be easy.

But before we put up our dukes, let's make sure we pick the right fight. Climate policies should be designed to protect our health and provide opportunities for investments in a clean, renewable energy economy. Let's work together to protect health by addressing the actual sources of our planet's shifting climate, and fight for the economic solutions that will improve the lives of all Kentuckians.