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Emissions Commission Takes On N.H.'s Long-Running Health And Climate Challenges

State officials are trying a new approach to a long-running issue -- the effects of air pollution on public health -- with a new commission that met virtually for the first time Thursday night. 

The ad-hoc Emissions Commission includes Democratic and Republican state lawmakers, plus members of state agencies and major health, business and environmental organizations.

Meeting on Zoom Thursday, they got a scientific overview of how climate change and air pollution are affecting public health. 

Scientists told the commission that heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere are causing warmer temperatures and more precipitation in New Hampshire, which will especially affect socio-economically disadvantaged people who've already been hard-hit by COVID-19. 

Epidemiologist Semra Aytur of UNH called this change a "perfect storm" that will cause more heat stress and related deaths in New Hampshire, and make life more difficult for people with chronic health conditions. She says it could bring on new diseases carried by food, water or vectors like ticks, and cause more mental health strain, increasing rates of violence and suicide. 

This story is part of By Degrees, NHPR's climate change reporting project. Click here to see more and share your ideas and questions for future stories.

Dr. Mark Windt, a UNH adjunct professor with the Center for Asthma, Allergy and Respiratory Disease, said the commissioners will have to think of emissions as both causing and resulting from climate change, coming from both in and out of the state.

“I always tell my patients that we’re the tailpipe for the Midwest because of the jet stream coming in," he said. "So we’re getting a lot of pollution that we haven’t initiated, and that is still causing health problems in our state.” 

The commission also heard from Justin Kates, the emergency management director in Nashua, about his city's community resilience and planning efforts. Commissioners said they thought the state could help offer more localized mapping tools on these issues, combining climate and health effects with other social vulnerability data. 

The commission agreed Thursday to get more background on current state efforts to measure and mitigate emissions of all kinds -- those that cause climate change, and those that are consequences of it. Officials from the Departments of Environmental Services and Health and Human Services promised details on these issues for the commission's next meeting.

Credit Kirsten Howard / NHDES
Climate change is causing coastal flooding, hotter temperatures and new health risks in New Hampshire.

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The group also acknowledged that New Hampshire has been here before over the years - including with a climate change commission and state master plan in 2009. Despite past efforts, the state hasn't made as much progress as other states on addressing the problem.

Conditions like asthma are still more prevalent here than in almost any other state. New Hampshire has lowered its greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector in recent years, but hasn't moved the needle as much for the transportation and industrial sectors. And the state has the least aggressive renewable energy goals in the region, furthered by recent vetoes from Gov. Chris Sununu. 

State Rep. Kat McGhee, a Democrat from Hollis, said this history shouldn't stop the group from trying to get their arms around the problem.

"We also have to understand that this is sort of an escalating issue," she said. "That's part of the reason that people keep trying to take a stab at it, is because it will cause us to increase our consumption in order to try to beat the heat or whatever other implications are coming our way." 

The commission will hold meetings and take public input, which can also be submitted online, each month through December, when they'll recommend emissions-cutting legislation for next year.

Their next meeting, on Sept. 3, will focus on emissions by sector -- from buildings, transportation, electricity generation and industrial uses. 

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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