August 2016

Our Climate, Our Health

Val Wangler, M.D.


Last month, as Arizona’s Cedar Fire burned out of control not too far from Zuni, the air was thick with the smell of burnt forest, and the sunset took on an otherworldly crimson. On one of the grayest evenings, I attended to patients with allergies and with asthma attacks, provoked by the poor air quality from the forest fire. As New Mexico’s climate becomes warmer and drier, more frequent and larger fires will burn, and I am sure to see an uptick in patients dealing with their effects.

But the health implications of climate change are not limited to forest fires. Hotter summers mean higher rates of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Oil and natural gas extraction and burning mean more pollutants in our air and water, leading to high rates of cardiac, pulmonary and other diseases. Warmer winters mean expanding ranges for “vector-borne disease,” those infections carried by mosquitoes and ticks. In the longer term, crops’ inability to adjust to climatic shifts will mean less food security and poorer nutrition, and sea-level rise will displace untold numbers of coastal residents.  

Native Americans are and will continue to experience the effects of global warming acutely. Coastal Alaskan Native communities are being forced to vacate lands inhabited for many generations in favor of higher ground. In New Mexico, Native traditions dependent on traditional water supplies and crops are threatened by precipitation and temperature changes. Here in Zuni, the Zuni River, once the center of the community’s agriculture and ceremonies, now only flows occasionally, sitting dry much of the year.  

The health effects of global warming are magnified in communities, like many Native communities, with higher rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and respiratory disease. Similarly vulnerable are children and the elderly who have less capacity to regulate body temperature and fight off disease.

The world has much to learn from indigenous people who successfully lived in balance with the natural world for thousands of years, and who in many places lead the charge against climate change today. 

In 2013, members of the Rosebud Sioux set up a Spirit Camp in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, slated to endanger water supply and areas important to several tribes. For two years, the camp and those who lived there stood as a symbol of Native opposition to Keystone XL. From marches on Washington to local town halls, indigenous people from Canada to Oklahoma protested the pipeline, and in 2015, after more than six years of review, the Obama administration rejected the proposal to build Keystone XL.

In New Mexico, too, tribal communities are leading the way with the vision and innovation to tackle this difficult issue. New Mexico’s first net-zero-energy building was completed last October. Picuris Pueblo’s fire station runs completely on renewable energy and serves as an inspiration for other communities looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Now, Picuris is working to install a 1-megawatt solar array, enough to power all homes and tribal buildings there, and making it the nation’s first all-solar-powered tribe. Over the next 25 years, this will generate $3.5 million in revenue for Picuris Pueblo. 

Taos Pueblo’s Red Willow Farm pairs Taos’ rich agricultural history with cutting-edge ideas in sustainable agriculture like solar-powered irrigation, a biomass-heated greenhouse and organic farming methods. Red Willow inspires young community members to consider careers in agriculture by providing them with entrepreneurial opportunities and resources. This approach means Taos Pueblo is able to address global warming and food security while growing healthy food for the community.

New Mexico’s Native communities are also impacted by the proximity of much of the state’s oil and natural gas extraction and production to tribal lands. Four Corners-area Natives are affected by the San Juan Generating Station, which dumps as much harmful nitrogen oxide gases into the atmosphere as 940,000 cars. This respiratory irritant, along with sulfur dioxide, mercury, selenium and other hazardous chemicals released into the air, have been estimated to contribute to 33 premature deaths and 600 asthma attacks annually. Air pollution is increasingly being linked to cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and stroke. And high air pollution days studied in other communities correlate with a higher all-cause death rate.

Near Chaco Canyon, where land ownership is a checkerboard of tribal, private, federal and state, fracking (hydraulic fracturing) poses other grave concerns. Local Community Health Workers are concerned about rates of cancer, asthma and upper respiratory problems and are worried that these are related to fracking in the area. Concerned Navajo citizens and leaders have joined together with the Sierra Club, health groups, community members and volunteers to conduct a Health Impact Rapid Assessment (HIRA) to document citizens’ levels of exposure to toxic emissions. Leaders of the Counselor, Torreon-Star Lake and Ojo Encino chapters all passed emergency declarations supporting the assessment and voicing their concern for the health effects of nearby oil activity. By understanding and documenting the impact that fracking has on Navajo people and local lands, the HIRA will further empower the three chapters and other communities to demand transparency, improve safety and reduce health hazards for the community.

The health impacts of climate change are daunting, especially for New Mexico’s indigenous communities. With a long history of living in successful balance with the land and the ingenuity and dedication of these communities today, however, our Native communities hold many solutions in the fight to protect human health from these dire threats.   


Val Wangler, M.D., is a family physician and member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, specializing in the intersection of climate change and human health.



Lawsuit Challenges 25-year Extension of

Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine

In April, Navajo, regional and national conservation groups filed suit in federal district court, challenging the U.S. government’s approval of extending coal operations at Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine through 2041. The groups say the approval failed to adequately analyze impacts to air, water, land, people and endangered fish and lacked any assessment of clean-energy alternatives.


The lawsuit comes as the world’s largest mining company, Peabody Energy, joins Arch, Alpha, Patriot and other U.S. coal companies in bankruptcy, and as industry efforts to export more coal to Asia have hit roadblocks.


Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation has taken over ownership and liabilities of Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton and is preparing to buy El Paso Electric’s share of Four Corners Power Plant.


“We deserve real attention to how our region can diversify,” said Mike Eisenfeld, of San Juan Citizens Alliance, based in Farmington, New Mexico. “It’s a serious disservice for government leaders to tell the Four Corners to stick with collapsing coal without even a look at alternatives.”


Shiloh Hernandez, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center said, “That the U.S. Department of the Interior has largely swept these dangers aside is a health and environmental injustice, and its deafening silence on transition options is an economic injustice.”

Carol Davis of Diné CARE said, “Approving 25 more years of coal mining and burning at the Navajo Mine and Four Corners Power Plant blindly assumes profitable operations when in reality they are suspect at best, and places the Navajo Nation at great economic risk with the cost of owning and operating Navajo Mine with full responsibility for eventual reclamation.”


“The same coal pollution that makes people sick is driving endangered fish toward extinction in San Juan River,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity.


“Mercury is the most common pollution problem in lakes and reservoirs in the region, and mercury is in coal pollution,” said Rachel Conn of Amigos Bravos.




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