Commentary: As a veteran with one lung, my ability to breathe depends on climate action

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Antelope Island and the Oquirrh Mountains beyond poke up beyond the deteriorating air quality under inversion conditions on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, obscuring the ground below as pilot Jeff Greenland takes every opportunity to fly above the poor conditions. Over the radio with Salt Lake Approach before landing he can be heard saying "thanks for keeping us all safe during the shutdown," as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history drags on.

In March of 1969, I left my hometown of Millcreek to serve in the infantry in Vietnam. After the war, I moved back home to the Salt Lake Valley to teach sixth grade science and math. Like many who fought on the ground in Vietnam, I had been exposed to agent orange and I had no idea.

It wasn’t until 2005, after I had been experiencing some health problems, that a doctor told me that agent orange had deteriorated my lungs so severely I had no other choice than to receive surgery to have one of my lungs removed. Now I live with one functioning lung, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and asthma.

I called the Salt Lake Valley home for the majority of my life, but as the pollution increased over time, living there with one lung became impossible. I could not breathe, and ultimately decided to move to Midway, where the air is less polluted.

As a veteran, I care about how this nation protects not only my fellow veterans, but all of our civilians. If the air above our country continues to weaken people’s health and displace them from their homes, what does that mean for the security of this nation?

When the United States joined the Paris Agreement in 2015, it joined other leading nations to combat climate change and transition to clean energy to avoid the worst impacts of rising global temperatures. I was immensely proud of our nation that day. But when President Trump pulled out of that agreement, he decided that corporations and special interests were more important than the security and prosperity of Americans.

Our forest fires here in the West are more frequent and more deadly. Drastic flooding we once experienced only every hundred years is hitting our coasts and Midwest every few years, demolishing homes and farms. Our air has become so polluted that we see it and feel it. Especially for those 26 million of us in America with asthma, I don’t know how we will live if this becomes any worse. These are the consequences of human-made climate change, and they will only get worse unless we combat these effects ambitiously.

But thankfully, Congress recently took bipartisan action to relaunch America’s leadership in this fight. Last week, the House passed the Climate Action Now Act to ensure that the US upholds its commitments to the Paris Agreement.

I am a Vietnam veteran with one lung, and if my president will not care about my ability to breathe, my representatives in Congress, Rep. John Curtis, and Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney must. I have lived in this beautiful state my entire life, and I want to grow old here. I cannot risk yet another town in Utah displacing me because of pollution. Because at that point, my lung may be so deteriorated from pollution, my ability to breathe anywhere — and thus live — will no longer be an option.

Steve Smith, Midway, is a retired teacher and Vietnam veteran.

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