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US Health Costs from Climate Change, Fossil Fuel Pollution Top $820B a Year

New NRDC report synthesizes dozens of scientific research papers and is among the first to tally a broad financial toll on public health from climate-change-driven extreme weather, unprecedented heat waves, spikes in air pollution and a rise in vector-borne diseases.

The staggering, often-overlooked financial costs to our health from fossil-fuel-generated air pollution and climate change surpass $820 billion in health costs each year in the United States alone — a burden falling heaviest on vulnerable communities but affecting everyone across the country, a new Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report shows.

The Costs of Inaction: The Economic Burden of Fossil Fuels and Climate Change on Health in the United States synthesizes several dozen scientific research papers and is among the first to tally a broad financial toll on public health from climate-change-driven extreme weather, dangerous heat waves, spikes in air pollution and increases in vector-borne diseases.

These impacts are projected to escalate, along with corresponding harm to public health in the US. Taking bold action to cut fossil fuel use and climate pollution could avoid hundreds of billions of dollars in health costs, the report shows.

The report, produced by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action and NRDC, will be presented to health professionals on May 22 at the Medical Society Consortium’s annual conference.

“The science is clear: The dangerous effects of climate change — and their profound costs to our health and our pocketbooks — will worsen each year we fail to curb the pollution that is destabilizing our planet,” said Dr. Vijay Limaye, report co-author and a climate and health scientist at NRDC.  “We face a choice: continue down this dead-end path of inaction and soaring healthcare bills. Or make smart investments now in cost-effective solutions that will prevent millions of people in our country — especially the most vulnerable — from suffering injuries, illness and premature death. The time to act is now.”

While critics often assert that curbing climate change would be too expensive, the report reveals that the cost of inaction means that we’re paying far more than $820 billion (about $2,500 per person in the US) in health costs — every year — from fossil fuel air pollution and climate change impacts. These impacts are linked to heavy burdens of premature deaths, hospitalizations, serious injuries, mental health ailments, lost wages, missed days of work and other health problems.

The report finds that all US citizens are affected by these climate health costs — even those whose health is not directly harmed — because government health insurance programs Medicare and Medicaid, supported by taxpayers, pay the largest portion of the costs. Millions of people in especially vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, often least able to afford the extra expense, are shouldering most of the cost burden of health care, which widens existing inequality in our country.

“The benefits of climate action are tremendous: Climate solutions can save lives and save money while also reducing the risk of future climate change-related damages,” said report co-author Donald De Alwis, research analyst at the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. “Actions small or large from individuals, health professionals, and policymakers can guide us towards a future that is greener, healthier, and more prosperous. The health of current and future generations stands to benefit, the economic rewards are significant, and the costs of sitting on our hands are immense and growing.”

Estimating the national health cost of fossil-fuel-driven climate change is challenging because of limited data availability on injuries and illnesses resulting from specific weather extremes, and the current cost estimates are conservative as a result. US government estimates of the yearly costs of climate and weather disasters omit the health-related costs and focus instead on property, crop and infrastructure losses.

Despite this gap, peer-reviewed literature indicates that people in the US face more than $820 billion in health damages annually from burning fossil fuels and climate change-related events. The report provides critical details on overlooked key threats and costs:

  • Air pollution: Between soot air pollution and smog created by burning fossil fuels, and rising temperatures and CO~2~ concentrations increasing the intensity and spread of pollen season, air pollution-related health care costs account for roughly $839 billion per year.

  • Vector-borne infectious diseases: Climate-fueled warmer temperatures increase the populations and range of ticks and mosquitos, which carry Lyme disease and West Nile Virus — leading to premature deaths, and hundreds of thousands of new cases annually. Total annual health costs: $860 million- $2.7 billion.

  • Extreme weather and climate events: Between climate-change-driven higher temperatures (which can cause heat stroke and worsen a range of cardiovascular ailments, both of which increase death rates), increased incidence of and range of wildfires (wildfire smoke exposure caused 6,200 respiratory hospital visits and 1,700 PM2.5 related deaths in a recent year) and increased incidence and intensity of hurricanes (2012’s Hurricane Sandy alone caused 273 premature deaths, and more than 12,000 hospital admissions, emergency room and outpatient visits), the US incurs over $19.5 billion in health care costs annually.

For a deeper dive into the data, download the report here.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations that health professionals and policy makers can implement to stem runaway climate health costs.

“The findings of this report create important new opportunities by showing the vast amounts of money we can save as a nation by greatly accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy,” said report senior adviser Dr. Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communications. “As an added bonus, nearly everyone in America will enjoy cleaner air and water, and better health.”

The good news is, despite four years of the scrapping of many federal clean air regulations by the previous administration, mayors of cities throughout the US and around the world are still working to achieve the C40’s 2017 goal of ensuring that major areas of their cities are zero emission by 2030. And major private sector players including Biogen and Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health recognize that human health is interdependent with the health of communities and the planet, and have put forth bold commitments to address not only their own climate impacts but link their climate actions to increased equity and health. Here's to a light at the end of a smog-filled tunnel.


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