Climate Change Is Increasingly Endangering Public Health

The Supreme Court should reaffirm the EPA's role in addressing climate change.

A woman walks past the marquee on the The South Coast Cinemas building as the sun and sky are obscured with ash from Southland wildfires in Laguna Beach Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020


Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Just as fresh evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points to major health burden already caused by climate change, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case, West Virginia v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that could have far-reaching repercussions on our country’s response to the climate crisis. It’s been over a decade since the court took on another key climate change case – Massachusetts v. EPA – and determined in 2007 that the Clean Air Act authorizes EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat trapping greenhouse gases as air pollutants. While that sounds pretty academic, it was a far-reaching, prescient decision that set the stage for connecting the dots between those climate pollutants, and their ultimate consequences for human health.

Back in 2007, there were already hundreds of scientific studies that linked carbon pollution to climate change, and further connected global warming of our atmosphere and oceans to a wide range of environmental changes that could harm people’s health. Fifteen years later, thousands of additional scientific studies demonstrate these risks in even more grim detail. These days, climate change often makes front-page news, and it is a lived experience for tens of millions of people. It is, sadly, not merely book-learning anymore. People are suffering from climate change in a whole host of ways, and our most vulnerable are expected to suffer much more than others without equitable policy responses.

Climate hazards are undeniable

The last decade has brought climate change into our homes, backyards, and doctor’s examination rooms. Among members of the National Medical Association, 86% of physicians surveyed said that climate change was relevant to direct patient care. The years 2013 to 2021 were all among the ten warmest years on record globally. Americans have lived lately through a nasty, sometimes lethal array of climate change-fueled extremes: a “megadrought” in the American West that scientists estimate to be the worst in at least 1,200 years, historic heat waves like the 2021 Pacific Northwest “heat dome”, the unprecedented western wildfire seasons in 2020 and 2021, historic storms and deadly flooding from mega-systems like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Ida, spikes in vector-borne diseases and the emergence of new diseases, and longer seasons in which pollen and air pollution make breathing difficult for tens of millions of Americans with allergies, asthma, and other pre-existing conditions.

Preventing grim forecasts from becoming a reality

Left unchecked, the already challenging climate problem is poised to severely impair the health and well-being of us all. This month, an alarming scientific assessment from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast that sea level rise in the U.S. is accelerating, with an additional foot of sea level rise anticipated by 2050 (the same increase previously took an entire century). Air quality around the country is being seriously impaired by both wildfire smoke and ozone smog, and a hotter planet makes both of these problems even harder to address.  Heat-related hospitalizations and deaths are also expected to climb in the absence of meaningful policies that cut climate pollution. While health experts continue to uncover and new evidence on the links between rapid climate change and human health risks, we have plenty of data and robust scientific consensus to justify strong actions to address the root of our climate ills.

A costly burden, heavily shouldered by vulnerable people

These worsening climate hazards cost people not only in human pain and terrible suffering, disrupting lives, work, schools, and communities: these physical harms also threaten mental well-being and impose significant economic costs as well. We took a look at the health-related costs of a set of climate-sensitive events that were documented in just one year since the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA case – the year 2012-- and estimated $10 billion in health-related costs. The financial burden of health-related climate damages goes largely untallied and under-appreciated. That staggering price tag stems from more than 900 deaths, 20,000 hospitalizations, and 17,000 emergency department visits from a small sample of climate-sensitive events in just a single year. Experts at NOAA have been tracking the financial wreckage of climate and weather disasters since 1980, and their accounting indicates that 2010-19 decade was one of “unprecedented” harm, as the country suffered twice the number of billion dollar disasters than during the decade prior.

Federal action is urgent

Climate change increasingly endangers the health and well-being of the entire country (and indeed the world), so it’s crucial that the EPA—established to safeguard human health and environmental quality—be allowed to continue and expand its work to protect Americans in the face of this unprecedented, menacing threat. Actions EPA has taken over the past year—phasing down the use of climate super-pollutants, cutting climate pollution from the transport sector, and reducing emissions from oil and gas extraction operations--make it clear that EPA not only has the authority, but also the know-how to implement health-protective climate policies that can deliver both near-term air quality and public health gains as well as longer-term progress towards our country’s ambitious goal to drastically cut climate pollution during this pivotal decade.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 decision finding that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act, and EPA’s subsequent endangerment finding in 2009 documenting the tangible human risks linked to the worsening climate problem, reflect the overwhelming scientific evidence on the causes and consequences of climate change for our country. Now is the moment to strengthen EPA’s climate work, not sideline it.

A view of the Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, on April 24, 2020


(Brandon Thibodeaux/Redux/The New York Times)

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