Climate Change Is a Public Health Emergency. Inaction Is Costing Us.

A new study finds climate change fuels billions in health costs.

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Errol Ragas walks past a cemetery to recover dry blankets from his home as rising waters from Hurricane Isaac flood Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, August 29, 2012.
Credit: John Moore/Getty

A new study finds climate change fuels billions in health costs.

We’re used to hearing about the effects of climate change on our environment and natural systems: how it’s raising sea levels, intensifying hurricane storm surges, worsening droughts, and prolonging wildfire seasons. And we’ve also come to understand how these shifts are, in turn, fueling so much human misery—causing displacement, illness, famine, water shortages, civil strife, and death on a global scale. Now, new research shows that climate change is responsible for many billions of dollars in health costs each year.

In this country, those who argue against taking immediate and appropriate action on climate often cite cost as a reason for continued debate and delay. Even those who no longer question the scientific truth of climate change express concern that addressing it seriously, on a national level, would entail an investment so large as to require an unaffordable restructuring of our economy. What these delayers and deniers typically neglect to note, however, is the significant cost of not addressing climate change. Americans are already paying billions of tax dollars every year to rebuild cities and even entire regions after climate-driven disasters. Meanwhile, farmers are losing billions of dollars annually to catastrophic weather events, including this spring’s record Midwest flooding, leading many of them to wonder if the small family farm can even survive.

To these mounting costs we must add those associated with the devastating impact of climate change on public health, especially because, since these costs can be hard to estimate, they have been largely absent from policy debates. Our new report, published in the peer-reviewed science journal GeoHealth, lays out these costs in detail—and reinforces the case for treating climate change as a public health emergency.

Previously, our colleagues at NRDC, working closely with academic partners, attempted to paint a clearer picture of these missing health costs. Their 2011 study was the first of its kind to shed light on the scale of health costs related to climate change; in it the authors predicted that extreme weather events were only going to get more frequent and more intense—which is to say, more harmful—in years to come.

And they were right: Globally, the five warmest years on record all occurred after the paper’s 2011 publication. Given that fact, we thought that now would be a good time to revisit the question of how much these climate-driven events cost us, as a society, in terms of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, lost work days, medications, outpatient care, and premature deaths. This time, though, we decided to focus our analysis on a single year.

Residents of Hoboken, New Jersey, are evacuated from their homes during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.
Credit: Christopher Lane/Getty

The year that we selected, 2012, was at the time the hottest ever recorded in the United States, according to the National Climatic Data Center. The climate statistics from that year are astounding. More than 350 all-time-high maximum temperature records were broken in locations around the country. Wildfires raging in the West burned more than nine million acres (about 14,000 square miles). In September 2012, about two-thirds of the contiguous United States was suffering through drought—a new record, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. There were 19 named tropical storms that year, tying for third place. And at least 99 million Americans experienced 10 days or more of temperatures that reached or exceeded 100 degrees.

For millions of Americans, those figures translated into a set of harrowing climate-related events that helped make 2012 a hugely destructive year. Among them was Superstorm Sandy, to date the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, which killed hundreds of people, including an estimated 273 in the United States, as it swept over eight countries in the fall and caused more than $70 billion worth of damage in this country alone. Earlier that year, an outbreak of mosquito-borne West Nile virus afflicted more than 5,600 Americans—killing 286 of them, yet another record.

We looked at both of these climate-related events as well as eight others that took place across 11 states in 2012, with an eye toward calculating the health costs attaching to the entire set.

Climate‐sensitive case study events included in the 2012 health cost valuation
Credit: Credit: Limaye, V. S., Max, W., Constible, J., & Knowlton, K. (2019). Estimating The Health‐Related Costs of 10 Climate‐Sensitive U.S. Events During 2012. GeoHealth, 3.

According to our estimates, the health costs for these events totaled $10 billion (in 2018 dollars). What these dollar figures reflect: more than 20,000 hospitalizations, nearly 18,000 emergency-room visits, and nearly 1,000 deaths. What all these numbers tell us: that climate change represents a major public health emergency, not only in poorer countries but right here in the nation boasting the world’s largest economy and one of its most technologically advanced health-care systems.

Our analysis of climate change–driven health impacts and costs in 2012 is conservative. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tabulated 11 major disasters in 2012 in the United States, each resulting in at least $1 billion in property and/or infrastructure damage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared a total of 112 disasters that year. What’s more, 2016, 2017, and 2018 each had more billion-dollar disasters than did 2012. As a result, the climate‐sensitive impacts we examined could signal hundreds of billions of dollars in health‐related costs from recent and future events nationwide.

Strengthened climate preparedness definitely has a major role to play in helping Americans avoid the worst effects of climate change. But as this study suggests, in order to avoid untold human suffering and staggering health costs, those efforts must be accompanied by aggressive actions to reduce emissions and decarbonize our economy. This study brings new insight to the national and global conversation about the costs of immediate climate action versus the true costs of continued delay. We’re going to have to pay to deal with climate change one way or another. But we don’t have to pay for it in the form of illness, injuries, and lost lives.


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