The Health Costs Of Climate Hazards Are Piling Up
A U.S. Senate Budget Committee Hearing Underscores The Financial Toll of Climate Harms to Public Health
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this month released its latest tally of the toll of climate and weather disasters across the country, part of its work since 1980 to catalog the most expensive billion-dollar disasters. NOAA’s latest numbers indicate that there have already been seven of these costly events in 2023, with a total estimated economic cost to property, crops, and infrastructure of $19 billion.
While the severe flooding in California and severe weather across the Midwest and Southeast have led to 96 deaths by NOAA’s assessment, the profound damage of these and other climate hazards to human health is not included in the financial totals reported by the federal government. That’s a problem, because it means that we are currently underestimating the true costs of climate hazards. Many of these costly U.S. extreme weather events not only are harming our health, they’re also being fueled by climate change.
It is worth noting that the financial impacts of climate change are not only a threat to economic prosperity: they are already wreaking havoc on tax collection deadlines as the U.S. approaches a projected June 1 risk of default due to the debt ceiling. This past February, the Internal Revenue Service extended the tax filing deadlines in California, Alabama, and Georgia because of weather-related disasters in these states. While this extension has given millions of people some breathing room from tax bills, it has also delayed federal revenue collection and added uncertainty to Treasury Department’s projections about when the government could surpass its debt ceiling.
U.S. Senate Hearing Spotlights Health Costs of Climate Change
These missing health costs are receiving increasing attention from policymakers at the national and international levels. Members of the Senate Budget Committee recently heard experts offer some first-hand accounts about the many ways that climate change is already stealing people’s health and running up a mighty tab of worsening health costs. Those costs are right here in the United States, in our homes, schools, and workplaces.
The Senate hearing, “Under the Weather: Diagnosing the Health Costs of Climate Change,” gave five expert witnesses a chance to offer insights on what climate change looks like right now. Some of the witnesses painted a vivid human picture of exactly what climate change does to people’s health. Dr. Katelyn Moretti, an emergency medicine physician at Brown University, described seeing patients whose summertime work in construction, with ever-intensifying summer heat fueled by climate change, leads to dangerously elevated body temperatures. Even with fluids administered through an IV, overheated muscle tissue can break down in the heat, poisoning the kidneys and requiring hospital admission. The picture of climate change that Dr. Moretti painted in her testimony, including key health and economic findings from NRDC's 2019 study on the health-related costs of recent climate hazards experienced across the country, is deadly serious.
Michael Schellenberger and Dr. Michael Greenstone provided other perspectives on the costs of climate change. Dr. Greenstone from the University of Chicago highlighted that the heat-health costs are “at least an order of magnitude higher” than those previously assigned. He also highlighted that the energy choices we make today, and the related heat-trapping emissions we spew into the atmosphere (or not), make an enormous difference in people’s ability to breathe, live, and thrive. Energy choices are life and death choices.
Mr. Schellenberger touted the benefits of air conditioning to offset all the negative impacts of climate change, but Senator Padilla highlighted that many of his state’s constituents are agricultural workers who spend long hours in extreme heat, and lack access to the relief of air conditioning, on the job or at home.
The Honorable Stephanie Smith, Delegate from District 45 of Maryland, knows a lot about urban heat-health challenges. Her city, Baltimore, has many residents with heart, lung, and kidney ailments and for them, heat waves intensify already-existing symptoms. Ms. Smith noted that Baltimore is on pace “to see a sixfold increase” in extreme heat days in the next 15 years, when “emergency calls for congestive heart failure can double.” She shared the story of residents whose city apartments without air conditioning can reach 92 degrees on a 100-degree day outside.
Dr. Moretti and Senator Whitehouse had an exchange about extreme heat worsening a wide, wide range of pre-existing illnesses. That means that case counts from many causes of illness-- far beyond just “heat stroke”-- will spike during heat waves, such that the health effects of heat waves are commonly under-estimated. While new research sheds more light on the varied range of illnesses that climate change affects, there’s a real need for more accessible local datasets on how, where, and who are experiencing health harms as temperatures rise. That information can be a foundation for the next generation of climate-health impacts and cost estimates.
World Health Organization Launches New Framework on Climate Change and Health Costs
While climate change hazards are known to imperil people living in the Global South, our understanding of the toll that worsening heatwaves, floods, coastal storms, and wildfires (among other threats) have there is still somewhat limited. Because of challenges in obtaining reliable health data on illnesses, injuries, and deaths, researchers and policymakers in many developing countries are still not able to track climate-sensitive public health threats in real-time. Our limited view into climate-sensitive health threats in these places extends to the health-related costs and economic damage linked to premature deaths and health problems that require treatment in emergency rooms and hospitals.
Recognizing this important gap, the World Health Organization (WHO) this month launched a new framework to help facilitate greater deployment of climate-health-economic assessments worldwide. WHO’s report, “"A framework for the quantification and economic valuation of health outcomes originating from health and non-health climate change mitigation and adaptation action" presents a framework to link science, policy and practice for a comprehensive assessment of climate mitigation and adaptation investments and their impact on human health.
As WHO noted in its launch, this framework “provides various entry points for different audiences, including decision-makers in the public and private sectors, researchers and scientists working in the health sector as well as in other thematic areas and related sectors affected by climate action.”
Addressing Climate-Related Health Harms and Their Financial Costs
Policymakers are placing a stronger focus on the need to consider health-related damage costs caused by intensifying climate hazards around the world. By better accounting for the health costs of climate change, we can provide a stronger rationale to make health-protective investments in clean energy and community preparedness that will ultimately keep more people out of harm’s way and reduce these costly impacts.