WASHINGTON – 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—a burden falling heaviest on vulnerable communities but also shared in part by everyone in the United States, a new report shows.
“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 (Natural Resources Defense Council.) “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.”
The report, “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, with the potential to trigger substantial increases in harm to public health in the U.S. Correspondingly, taking bold action to cut fossil fuel use and climate pollution could yield hundreds of billions of dollars in avoided health harms, the report shows.
The report was produced by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action, and NRDC, and will be presented to health professionals on May 22 at the Medical Society Consortium’s annual conference.
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 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 Americans are affected by these climate health costs, even those whose health is not directly harmed, because the government health insurance programs Medicare and Medicaid, supported by taxpayers, pay the largest portion of the illness costs. Millions of people in especially vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, often least able to afford extra expense, are shouldering most of the cost burden to treat illnesses and injuries, 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. U.S. 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 U.S. face more than $820 billion in health damages annually from burning fossil fuels and climate changed-related events. The report provides details on key threats and costs:
- Soot air pollution: Burning fossil fuels releases microscopic soot particle pollution into the air. Breathing in that air pollution triggers cardiovascular disease and respiratory ailments and was estimated to cause about 107,000 premature deaths annually. Total annual health costs (2020 dollars): $820 billion.
- Ozone smog pollution. Emissions from burning fossil fuels and higher temperatures fueled by climate change increase ozone pollution (smog). This worsens asthma and may worsen cardiovascular, metabolic, nervous system, and reproductive outcomes. Total annual health costs: $7.9 billion.
- Allergenic pollens: Rising temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations increase the intensity and spread of pollen season. Allergenic oak pollen was estimated to cause 21,200 asthma visits in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest in 2010. Total annual health costs: $11.4 million.
Vector-borne infectious diseases
- Climate-fueled warmer temperatures increase the range of ticks and mosquitos, which carry Lyme disease and West Nile Virus, leading to premature deaths, hundreds of thousands of new cases annually, and tens of thousands of visits to medical clinics and hospitals. Total annual health costs: $860 million-$2.7 billion.
Extreme weather and climate events
- Heat: Climate change drives higher temperatures and more intense heat waves, triggering heat stress, heat stroke and worsening a range of cardiovascular ailments, causing deaths and triggering more hospital and emergency room visits. Total annual health costs: $263 million.
- Wildfire smoke: Rising temperatures, drought conditions, and insect outbreaks linked to climate change are projected to increase the frequency and intensity of large wildfires. Wildfire smoke exposure caused 6,200 respiratory hospital visits and 1,700 PM2.5 related deaths in a recent year. Total annual health costs: $16 billion.
- Hurricane Sandy: The 2012 hurricane disaster caused 273 premature deaths, and more than 12,000 hospital admissions, emergency room visits and outpatient encounters. Total health costs: $3.3 billion.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations that health professionals and policy makers can implement to stem runaway climate health costs.
Health professionals: As trusted messengers on health issues, health professionals can work to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the health sector, add climate adaptation and resilience into the health sector and incorporate climate change into healthcare and public health practice.
Policymakers: Policymakers can invest in clean, low-carbon energy, transportation and food systems; support equitable access to wind and solar energy; ensure a just transition and access to zero-emission transportation improvements, like sidewalks, bike lanes and zero-emission public transit; and invest in climate change preparedness and resilience at the local level.
“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 report is here: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/costs-inaction-burden-health-report.pdf
A blog by NRDC’s Vijay Limaye on the report’s findings is here: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/vijay-limaye/new-report-climate-harms-health-are-widespread-costly
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NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.