The Public Health Cost of Climate Change Is Already in the Billions

Climate change is already costing us billions through wildfires, smog, infectious disease, and other events. We can’t wait any longer to take action.

This is a transcript of the video.

Vijay Limaye, PhD, climate and health scientist, NRDC's Science Center: Climate change is a health emergency. Don't get me wrong. It's also a biodiversity emergency, a housing emergency, a food emergency, an infrastructure emergency, a national security emergency. We tend to focus on all these other climate change–fueled problems because their costs are relatively simple to calculate. But lots of new research shows, more and more, how much climate change makes us sick and can even kill.

This problem is terrifying. Not future terrifying, like a sci-fi movie, it's right now terrifying. It's also hugely expensive. In a new study, we looked at 10 climate-linked events and disease outbreaks across the United States in a single year: 2012. The sickness and deaths from just those 10 events cost the United States $10 billion. That year, climate-related events harmed Americans from coast to coast.

Out west, wildfires spread across more than 14,000 square miles of tinder-dry land. The flames and smoke were linked to hundreds of deaths and thousands of emergency room visits for heart and lung disease. For Washington and Colorado, the cost of those health problems added up to almost $4 billion. In Nevada, extreme heat helped spike ozone smog levels that caused 97 deaths with almost $900 million in health costs linked to serious respiratory problems. 

An outbreak of deadly mosquito-transmitted West Nile virus in Texas, more than $1 billion.

Meanwhile, harmful algal blooms in Florida sickened thousands, causing more than half a billion dollars of health-related costs, from food poisoning to neurological disorders.

Out east, Hurricane Sandy was made more damaging by climate change and sea level rise. Sickness, disease, and death from the storm cost New Jersey and New York more than $3 billion.

Some of these costs are the kinds of things you'd see on a hospital bill,

like emergency room care and prescription medications. There were also lost workdays and wages for people who spent time recovering from serious health problems in a hospital. But some of these costs come due long after the news cameras have left town. Like caring for the longer-term mental and physical trauma associated with surviving a disaster.

Altogether, we're talking about more than 900 deaths, 20,000 hospitalizations, and 17,000 trips to the emergency room. And all of it from just 10 climate-linked events in a single year‚ just one year. Since this was just a sampling of events, we probably paid many billions more in climate-related health costs in that same year.

Very likely, there's tens of billions paid since 2012 in health costs from climate-fueled fires, floods, storms, heat waves, and disease outbreaks that show no signs of slowing anytime soon.

I get it. The climate crisis can feel like someone else's problem. The dangers and costs of climate change tend to fall most heavily on elderly people, poor people, and other marginalized communities.

Maybe you're lucky, and this isn't you. But even if that's not you today, this is most definitely your problem too.

Medicare and Medicaid paid about two-thirds of the cost of illness. That's billions upon billions of our tax dollars that would be better spent on prevention. And the other costs, the ones that government insurance programs didn't cover can actually drive people into bankruptcy. More than half of Americans already struggle to cope with medical bills and many people forgo medical treatment to save money for their families. But by forgoing treatment, people can become sicker and even more vulnerable.

This new study is a wake-up call. We need to prepare our health systems and medical care providers for the accelerating climate crisis. And we need to make our health care infrastructure more resilient so that the power stays on for people who need urgent medical care.

At the same time, we could save billions of dollars and improve public health by cutting our heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for the climate-fueled health risks we can't avoid.

Most of all, I want people to understand what's behind these huge dollar figures. As a scientist, I work to quantify the real dangers posed by climate change for our health, now and into the future. But I never lose sight of the people being hurt by climate change right now, including mothers, children, and grandparents.

But also workers around the country, firefighters, first responders, outdoor laborers, and teachers. Their suffering can't be counted in dollars and cents. We're talking about lives damaged, sometimes lives cut short.

But we can take action to help ourselves and each other right now. We can demand clean, healthy energy and limit the worst effects of climate change. We can invest our resources and be better prepared for the climate emergencies we're seeing right now.

But just watching and not acting is something we can't afford.

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