According to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the University of California, San Francisco, published in the journal GeoHealth, the cost of climate change can be measured in health issues—and in billions of dollars.
In 2012 alone, Americans owed more than $10 billion in health costs specifically from 10 climate-sensitive events. And it’s not likely to get better. That $10 billion isn’t among the tallies totaled up by insurers and others of damages categorized as property, agriculture and infrastructure losses. Not counted are deaths, hospitalizations, emergency department visits, outpatient medical care, prescribed medications and lost wages associated with those climate events.
“Our research shows that health-related costs added at least another 26 percent to the national price tag for 2012 severe weather-related damages,” Dr. Vijay Limaye, a scientist in NRDC’s Science Center, said in a statement, And that’s only one year. As r weather events become more common, the toll will only increase.
The study reviewed the costs resulting from wildfires in Colorado and Washington; ozone air pollution in Nevada; extreme heat in Wisconsin; infectious disease outbreaks of tick-borne Lyme disease in Michigan and mosquito-borne West Nile virus in Texas; extreme weather in Ohio; Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York; allergenic oak pollen in North Carolina; and harmful algal blooms on the Florida coast.
In that one year, from those specific events, the $10 billion-plus health-related costs went for about 900 deaths, 21,000 hospitalizations, 18,000 emergency room visits and 37,000 outpatient encounters, breaking down as follows: wildfires, 419 premature deaths, 627 hospital admissions and $3.9 billion in total health costs; West Nile, 89 premature deaths, 1,628 hospital admissions and $1.1 billion in total health costs; ozone pollution, 97 premature deaths, 114 hospital admissions and $898 million in total health costs; and Hurricane Sandy, 273 premature deaths, 6,602 hospital admissions and $3.1 billion in total health costs.
Medicare and Medicaid were responsible for more than two thirds of illness costs, according to the report’s estimates, and that too will only grow. In 2012 there were 11 billion-dollar weather events, but in 2016, 2017 and 2018, NOAA says there were more—and those dollar totals do not include health care costs. Since both older people and the economically disadvantaged are more vulnerable than the general population, that total too will grow.
“Our research signals that all told, there could be tens to hundreds of billions of dollars in health costs already from recent climate-related exposures nationwide,” study co-author Dr. Kim Knowlton, senior scientist at NRDC, said in a statement, adding, “It’s clear that failing to address climate change, and soon, will cost us a fortune, including irreversible damage to our health.”
Limaye writes in his blog, “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…. 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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