Scientists Link Climate Change to Coming Public-Health Crisis

Researchers put health-related costs of 10 climate-sensitive events in 2012 at $10 billion, warn that failure to address climate change could lead to ‘irreversible damage’ to public health

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By many measures, 2012 was a year when the country experienced abnormal weather that hinted climate change wasn’t something happening at some future date.

There were wildfires in Colorado and Washington, record-setting heatwaves in Wisconsin, and a devastating hurricane that killed hundreds In New Jersey, New York and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard.

It all took a huge toll on the health of residents affected by the events, according to a new study from Natural Resources Defense Council and the University of California at San Francisco.

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The study analyzed 10 climate-sensitive events from 2012 and estimated health-related costs across the country totaled $10 billion (in 2018 dollars).

Those costs resulted from about 900 deaths, 21,000 hospitalizations and 18,000 emergency-room visits, according to the study, published in the journal GeoHealth. Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that devastated large areas of New Jersey and New York, resulted in 273 deaths and $3.1 billion in health care costs, alone, the study said, higher than previous estimates by other authorities.

Overlooking impact on public health

“Climate change represents a major public-health emergency,’’ said the lead author Vijay Limaye, a scientist in NRDC’s Science Center. “But its destructive and expensive toll on American health has largely been absent from the climate-policy debate.’’

In the past, the public-health costs tied to climate-sensitive events are rarely tallied in government analyses of extreme weather, which more often focus on property and crop losses and damages to infrastructure, like roads, bridges, and utilities.

The study analyzed national and state-collected health surveillance data across 10 types of climate-sensitive events in 2012, including ozone air pollution in Nevada, infectious disease outbreaks of tick-borne Lyme disease in Michigan and mosquito-borne West Nile Virus in Texas.

The report estimated that more than two-thirds of the medical costs associated with these events were paid for by Medicare and Medicaid, a finding that aligns with previous research showing older adults and economically disadvantaged individuals are among the most vulnerable to harm from climate change.

“This a really important message. Climate change is adding to the health care burden,’’ said Dr. Wendy Max, a co-author of the study and professor at the UCSF Institute for Health & Aging. The case studies are representative of what is to come if carbon pollution emissions are not reduced, Max said.

Climate change and ‘irreversible damage’

Dr. Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist at NRDC, agreed. “It’s clear that failing to address climate change, and soon, will cost us a fortune, including irreversible damage to our health,’’ she said.

While the study shows a significant impact on public health, its authors and others note the true costs are likely substantially higher but cannot be fully evaluated due to incomplete health surveillance and environmental monitoring.

‘’These costs are unquestionably underestimates,” said Dr. Jeremy Hess, a professor at the University of Washington. Sea-level rise will likely “turbocharge’’ the impacts of climate change, he added.

Lead author Limaye agreed. “These impacts — each of them — will worsen in the future. Our aim is to avoid these impacts and avoid unbearable suffering,’’ he said.

The study was released on a day when President Donald Trump announced plans to revoke a waiver that allows California to set more stringent standards for tailpipe emissions and clean-running cars than the federal government. The transportation sector is the biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions contributing to climate change.

Besides calling for improved health surveillance and tracking, the report recommended communities initiate climate-change adaption plans to respond to global warming. Those strategies include employing early-warning systems and health advisories and opening public cooling centers.

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