NRDC and partners released a report last month on the staggering financial toll of fossil fuel air pollution and climate change on human health in the United States. Following up on the launch, we are providing here some more information to clarify our findings and take a deeper dive into our report methods.
Specifically, some headlines and stories generated from the report’s initial release suggested or directly stated that climate change is tied to more than $820 billion in health care costs per year. prompted us to provide the following information, in which we highlight four points with a more detailed description of the cost estimates and clarification on the nature of the costs we report (these clarifications are also included in an updated version of the report itself).
1. Differentiating between the economics of reducing mortality risk vs. health care costs to treat illness
Overall, the vast majority of the health costs identified in our report come from a method that provides a valuation of reducing premature mortality risk, known as the “Value of a Statistical Life (VSL).” These mortality-related cost estimates are not the same as those related to traditional health care that are typically incurred to treat illnesses. The VSL estimates comprise the vast majority of the total damages identified in our report and provide an important way to represent premature loss of life in economic terms.
When we discuss the costs of premature mortality measured by this VSL, our cited publications applied an estimation method for the economic valuation of premature death, rather than an out-of-pocket cost or medical bill for health services. For example, one could say that the VSL indicates how much a large group of people would be willing to pay to avoid or reduce the risk of premature death from health harms caused by environmental conditions. There is more information online about how EPA explains the VSL method here. To emphasize this distinction again: the overwhelming majority of the costs estimated in our report are those associated with premature mortality, via the VSL method.
2. Who is paying for the health care costs we identified?
For the illness-related costs, the expected payer can sometimes be determined from the datasets used to assemble the cost estimates. The report does not intend to imply that all of the estimated costs are borne by vulnerable people, nor by the general public through Medicare and Medicaid premiums, to which taxpayers contribute. The VSL estimates associated with premature deaths are not out-of-pocket expenses being directly paid by individuals, and those costs comprise the vast majority of the total economic burden identified in the report.
3. The difference between fossil fuel-generated air pollution and climate change-related costs
This report includes both the health costs of fossil fuel-related air pollution, and the health costs related to events sensitive to climate change, to varying degrees. Today, fossil fuel-related air pollution generates the majority of these costs, largely derived from the economic value of air pollution-related premature deaths. For example, the $820 billion per year figure highlighted in our report refers exclusively to the economic impact of premature deaths associated with fossil fuel-generated air pollution. Other cost estimates identified in our report (above and beyond the $820 billion) encompass both premature mortality and illness-related costs for specific types of climate-related events. We did not sum together the other cost estimates presented in each exposure category, because they are derived from different studies over different years that employed distinct methodologies.
But in the future, say, 30 years from now and assuming that cleaner, non-polluting energy sources are more prevalent, fossil fuel-related health harms would decline. However, climate change-related health costs are projected to rise to tens to hundreds of billions annually by the end of this century, greater than those same costs today. The good news is, if we move away from reliance on fossil fuels now, we can limit both types of costs—both today’s fossil fuel air pollution costs; and the future costs from a range of climate change-sensitive health hazards exacerbated by the impact of fossil fuel-related greenhouse gas emissions on climate change.
4. The difference between climate change-related and climate change-caused health impacts
The report might seem to suggest that people are directly paying out over $800 billion dollars from their pockets every year, for health costs caused by climate change. This interpretation, however, blurs the distinction between climate-attributable (caused) health outcomes and what the report identifies as "climate change-related" (elsewhere referred to as “climate-sensitive”) health outcomes. To help avert confusion, we’re providing this clarification.
The report combined findings from prior studies that were not causal climate change “attribution” analyses. Here we get into some further important details and distinctions. Climate attribution studies apply statistical modeling techniques in order to quantitatively examine the link between climate change’s influence on a particular event and associated health harms. Rather, this report compiled information from prior studies on a range of climate-sensitive health problems—those expected to worsen in frequency, intensity, duration, or areal extent in the future, due to climate change. For example, in the report, substantial costs are associated with vector-borne diseases whose climate change attribution is unknown, and likely limited at this time. To be clear, climate change is not currently responsible for 100% of the costs that were tallied in the report. While research in attributing climate change’s contribution to specific environmental events is advancing rapidly, that attribution is not the focus of the studies compiled in this report.
From Evidence to Action
Overall, our report findings indicate that fossil fuel-generated air pollution triggers a significant health and financial burden across the country right now, including a massive toll of premature death, and the available evidence indicates that the health costs of climate hazards will continue to mount in the future, unless we take decisive action to reduce climate pollution and improve community preparedness. As our understanding of the health harms of fossil fuels and climate change deepens even further, we can and should do a better job of identifying, tracking, and reducing health risks and costs from these interlinked dangers that are burdening our most vulnerable neighbors.
About The Author Vijay Limaye is a climate and health scientist in NRDC's Science Center. As an epidemiologist, he is broadly interested in addressing international environmental health challenges—quantifying, communicating, and reducing the risks associated with climate change—with a focus on the public health burdens of air pollution and extreme heat. At NRDC, he leads economic valuation work to demonstrate the significant health costs of climate change and he works to defend the science that underpins the Clean Air Act. Prior to joining NRDC, he worked as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist, focusing on Clean Air Act regulatory implementation, air quality monitoring policy, risk communication, and citizen science. Limaye, who also speaks Spanish and Hindi, has published several research studies on the health impacts of climate change-triggered air pollution and extreme heat in the U.S. and India. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a PhD in environmental epidemiology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is based in New York City.
Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities
by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon
Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats
by Gwynne Dyer
Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon
From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.