In a new report by The Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action, it is estimated that the health costs of air pollution and climate change already far exceed $800 billion per year and are expected to become even more expensive in years to come without a stronger societal response to address the crisis.
The report delineates the specific costs associated with poor air quality and climate change. For instance, fossil fuel burning (coal in particular) releases deadly particulate matter (PM) and PM precursors, and climate change affects PM through increases in airborne dust and wildfires in parts of the United States. PM2.5 caused 107,000 premature deaths resulting in an estimated $820 billion.
Rising temperatures, drought conditions, and insect outbreaks linked to climate change are projected to increase the frequency and intensity of large wildfires. From 1984 to 2015, climate change doubled the area of burned land from forest fires in the Western United States. Wildfires can cause premature death and injuries, and endanger respiratory and cardiovascular health through the generation of toxic air pollution. Wildfire smoke caused 6,200 annual respiratory hospital admissions and 1,700 PM2.5-related deaths from short-term smoke exposures, resulting in an estimated $16 billion.
Beyond the documented costs in the report, additional climate-change related health costs include health problems linked to food and water, and mental health problems.
The report goes on to suggest specific actions that citizens, health professionals and policymakers can take to contribute to decarbonizing our energy, transportation and food systems to improve health and reduce costs:
- Use active transportation – walking, biking and public transportation.
- Adopt sustainable and healthy habits – such as a low-carbon planetary health diet.
- Push to decarbonize the health sector – U.S. healthcare sector emissions are among the highest in the world.
- Advocate for climate ready health systems – including emergency preparedness and adaptation measures.
- Integrate climate change into healthcare and public healthcare practice – providing climate-positive health recommendations to patients.
- Implement policies that support clean, low-carbon energy, transportation, and food systems – including improving access and demand for affordable, high-quality, planet-friendly foods, and investing more aggressively in healthcare system resilience.