In addition to ravaging the environment, destroying homes and buildings, and causing food prices to soar, climate change is also making health costs skyrocket. A new study in Health Affairs says that six categories of climate-change-related weather events—ozone pollution, heat waves, hurricanes, river flooding, wildfires, and infectious disease outbreaks—led to at least $14 billion in health costs between 2000 and 2009. A full 95% of those costs came from lives ended prematurely.
There have been studies in the past estimating the future costs of climate change, but this is the first to look at the toll that a warming climate has already taken. Here’s how the study did it: First, the authors searched peer-reviewed literature for morbidity and mortality data related to those six categories of climate change events. Then, they calculated morbidity and mortality for a single representative event in each category, based on information from public health agencies, epidemiological literature, and extrapolated data (i.e. numbers of hospital visits, trips to the emergency room, and so forth).
The study highlights the California heat wave of 2006 as a representative event in the heat wave category. The fires burned 736,597 acres, charred 3,631 structures, and cost over $3 billion dollars in damages. Causes of mortality included smoke inhalation and mudslides. A number of people also suffered asthma and pneumonia as a result of the event.
There’s plenty of debate over whether any individual event can be conclusively linked to climate change. And, as the study’s authors acknowledge, "The relationship between climate change and health is complex and varies according to the type of event. However, these case studies represent the types of health impacts that are projected to worsen under climate change." According to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is a two in three chance that climate change is already getting worse because of human actions.
While the study didn’t look at the potential health benefits of climate change, the authors note that past studies have shown the U.S. population to be completely acclimatized to cold weather, but not heat—just think about the toll a searing heat wave takes on a community compared to a snowstorm. Power lines may be downed during big snowfalls, but that’s no match to the air conditioner-induced power failures and water shortages caused by heat waves.
There are ways for the U.S. to adjust to changing weather, even if we can’t get climate change under control. Instituting workplace and municipal warning systems for heat waves is one way to increase heat-related death awareness (you might be less likely to wander around outside if you know it’s dangerous), and surveillance of insect vectors could slash infectious disease (i.e. West Nile virus cases). Other climate-change-related events—like wildfires—are not as easy to prepare for. Even with a virtual army of firefighters at the ready, there is no way to stop all of the destruction.
In the end, this study reiterates what we already know: Humanity needs to start bracing for change, and fast.