The environment shapes our society. Hence, as climate change worsens, so do healthcare costs. Both the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) jointly warn that because of these serious healthcare and medical costs, climate change is essentially a public health crisis.

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The NRDC-UCSF study is unprecedented. In previous surveys, healthcare costs had not been included in valuations of climate change damages. But with the NRDC-UCSF findings, links can now be established correlating health data with climate change. Prior governmental analyses only scrutinized costs related to property, agriculture and infrastructure losses. They neglected to consider costs related to mortality, hospitalization (emergency visits, outpatient medical care, prescribed medications) and lost wages.

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Now, with NRDC’s new model, the research team quantified how climate change bears down on Americans’ health by examining the associated health costs. The study findings show that, over the course of 10 climate-sensitive events from the year 2012, Americans endured more than $10 billion in healthcare costs. As climate change exacerbates, costs will continue to rise.

“Climate change represents a major public health emergency, but its destructive and expensive toll on Americans’ health has largely been absent from the climate policy debate,” stated Dr. Vijay Limaye, lead author and NRDC scientist. “Our research shows that health-related costs added at least another 26 percent to the national price tag for 2012 severe weather-related damages.”

The research team exhorts that unchecked climate-related events will economically burden communities, especially unprepared ones. In particular, 10 harmful environmental issues — including allergenic pollen, extreme weather, harmful algal blooms, heat waves, hurricanes, infectious diseases from ticks and mosquitoes, ozone smog pollution, river flooding and wildfires —  merit public health attention.

“This continuing untold human suffering and staggering cost is another reason we must take assertive action to curb climate change now,” Dr. Limaye warned. “Cutting greenhouse gas pollution and expanding clean energy, while also investing in preparedness and climate adaptation, is the prescription for a safer, healthier future.”

NRDC recommends that investment in preparedness could save billions of dollars in future health costs and thus help to save lives. The research team likewise urges more comprehensive cost analyses to inform policy making, improved tracking of climate change-related outcomes as they relate to health issues, strategic community planning for climate adaptation (e.g. health advisories, early warning systems, better disease surveillance, even community redesign to better handle floods, hurricanes and wildfires) and nationwide efforts to reduce climate change triggers like pollution. NRDC also advises that taking steps now to counteract extreme climate change events would cost up to five times less than paying for event-related health consequences.

Study co-author and NRDC senior scientist Kim Knowlton confirmed this. “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,” Knowlton said. “It’s clear that failing to address climate change, and soon, will cost us a fortune, including irreversible damage to our health.”


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Image via Robyn Wright