Over the past 30 years, numerous scientific reports have highlighted the health impacts of climate change. The report included a summary on heat stress, vector, water-borne diseases, and air pollution health effects like asthma and heart attacks.
Yet health impacts are not fully accounted for in the cost of carbon estimates – presenting a missed opportunity. Public health researchers and economists should continue to work together to more fully capture the health value of policies that cut climate pollution.
Climate and health
The most recent National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, provides an extensive review of climate change's effects on human health in U.S. regions. Public health impacts include:
1. changes in mortality and hospitalizations due to extreme weather events including heatwaves, floods, and droughts.
2. changes in vector, food, and waterborne infectious diseases.
3. changes in chemical exposures via air, food, and water.
4. stresses to mental health.
WHO assessment projected 250,000 additional deaths per year in 2030 – despite only quantifying a subset of health impacts from climate change.
Improving health benefits estimates
A 2017 National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine report recommended two critical research needs for advancing the science behind the SCC estimate:
1. Updating health damage modules to incorporate recent health literature.
2. Improving delineation of the different effects of climate change across regions of the world – e.g., trying to determine the different health impacts expected in different areas.
The Climate Impact Lab has developed an improved temperature-related mortality estimate that incorporates adaptation and delineates distributional effects across areas of the globe.
A recent analysis utilized WHO, Climate Impact Lab, and Lancet Countdown temperature-mortality functions to produce estimated mortality costs associated with climate change – suggesting a seven-fold increase in estimated monetary damages from previous estimates. In other words, adding in more specific health damage estimates increased the estimated cost of carbon pollution by seven times—from $37 to $258 per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted.
Although climate change is a global phenomenon, the impacts are unequal and disproportionately burden underserved, low-income, and marginalized communities. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that socially vulnerable populations are likely to experience the most severe harm from climate change. Evaluating the distributional health effects of climate change at a finer geographical scale could help policymakers address inequities.
It’s critical for policymakers to have accurate information to weigh the benefits and costs of cutting carbon. With health researchers involved, benefit-cost analyses can more accurately capture the threat that climate change poses to people’s health – and the benefits that come with acting on climate.