Hospitalizations from COVID-19 could cost the U.S. health care system between $9.6 billion and $16.9 billion, according to one analysis. But that figure is dwarfed by the economic impact of the health burden of climate change and fossil fuel-generated air pollution, which a recent study estimates as reaching 250 times that figure, at more than $820 billion in just one year alone.
Despite these grim findings, research also shows we can avoid more than a trillion dollars in future health, economic and environmental damages by acting now to transition to a clean energy economy. A national clean electricity standard offers just such a path forward by investing in the infrastructure we need to rapidly cut harmful fossil fuel emissions and protect our health, while also creating jobs and addressing longstanding injustices.
The burning of fossil fuels for energy to power our cars, buildings and manufacturing, among other things, generates greenhouse gas emissions that are heating the planet and increasing the frequency and severity of floods, storms, wildfires and extreme heat like the record triple-digit heat that recently hit the Pacific Northwest.
These climate change-worsened events harm health in many ways by triggering illnesses, injuries and premature deaths, which not only take an emotional toll on the families and individuals who experience them, but can come with hefty health care costs. And these impacts are not felt equally, with low-income families and communities of color disproportionately burdened by growing damage to physical, mental, and financial health from climate hazards.
A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, “The Costs of Inaction: The Economic Burden of Fossil Fuels and Climate Change on Health in the United States,” examines the scientific research on the public health costs from climate-sensitive extreme weather events, spikes in air pollution and vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus. This review of the best available science finds the total economic impact of a sample of climate-sensitive health problems and fossil fuel air pollution exceeds $820 billion each year.
That figure does not include damages to health care facilities from climate-related events. FEMA reports that extreme weather can cost a hospital up to $2 billion. As one example, NYU Langone spent $1.5 billion in FEMA and hospital dollars to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, an event we now know was worsened by climate change. As climate change accelerates, we can expect these costs to grow.
Health care expenses can heavily burden families, and more than half of all adults currently report medical financial hardship. They also put a strain on taxpayers as Medicare and Medicaid patients shoulder the highest share of climate-related health costs, in addition to the billions spent by FEMA to rebuild health care centers.
Even while we are paying for dirty energy with our health, the cost of clean, renewable energy has fallen fast, making it the cheapest form of power in most parts of the country. Eighty percent of existing, highly-polluting coal plants are more expensive to operate than building new, local wind and solar — and that doesn’t even account for the significant health costs from air pollution generated by burning coal. The reality is, utilities are forcing the tremendous health and environmental costs of dirty energy onto surrounding communities, even when cleaner power would be less expensive.
The transition to clean electricity could transform pollution-burdened communities and revitalize local economies without driving up electricity bills. New research from Harvard University shows a rapid transition to clean energy would also yield enormous health benefits, finding an 80 percent clean electricity standard by 2030 would save 317,000 lives and avoid $1.13 trillion in health costs between now and 2050.
A clean power system would also enable other positive health impacts. As we expand our clean power system, we can simultaneously electrify our cars, homes and buildings so they are able to draw on clean electricity instead of fossil fuels, thus improving the air where we live and work while further cutting emissions that damage the climate.
Scientists warn we have only a decade to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half to safeguard a livable planet. And we now have a very narrow political opportunity to enact the policies we need to achieve that target. As the health costs analysis shows, we are already experiencing high costs of inaction and every year we delay will increase the burden on families and our health care system. To meet the climate crisis head on, Congress must not wait for another record-shattering hot summer to adopt a strong clean electricity standard that rapidly phases out our dependency on killer fossil fuels over the next decade.
Unfortunately, Congress left major climate provisions of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan out of the bipartisan infrastructure package. The negotiated package also leaves out many of the plan’s proposed investments in communities disproportionately impacted by climate change. While the infrastructure package does include some climate-supporting provisions like billions for public transport, it doesn’t go nearly far enough toward addressing the scale of the crisis we are facing.
But there is good news. Senate Democrats recently announced that they are including a clean electricity standard in the budget deal that can be passed through reconciliation with only 51 votes. The details haven’t been determined yet, and it is imperative that Congress sets a strong interim target on the way to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 while centering environmental justice in the policy design.
As storms, heat waves and floods intensify, and communities continue to suffer the harmful effects of pollution from dirty energy, Congress must make the clean energy investments now that will protect lives and save more than a trillion dollars in health costs.
Dr. Sarah Spengeman is the associate communications director at Energy Innovation, a board member at Interfaith Power and Light and the host of a podcast sharing stories of mothers fighting for their children’s right to inherit a livable planet.
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