In late February, the Biden government made an important announcement that could affect the health of Americans for generations. In particular, it had nothing directly to do with COVID-19 or even healthcare reform.
Instead, the news was that the recently established Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases had released a preliminary report on the federal government’s best estimate of the cost of continuing to burn fossil fuels to society. A final report is planned for the beginning of next year. Currently, the administration rates one tonne of carbon dioxide emitted at $ 51, methane at $ 1,500, and nitrous oxide at $ 18,000. These are the numbers used to calculate the costs and benefits of government climate policies, including actions taken to protect Americans from the health effects of the changing environment.
As a doctor in Texas and a professor of environmental economics in California, we’ve seen from different angles how people struggle to respond to the unprecedented threat of climate change. Patients hurry to evacuate an approaching storm, only to forget critical medication at home. Governments face tough choices between providing basic services or turning off electricity to prevent a devastating fire. There is no question that climate change, in the form of warmer temperatures, rising seas, more frequent extreme events, and exacerbated natural disasters, is already present and already affecting the health and wellbeing of many Americans.
Rather, the question now arises of how determined the administration will be to counter this threat.
Fortunately, unlike its predecessor, the Biden government takes climate change seriously. The IWG calculations are a data point that reflects this.
But neither a break with an immediate precedent nor a mere continuation of Obama-era politics will be enough. In fact, since 2016, when the federal government last published scientifically justifiable estimates of the social costs of greenhouse gases, a flood of new data on the health effects of climate change has surfaced. The data shows that every organ system in the human body is vulnerable. And no part of the population is spared.
So to really “listen to science; In order to improve public health and protect our environment, “as the President has instructed the IWG, this collaboration of 14 government agencies must update their methods.
So far, the IWG has used three “integrated assessment models” (IAMs) that represent both the economy and the climate system and are intended to capture the economic and social costs of greenhouse gas emissions. However, only one of the three IAM models used, the FUND model, explicitly takes into account the health effects. And the things it contains – diarrhea, vector-borne diseases, and cardiovascular and respiratory mortality – only reflect a small part of the picture and are largely based on science that is decades old and now out of date.
Today we better understand the impact of climate change on adolescent depression and premature birth in women of color, and we are changing the geographic distribution of neglected tropical diseases that devastate children, particularly in the southern United States. We learned that staples like wheat and rice are less nutritious when grown in climates with higher greenhouse gas concentrations. We know that extreme heat and humidity are becoming more common and severe, making it difficult and dangerous for farmers and construction workers to continue working outdoors. And we have seen that the increasing frequency of weather disasters is not only fatal, it also leads to delays or delays in basic services such as dialysis and the administration of COVID-19 vaccinations.
In addition, climate change is reversing the health benefits we have achieved through existing environmental protection measures. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Clean Air Act helped avert 230,000 premature deaths, 2.4 million cases of asthma exacerbations, and 17 million missed work days from 1990 to 2020. Last summer, when the western United States was covered in a thick cloud of smoke for weeks, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington saw some of the worst air pollution on the planet, well above levels enough to cause serious health effects. Air quality in the US has generally improved over the past few decades, but forest fires reversed that trend in the west and northwest, and are now responsible for 25 to 50 percent of particulate matter. The connection with climate change is clear: At warmer temperatures, the vegetation dries up and tinder-box conditions arise that fuel the megafires that have devoured the western states.
The government’s response to climate change should be informed by these events and new information, including when estimating the cost of climate change. Omitting the healthcare costs is one of the many reasons why the current IWG estimates are to be understood as the lower limit.
Even so, the IWG’s calculations are only part of what is required in the government’s strategy to combat climate change. At the same time, the risks to people, communities and critical infrastructures must be minimized. This means both developing a climate resilient health system and long-term planning to get people and property out of the way. Currently, states and communities across the country are struggling to understand and manage the threats posed by climate change. A national adaptation planning process to coordinate and guide these efforts is long overdue.
For Texans who are still recovering from the February storm and Californians who have not yet returned home after the fires last summer, the details of climate policy are likely to be of little interest at the moment. However, this is the social cost of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions in people’s lives. And they reflect what we already know and can be sure of that climate change is threatening the health and wellbeing of Americans today. If we don’t act now, so will future generations.