Climate Change Is Already Killing Americans and Costing Billions in Medical Bills, Report Finds

A photo taken of Long Beach Island, New Jersey in the week after Hurricane Sandy made landfall.
Photo: Getty Images

Climate change will make our lives worse in the years to come, but a new report out this week highlights the stark costs people are already paying in the U.S. In 2012 alone, it found 10 major climate-related events likely led to nearly 1,000 extra deaths, almost 21,000 hospitalizations, and an added $10 billion in healthcare costs.

Researchers from Columbia University, the University of California Los Angeles, and the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) looked at the fallout of extreme weather events strongly linked to a warmer climate that took place in 2012. These included extreme heat days in Wisconsin, outbreaks of tick-borne Lyme disease in Michigan and the mosquito-borne West Nile virus in Texas, wildfires in Colorado and Washington, and the landfall of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Using various sources of data, including medical records and earlier studies, they then came up with their estimates.

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Overall, they found that these events directly contributed to 917 deaths, 20,568 hospitalizations, and 17,857 emergency department visits. In 2018 dollars, they also estimated the financial costs of these medical cases amounted to $10 billion, though the costs could have ranged from $2.7 billion to as high as $24.6 billion. The single most impactful event was Hurricane Sandy, which led to nearly 300 deaths and $3.1 billion in medical-related losses, though the overall costs created by wildfires were slightly higher. These costs are on top of the billion in damages and lost property caused by the storms and wildfires the researchers looked at.

Echoing other research elsewhere, they also found that the more vulnerable segments of the country were most affected by climate. Two-thirds of the costs related to illness were paid by Medicare and Medicaid, the government-ran health care programs that predominantly cover the elderly and poor.

The study was published Tuesday in the journal GeoHealth.

“There is a real cost in terms of human health,” study author Wendy Max, a professor of Health Economics and co-director of the Institute for Health & Aging at UCSF, said at a press conference held Wednesday. “Our study is the first to put a price tag on these costs, [but] this is just the tip of the iceberg—we know this is an underestimate.”

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One weakness of the study, for instance, is that they looked at the largest climate extreme events in 2012 in only 11 states. But people all over the country died from extreme heat or caught Lyme disease and West Nile that year. So there’s undoubtedly many more people left uncounted.

The authors said that they focused on 2012 because that year provided them with the most up-to-date health data that they could study. The time gap also afforded them the opportunity to look at newer research that’s still trying to measure the health-related costs of certain events, such as a study published earlier this year that linked Sandy’s impact with women’s higher risk of pregnancy complications.

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But according to lead author and NRDC researcher Vijay Limaye, the gap also underscores our inability to quickly marshal together the information needed to understand the health-related impacts of climate. While 2012 was a particularly hot year, the northern hemisphere has since experienced even hotter summers, including this year. And there’s simply no way to know how many more lives are being affected currently.

“The linkage of this data is still lacking,” said Limaye. “There’s no unified tracking of climate-sensitive data.”

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By publishing these findings, Limaye and his co-authors said, they hope to galvanize the public, doctors, and policy makers into action.

That includes states creating climate adaptation plans that take public health into account (currently, according to the authors, only one-third do now), improving health surveillance systems, and, of course, reducing our carbon emissions as soon as possible.

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“This is a wake-up call,” Limaye said.

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About the author

Ed Cara

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere