Health & Justice
Human health, economies, and social justice are inextricably linked with climate change, which affects ALL life on earth.
Climate change alters the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the pathogens we encounter, and the weather we experience. According to the US Global Change Research Program, “Climate change puts the health of every American at risk.” According the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health,, “environmental pollution is the largest cause of reversible premature death and disability in the world today.” The hazards of climate change and pollution are intimately linked because fossil fuel extraction, combustion for energy, and utilization in manufacturing plastics and other materials are the primary causes of both climate change and environmental pollution.
Rising temperatures will also increase ground-level ozone levels, and that is expected to cause 5,000-10,000 additional deaths per year in the US over the next decade.1 Particulate pollution from combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for more than 20% of all cardiovascular, stroke, and lung cancer deaths. 2, 4 Childhood asthma has been linked to indoor air pollution caused by burning natural gas on kitchen stoves.4
Lyme disease is considered the first pandemic of climate change. Ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes are expanding their habitats and lengthening their seasons.1 The mosquito that carries Zika virus has been found as far north as SE Pennsylvania. Climate change causes species to move and invade unusual habitats, making pathogens more likely to jump from one species to another, as happened with Covid-19. Similar events will happen in the future causing new diseases to emerge in many different plant and animal species, threatening our own health and food supplies.
During the 1980’s there were an average of 6 days/year in Philadelphia when there was a statistically increased death rate attributed to excess heat. Over the next decade it is anticipated that there will be 47 such days/year, and 73/year by the end of the century.5
Drought, floods, heat stress, and disease will all reduce volume of crop output.2 At the same time, high CO2 levels in the atmosphere will reduce the nutritional value of those crops.3
Heavy rains and floods will cause overflow of irrigation and sewage systems causing more contaminants to enter the food and water supplies. We already see that with the occasional e-coli and salmonella contamination of lettuce and other crops. Contamination of recreational water and of shellfish1 is also occurring.
Trauma and mental illness
Wild-fires, storms, floods will result in trauma, both mental and physical. On top of that, financial and health burdens will also cause increasing anxiety and depression, and complicate management of other issues.
References and links for more info
“The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States,” at US Global Change Research Program. Note: this summary can be viewed for free, one of the most readable, knowledgeable overviews we've found.
“Executive Summary: Climate Change, Global Food Security and the U.S. Food System,” USDA Article.
"Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition." Nature Research Article.
"About Nitrogen Oxide and Asthma," EPA Asthma Triggers
"Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment Update, May 2015,” Environment & Natural Resources Institute Report.
See the American Public Health Association (APHA) for several infographics illustrating much of the information shared in this section. One of them can also be viewed at the bottom of this page.
Systemic racism and other forms of systemic prejudice are linked with climate change, in that those who benefit the most from the activities that produce greenhouse gases, are not the ones who must suffer the most from the consequences.4
Housing patterns resulting from decades of red-lining, and placement of highways and power plants favoring the economically powerful, has resulted in 78% of African Americans living within 30 miles of a power plant. They are disproportionately represented in inner city areas more vulnerable to heat stress and traffic derived air pollution and are less likely to have health insurance. The result is that African Americans are 3x more likely to die from particulate air pollution, twice as likely to have childhood asthma, and, in our current pandemic, have a higher death rate from Covid-19.1 This is a prime example of how discriminatory forces in one sector reinforce parallel practices in others. 2 Through combinations of intent, lack of awareness, and neglect, decision makers have failed to adequately consider the needs of marginalized communities.3 It is telling that Doctors Without Borders has deployed to the Navaho Nation because the wealthiest country in the world does not make available adequate health care for its marginalized communities.
References and links for more info
“Air pollution and Mortality in the Medicare Population,” NEJM: 2017; 376: 2513-2532.
"Covid's Color Line - Infectious Disease, Inequity and Racial Justice," NEJM: 2020; 383:408-410.
"Structural Racism, Social Risk Factors and Covid-19," NEJM: September 2020.
"Climate change is also a racial justice problem," Washington Post, article giving overview and including cited sources.
The argument that it is too expensive to rapidly transition to a clean energy economy with sustainable use of our resources is a false argument. The costly strategy is to maintain the status quo. The confluence of our recent crises has shown that our problems are interconnected. Solving one benefits others. Preparing our infrastructure for bad weather creates new jobs. Putting a price on carbon stimulates research and development. Reducing our use of fossil fuels reduces health care costs. If we encourage regenerative farming we can not only make farming more profitable but also improve our health and protect the planet. Benefits for doing the right thing multiply. If we look at our economy as a whole, the cost/benefit of mitigation and transition to a green economy becomes more obvious.
According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), a combination of carbon tax and subsidies and investments into green energy to achieve zero emissions by 2050 will boost GDP in the initial recovery post Covid-19. We could half the expected output loss from climate change and provide long-term GDP growth well above the current course from 2050 onward.8
Health Care Costs
Reducing use of fossil fuels is the single most important thing we can do to control health care costs. According to the EPA7 a 15% reduction in fossil fuel electricity usage would yield $20 billion/year in avoided health care costs in the US, and approximately $1 billion/year in Pennsylvania, and that adoption of RGGI (regional greenhouse gas initiative) would result in the avoidance of > $50 million/year in health care costs in the combined 5 counties of SE PA.
Social Cost of Carbon (SC-CO2)
The SC-CO2 is a measure of the economic harm to society from the combustion of carbon. It reflects the costs of reduced agricultural productivity, health impacts, need for additional air conditioning, and property loss. In 2016 the EPA was advised to use $40/ton2 as an estimate to consider the cost benefit of policies intended to reduce carbon. However, most models now estimate the SC-CO2 in the range of $50 - $200/ton. According to Moody’s Analytics, climate change could cost the World’s economy $69 trillion by the end of the century.3 IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) models estimate that while transition to renewable energy by 2050 would cost the US economy $1.6 trillion/year, the results would save the US economy $6 trillion/year from reduced air pollution, better health, and lower environmental damage. 4
Decarbonization is Profitable
The transition to a clean energy economy will require hundreds of new unique occupations across three industrial sectors: clean energy production, energy efficiency, and environmental management. 6 Building and transportation infrastructure renovations that will be required will generate many local jobs with middle class wages. The research and development that will be required will generate new industries and technologies.
The number of new jobs created will dwarf the job losses in the fossil fuel industry. Research by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) indicates that in Pennsylvania alone, we would likely see a net increase of over 295,000 new, good-paying jobs! 9 It will be very important, however, to make sure that those who are caught in the transition have an adequate social safety net and opportunities for new jobs that are created.
References and links for more info
“Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Summary Stats,” NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.
“The Social Cost of Carbon:” EPA Report.
"The Economic Implications of Climate Change," Moody's Analytics.
"Global Energy Transformation – A Roadmap to 2050," IRENA Report.
"Advancing Inclusion through Green Energy Jobs," Brookings Institute Report.
"Quantifying Health Benefits of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,” EPA Webinar.
"Finding the Right Policy Mix to Safeguard Our Climate," IMF 2020-10-07.
"Rebuilding American manufacturing—potential job gains by state and industry," EPI: New Interactive Map.
Honduras lost up to 80% of its bean, maize, coffee crops due to extended drought and new infestation of plant diseases, both due to climate change.1 Nearly half a million farmers were unable to provide enough food for their families. Many abandoned their farms and flooded the cities, overwhelming the urban infrastructure. The result was chaos, gang violence, and corruption, causing people to flee north. The migrants at our southern border are mostly climate refugees.
By 2050 extreme heat and drought will make large swathes of the Middle East, South Asia, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa uninhabitable. The Institute for Economics and Peace projects 1.2 billion people around the world could be displaced by 2050.2,3 Europe and North America are likely to see huge flows of refugees demanding access. This will create conflict and will likely give rise to destructive nationalism and xenophobia, making it even more difficult to solve a global crisis.
References and Links to learn more
Over the last 10,000 years, the earth has had a stable climate allowing plants and animals sharing habitats to achieve a stable balance of predators, food sources, and pathogens, compatible with the environment they share. Because of climate change and the expansion of human development, habitats all over the world have changed very rapidly. Many species of plants and animals are no longer in balance and have either been unable to thrive or have slowly migrated to other nearby habitats, changing the dynamics and creating new problems for each other. The climate and habitats are now changing at a pace too rapid for species to adapt. The result is that over 1 million species are threatened with extinction. We can expect to lose ½ of all land-based animal species by 2100.
However, the good news is that we don’t have to continue as we are. As shown beautifully in his book and Netflix film1, David Attenborough describes the opportunities still remaining, as well as the stakes.
References and links to learn more
Sir David Attenborough “A Life On Our Planet”, Netflix film and book.
UN Report: UN: Nature Decline Unprecedented.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report, IUCN: Species and Climate Change.