Climate change is real and increasingly harming people across the country. The consequences are intensifying and without substantial global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is projected to impose substantial damages on the U.S. economy, human health, and the environment.
Climate change is the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century
More than 90 health organizations have jointly identified climate change as a public health emergency, and children, pregnant women, older adults, outdoor workers, and low-income and marginalized communities are disproportionately vulnerable.
Americans’ health and well-being are increasingly threatened by extreme weather and temperatures, reduced air quality from ground-level ozone (smog) and wildfires, increases in airborne allergens, and greater disease transmission through insects and pests, water, and food. Severe storms can directly result in loss of life, as well as cause disruptions to critical health care systems and infrastructure for months.
Dr. George C Benjamin, Executive Director of the Public Health Association, testified at a July 2019 Budget Committee hearing about the growing public health crisis from climate change: “Climate change is here today, is threatening our health now, and, if left unchecked, will lead to increases in both illnesses and deaths.”
By midcentury, more than 90 million people in the United States — a 100-fold increase — will experience 30 or more days with a heat index above 105°F in an average year. Such extreme heat and heat waves will increase hospitalization for heatstroke and for cardiovascular, respiratory, and kidney disorders and could cause thousands of deaths annually.
Low-income and marginalized populations are among the most vulnerable
The risks of climate change are highest for low-income communities, some communities of color, children, and the elderly. Communities that have fewer resources, are underrepresented in government, live in or near deteriorating infrastructure (such as damaged levees), or lack financial safety nets are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
For example, the rate of heat-related deaths for African Americans is greater than that for non-Hispanic whites, and Latino children are twice as likely to die from asthma as non-Latino whites. These facts raise issues of equity and justice in how we consider climate impacts and our responses to them.
Solomon Hsiang, Ph.D., Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley; and Gloria and Richard Kushel Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, testified at a June 2019 Budget Committee hearing that low-income individuals tend to bear a greater cost than wealthier individuals when subjected to climatic stress because they lack sufficient resources to cope with the changes: “Because low-income regions and individuals tend to be hurt more, climate change will widen existing economic inequality.”
Climate change is a public health emergency that is harmful to individuals and costly to the U.S. economy. The costs to the public health system and federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, although not yet quantified, are likely to be significant.
House Democrats will continue to advocate for climate-smart practices that prioritize public health and protect vulnerable populations.