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Climate policy is health policy

By Kate Sheppard

Among the many positive outcomes of carbon-reduction policy often ignored when looking at the costs are the health benefits. In fact, health savings due to improvements in air quality alone would outweigh the potential costs of cutting carbon, as one study earlier this year found.

I took a close look at a number of potential health issues related to climate change in a recent article, finding that there are many entirely practical savings that stem from ending our reliance on fossil fuels. These include the very obvious, like reducing co-pollutants in the air from the burning of fossil fuels. As a study by the Clean Air Task Force found, shuttering dirty coal plants could save more than twice as many lives as seat belts do each year.

They also include the less obvious. A warming planet makes for more heat waves, which are bad for human health – causing heat strokes, cramps and exhaustion. They're particularly hard on the elderly, children and those with preexisting heart and lung problems. It also makes allergies and asthma more severe, and can cause vector-borne disease to spread to new regions. One study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that kidney stones could increase by 30 percent or more in some areas of the U.S. because of dehydration – a problem that alone could cost the U.S. health-care system more than $1 billion per year.

And then there are a number of secondary health benefits reaped by pricing carbon. Programs to reduce emissions, like providing better public transportation and improving urban planning, could also result in indirect health-care savings thanks to lower obesity rates and fewer respiratory and heart problems.

Unfortunately, we almost never talk about the health risks and opportunities related to global warming policy, even though it's one argument for tackling the climate challenge that actually does resonate with most Americans, says Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University who has studied climate and public opinion. But the health implications of global warming rarely surface in the climate debate. A forthcoming study by Nisbet and colleagues found that stories connecting health and global warming made up just 5 percent of the climate coverage in the New York Times and even here at The Washington Post.

So not only do our official studies of climate policy ignore the numerous co-benefits, but our coverage of the issue does as well. Informed policy requires more understanding, for the public and lawmakers, of both these consequences and opportunities.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones's Washington bureau. For more of her stories, see here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

By Washington Post editor  |  June 2, 2010; 3:33 PM ET
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Several climate change agents -- notably black carbon, nitrogen oxides and ozone -- are also serious health hazards in the short term, so reducing their emissions will also improve human health. Furthermore, a rapid reduction of black carbon would likely have a significant near-term impact on the climate because of its short atmospheric lifetime. We already know how to deal with these three pollutants in the United States and don't need entirely new legislation, just more funding or regulations from the EPA (probably under the Clean Air Act):

* black carbon: reduce emissions from diesel engines by getting new equipment or retrofitting in-use equipment with pollution control devices like diesel particulate filters, improve freight transport logistics so that less fuel is burned (e.g., trains instead of trucks, more efficient truck delivery routes)
* nitrogen oxides and ozone: retire old cars, keep current fleet of cars in good working order, retire old trucks, off-road equipment, cut down on driving.

In the developing world, better cookstoves could lead to major reductions in black carbon emissions while also improving the health of those who use them or are exposed to their smoke (women and young children, typically). Work is on-going to design better stoves.

I have noticed that discussions of black carbon reductions as a way of fighting climate change are accompanied by discussions of the health benefits. That is probably because the benefits are immediate and easy to see. The health impacts you mention, like benefits from shutting down coal plants or avoided kidney stones, are a little more subtle and easier to ignore.

The Lancet recently had a series of papers exploring the co-benefits of reducing climate change agents that goes into great detail:

Posted by: meander510 | June 2, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

While, in general, I think improving air quality, and longevity, is a great idea, it's been my understanding that health costs actually go up with increased longevity, not down. So it would seem reducing air pollution would, at best, delay added costs, rather than eliminate them.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 2, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

"While, in general, I think improving air quality, and longevity, is a great idea, it's been my understanding that health costs actually go up with increased longevity, not down. So it would seem reducing air pollution would, at best, delay added costs, rather than eliminate them."

Now there's a true "death panel" talking, you betcha!

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 2, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

I recently blogged about how climate change was increasing allergy and asthma attacks. Read about it here:

Scott A. Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences
Selden, NY

Posted by: ProfMandia | June 3, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

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