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.
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