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Health-Related Costs of Climate Change Will Add Billions to Damage Assessments

Offutt Air Force Base_battling_flood_waters_190317-F-IT794-1053

An aerial view of Offutt Air Force Base affected by major flood waters March 17, 2019. An increase in water levels caused by record-setting snowfall over the winter, and a large drop in air pressure, caused widespread flooding across the state of Nebraska. (U.S. Air Force photo by TSgt. Rachelle Blake)

By Dr. Marc Kodack

The recent physical damage and destruction of facilities and infrastructure in the United States, both on and off military installations (e.g., Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida from Hurricane Michael in 2018 and  Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska due to flooding from the Missouri River in 2019), will cost billions of dollars to repair or replace. Both Hurricane Michael and the Missouri River flooding were likely influenced by climate change. Besides the physical effects of these and other events, there are also health-related costs from climate change that will affect the populations that live and work on installations, their surrounding communities, and the larger surrounding region. These health care costs will be in the billions of dollars, and in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it seems even more critical than ever to alleviate other strains on health security in the United States,

To estimate what these climate-related health costs may be, Limaye et al (2019) used data from 10 cases across 11 states that occurred in 2012. The research improves on 2011 research by Knowlton et al. Understanding these costs are important because health costs are regularly absent from the damage assessments prepared for facilities and infrastructure, whether this infrastructure is military or civilian; identifying these costs raises their importance for estimating future health costs and their implications to the holistic damage estimates that climate change is forecasted to cause; and better estimating these costs prepares communities to assess whether the kinds of adaptation efforts they undertake, including those related to health, will return the benefits they anticipate.

Limaye et al focus on considering “morbidity and mortality costs across a range of health impacts in a consistent way, in order to “demonstrate a conceptual framework [and method] for the estimation of other health-related costs linked to climate-sensitive events.” Earlier studies used different methods to estimate health costs making combining the results difficult.

The year 2012 was selected because multiple events of different duration and intensity occurred in different places across the U.S. In addition, morbidity and mortality data were available for each event. While not all of these events have been directly attributed to climate change, these events are consistent with the likely range of direct and indirect climate change effects. The events selected include “wildfires in Colorado and Washington, ozone air pollution in Nevada, heat stress in Wisconsin, infectious disease outbreaks of tick-borne Lyme disease in Michigan and mosquito-borne West Nile virus in Texas, extreme weather in Ohio, Hurricane Sandy (impacts in New Jersey and New York), allergenic oak pollen in North Carolina [increased asthma] and harmful algal blooms on the Florida coast.”

The estimated total health-related costs in 2018 dollars for all the events was almost $10 billion, with a sensitivity range of $2.7-to-$24.6 billion. The two highest estimated cost events were for Hurricane Sandy at $3.2 billion and the wildfires in Washington at $2.3 billion. The $10 billion is likely a conservative estimate. For example, mental health data were only available for Hurricane Sandy and none of the other events. Cases of extreme heat and Lyme disease are usually underreported leading to lower estimates of these costs.

If climate change effects worsen over the next several decades because of inaction to reduce greenhouse gases, the consequences will cost billions of dollars. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published their annual summary of billion-dollar weather and climate disaster damage events. For 2019, there were 14 separate events with a total cost of $45 billion. For 2015-2019 the total costs exceeded $525 billion. However, these costs do not include the health-related costs associated with these events which would cause these costs to rise by billions of dollars more. Thus, when estimating climate change adaptation costs and benefits, including health-related costs in these estimates would more accurately reflect the potential consequences of climate change to populations across the U.S.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability


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