November 11, 2011 21:22
It's not Gone with the Wind or Harry Potter, but an article just published in the public health journal, Health Affairs, is worth picking up, if only to start you thinking. In Six Climate Change–Related Events In The United States Accounted For About $14 Billion In Lost Lives And Health Costs, the authors (two senior scientists at the NRDC, two professors and a law student) grapple with the health costs of climate-change related events. In the authors' words: "The objective of this study was to provide a cost calculation of health effects associated with events related to climate change over the past decade. Similar events can reasonably be expected to occur more frequently in the future."
The report looked at six events (ozone pollution, heat waves, hurricanes, infectious disease outbreaks, river flooding, and wildfires) between 2000 and 2009 and estimated that the total health costs exceed $14 billion. It acknowledges that the individual events cannot be linked definitively to climate change and that the relationship between climate change and health is complex and variable. The report's value, it is asserted, is that it provides information on "the types of health impacts that are projected to worsen under climate change." Interestingly, it reports health linkages that are generally overlooked. Increases in carbon monoxide poisoning are associated with hurricanes as a result of power outages and the use of generators. Wildfires result in increases in asthma.
While the report is a good start, in our view it attempts too much. We have no doubt that everyone will agree that hurricanes and wildfires cost money and threaten health. But just providing a sample of one hurricane season in one locale and one state's experience with heat waves hardly advances the ball (particularly when it is acknowledged that the studied event was a "high-end, but not extreme, event"). Much more useful would be to explain the variables that affect those health expenditures in each of the subject areas. Still, one has to start somewhere and other researchers can pick up where this leaves off.
The report acknowledges that it did not consider the health benefits of climate change. We would like to point out one that may soon be more well-known: the health benefits of the electric car. And we are not talking about the benefits to your inner ear and auditory canal from the quiet. Rather, the electric car may be the vehicle for making the nation smarter.
Many years ago engineers figured out that bonding a few organic molecules to a lead atom and adding it to gasoline could eliminate "knocking" in a car's engine. A billion dollar industry was born. Unfortunately, after the anti-knocking job was done, the lead continued on out the exhaust pipe and ended up on the side of the road. That was the end of it until public health specialists drew the connection between retarded cognitive development and other maladies and the use of leaded gas. It took the USEPA only 15 years (including an appeal to the D.C. Circuit) to achieve a total ban on lead in motor vehicle fuel in 1986.
Now we are twenty-five years later. Lead is long gone from automobile fuel but health researchers are again focusing on the connections between retarded cognitive development and a host of other maladies and automobile exhaust. This story is set forth this past Monday in a Wall Street Journal article, The Hidden Toll of Traffic Jams, by Robert Lee Hotz. Mr. Hotz surveys the scientific literature from across the country and around the globe and points out the correlations scientists are finding between high levels of exhaust and lower IQs, anxiety, memory loss, attention deficits, and premature births. This time the culprit cannot be lead. In fact, no one knows the identity of the specific etiologic agents. But even without that information, one solution would be to knock down exhaust levels across the board. Enter climate change. Or more specifically, enter a response to climate change: the electric car. It is touted (somewhat misleadingly) as a zero emission vehicle. It has no tail pipe. Even when its emissions are acknowledged (those that go up the power plant stack), however, power plants are far more efficient and much cleaner than internal combustion engines. Hence there are far fewer emissions per mile traveled and the maladies correlated to exhaust invariably will decrease.
Will this health benefit drive the adoption of electric cars? Certainly not by itself. Will it be a factor? Only time will tell, but if leaded gas is any indicator, we will soon see health advocates pushing for charging stations and plug-n vehicles, and some of us will be smarter for it.