Hundreds of thousands of premature deaths could be prevented if the United States takes tough action on climate change in line with the Paris Agreement signed last December, a new study contends.
Researchers estimate that 295,000 premature deaths from heart and lung disease could be prevented by 2030, and about 36,000 every year after that — if the nation markedly cuts back on power plant and vehicle emissions that contribute to air pollution.
“We have a premature death toll of over 100,000 people every year, and mostly that comes from burning fossil fuels,” said study lead author Drew Shindell, a professor of climate sciences at Duke University. “Shifting away from fossil fuels in energy and transportation could save tens of thousands of lives per year.”
Officials from 195 nations, including the United States, have pledged to make emissions cuts that could meet this goal, as part of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, Shindell said. That’s equivalent to roughly 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, neither legislation nor regulation have been altered to put the United States on a path to meeting this ambitious goal, Shindell added. The most recent blow came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a stay on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from power plants in the United States.
Shindell and his colleagues decided to bring climate change home by seeing how many lives and how much money might be saved by drastically reducing air pollution.
Air pollution has been shown to contribute to health problems such as heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory disease, he said.
“I was interested in testing the argument I hear a fair bit — that people support action to limit climate change. But, since it’s mostly occurring in the distant future and it’s spread around the world, things that are really at home and in the here-and-now are much higher on the agenda,” Shindell said.
In the study, researchers modeled the public health benefits of implementing clean energy and transportation policies tailored toward the Paris Agreement goal. They simulated scenarios where transport emissions were reduced by 75 percent and energy sector emissions by 63 percent.
They found that cutting back on power plant emissions could prevent about 175,000 premature deaths by 2030, and about 22,000 deaths for every year thereafter. Cutting back on vehicle emissions could also save lives — about 120,000 by 2030, and 14,000 a year after that, the study authors said.
The researchers also estimated that the benefits of implementing these ambitious policies would outweigh the costs by up to a factor of 10, with clean energy policies estimated to save the U.S. economy up to $800 billion, and clean transportation polices up to $400 billion.
“Even if you ignore the long-term climate impacts and just focus on the American public health benefits alone, this is something we should be doing,” Shindell said.
The study only focused on premature deaths. But, Shindell added that many other positive effects would likely be seen with such a drastic decrease in air pollution.
For example, the cuts annually could prevent about 29,000 asthma attacks in children that require emergency treatment, and about 15 million lost work days for adults, the researchers said.
Christopher Portier is a senior contributing scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. He said holding the line on climate change could protect human health in many other ways not considered by this new study.
Climate extremes will inflict countless deaths and injuries through natural disasters such as floods, heat waves and hurricanes, Portier said.
In addition, health hazards could change as warming occurs. Toxic mold is more likely to build up in homes, and infectious disease patterns will change as carriers such as mosquitoes thrive in warmer climates, he said.
“The evidence already exists; the political and social will to make painful choices is not yet there,” Portier said of global warming. “It costs more to do nothing.”
The study was published Feb. 22 in the journal Nature Climate Change.
For more on air pollution, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.