The media often measures the impact of natural disasters in terms of their comparative costs, including costs to infrastructure and the cost to human life. As we know, weather-related disasters – heat waves, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, to name a few – are increasing in frequency. In the 1980s, the U.S. experienced a billion-dollar natural disaster once every four months, on average. Now we experience a billion-dollar natural disaster once every three weeks.
What is often not included in the headlines of these disasters is the impact they have on American health and healthcare.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released its National Climate Assessment. The report, required by Congress and published every five years, attempts to measure climate change’s impact on the broader American economy. The most recent report is the most comprehensive yet, drawing on the work of nearly 500 experts.
Of particular note, this year’s report dedicated a chapter to the healthcare issues involved with weather-related disasters.
Although the report didn’t make much in the way of national headlines, it paints a dark picture of the changing weather’s impact on our health.
For example, given the disasters we have seen in the past few years, the analysis found increases in heat-related morbidity and mortality, increased exposure to poor air quality, increases in adverse pregnancy outcomes, higher rates of pulmonary, neurological, and cardiovascular diseases, and notably, worsening mental health. The report also found that increased warming allowed infectious diseases such as COVID to spread more widely, with more serious effects.
The report examines each impact of climate change with phrases that reflect the judgment of the authors.
For example, the analysis states with “very high confidence,” that wildfires contribute to premature mortality, asthma, and other health problems. These judgments are followed by multiple statistics in support. As an example, smoke exposure in the U.S. has led up to 9,000 hospital visits a year and up to 30,000 deaths a year.
The report also analyzes how weather-related disasters and hazards disrupt the delivery of healthcare in the country. For instance, nearly 10 percent of hospitals in the country, 10 percent of nursing homes, and 12 percent of pharmacies are at risk of flooding.
The report emphasizes that weather-related disasters and extreme weather have a greater negative impact on the health of lower-income and marginalized populations. Extreme heat can lead to higher rates of illness and death in low-income neighborhoods, which are hotter on average. In fact, underserved neighborhoods can be as much as 12°F hotter during a heatwave than nearby wealthier neighborhoods.
Neighborhoods that are home to racial minorities and low-income people also have the highest flood exposures.
According to one expert, “the research indicates that people who are lower income have more trouble adapting to climate change because adaption comes at a cost.”
The report also takes special note of the mental health impact of extreme weather and weather-related disasters and points to communities like Paradise, California, where people are still dealing with the trauma of their town essentially burning down.
Although the report concludes that things will get worse before they get better, the overall tone is hopeful and positive. For every measured impact of severe weather and weather disasters, the report outlines a mitigating strategy, and lists community and national efforts to combat the effects of natural disasters and the weather.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions,” Einstein was supposed to have said.
HHS’s latest National Climate Assessment is certainly comprehensive in measuring the problem but also spends some time outlining solutions.