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November 26, 2018

How climate change could kill thousands of Americans, according to a new government report

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    Climate change over the next few decades likely will lead to an increase in disease outbreaks, heat-related deaths, and other negative health outcomes, according to a report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program released Friday. 

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    The report, which Congress mandated that the federal government release in installments over four years, examines how climate change is expected to affect each region of the United States.

    The White House in 2017 released the first volume of the report, called the National Climate Assessment. The latest report is the second volume of the National Climate Assessment.

    A 60-member federal advisory committee guided the 300 scientific experts who produced the 1,656-page report, which was opened to review by 13 federal agencies, a panel at the National Academy of Sciences, and the public.


    The researchers found climate change in coming decades likely will have devastating effects on the planet. The researchers wrote, "The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid." They added, "The impacts and costs of climate change are already being felt in the United States, and changes in the likelihood or severity of some recent extreme weather events can now be attributed with increasingly higher confidence to human-caused warming."

    According to the researchers, climate change over the next few decades will lead to extreme heat, worse droughts, and dangerous disease outbreaks. In particular, researchers found that an increase in heat-related deaths is expected to cost the U.S. economy $141 billion by the year 2090.

    In addition, the researchers found extreme weather conditions as a result of global warming are "virtually certain to increasingly affect U.S. trade and economy, including import and export prices and businesses with overseas operations and supply chains." For example, the researchers said they expect U.S. and foreign factories will close in response to weather conditions.

    How climate change could negatively affect public health

    The report outlined three key ways rising temperatures and climate change could negatively affect public health in the coming decades:

    1. Warmer temperatures could expand the geographic range covered by disease-carrying insects and pests, which could result in more U.S. residents being exposed to ticks carrying Lyme disease and mosquitos carrying Zika, West Nile, and dengue. The researchers in the report wrote, "Communities in the Southeast, for example, are particularly vulnerable to the combined health impacts from vector-borne disease, heat, and flooding."

    2. Climate change could worsen the severity and increase the frequency of allergy-related illness, such as asthma and hay fever.

    3. Deadly wildfires that can lower air quality could become more prevalent throughout the United States. The researchers noted that wildfires have historically affected the western United States but are likely to spread to other regions such as the Southeast, where residents "have no experience with an annual dangerous fire season, or at least very little," according Andrew Light, one of the report's co-authors and a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.

    The results of these changes, according to the report, could be deadly. The Midwest, for instance, can expect to see 2,000 more premature deaths per year by 2090.

    How could the U.S. mitigate climate change?

    The researchers in the report acknowledged the effects of climate change will depend on the amount of carbon emissions people produce over the next few decades. According to the report, the United States and other countries can take steps to mitigate the effects of climate change by:

    • Allocating public funds to cover the cost of research on clean-energy resources;
    • Establishing limits on greenhouse pollution through government regulations; and
    • Requiring companies pay taxes or fees for greenhouse gas emissions.

    However, the researchers wrote, "Even if significant emissions reductions occur, many of the effects from sea level rise over this century—and particularly through mid-century—are already locked in due to historical emissions, and many communities are already dealing with the consequences."

    The researchers explained, "Because several [greenhouse gases], in particular carbon dioxide, reside in the atmosphere for decades or longer, many climate-influenced effects are projected to continue changing through 2050, even if [greenhouse gas] emissions were to stop immediately." The researchers noted, "While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades."

    What the report means for policy

    Brenda Ekwurzel, the senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the report's findings suggest the Trump administration should re-examine its approach to climate change policy.

    Ekwurzel said the report's findings "certainly make a convincing case that the White House should stop rolling back climate policies and recognize that a much larger scale response is required to keep people safe."

    Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who is expected to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee beginning next year, similarly said, "President Trump should heed the message of our nation's preeminent climate scientists and experts." He added, "The days of denial and inaction in the House are over as House Democrats plan to aggressively address climate change and hold the Administration accountable for its backward policies that only make it worse."

    However, a White House spokesperson appeared to downplay the report's findings, saying, "The report is largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that, despite strong economic growth that would increase greenhouse gas emissions, there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population."

    The spokesperson said the next report in the installment will "provide for a more transparent and data-driven process that includes fuller information on the range of potential scenarios and outcomes." The White House also noted U.S. policies—some of which the Trump administration opposes—have led U.S. greenhouse gas pollution to decrease by 14% since 2005 (Davenport/Pierre-Louis, New York Times, 11/23; Daily, Politico, 11/23; Irfan, Vox, 11/24; Dennis/Mooney, Washington Post, 11/23; Christensen/Nedelman, CNN, 11/23).

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