Obama Warns of Costly Public Health Crisis Spurred by Climate Change
Policy + Politics

Obama Warns of Costly Public Health Crisis Spurred by Climate Change

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In the latest twist to his campaign to combat global warming, President Obama on Tuesday shifted focus to the ties between climate change and a mounting public health crisis that is costing the U.S. tens of billions of dollars annually in medical costs and lost productivity.

The administration has devoted considerable energy to trying to fend off legal and political attacks on a new Environmental Protection Agency regulation that would cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s coal fired power plants. 

Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company, is challenging the EPA regulation in federal court, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is urging governors across the country not to comply with the rule.

Now the administration is enlisting support for the regulation from public health experts, medical professionals, academics and other interested stakeholders through a series of meetings leading up to a White House summit later this spring.

Related: ‘King Coal’ McConnell Wants to Scrap Obama’s Carbon Plan

“We know climate change will put vulnerable populations at greater risk – including the elderly, our kids, and people already suffering from burdensome allergies, asthma, and other illnesses,” the White House said in a fact sheet released on Tuesday. “Pre-existing health conditions make older adults susceptible to the cardiac and respiratory impacts of air pollution. Higher rates of diabetes, obesity, or asthma in some communities may place them at greater risk of climate-related health impacts. Children who breathe more air relative to their size than adults are also at higher risk of worsened asthma and respiratory symptoms from air pollution.”

As part of the initiative, the administration is expanding its Climate Data Initiative, which it launched a year ago, to include more than 150 health-relevant data sets.

The White House also announced a coalition of deans from 30 medical, public health, and nursing schools around the country, who are committing to ensure that the next generation of health professionals is trained to address the health impacts of climate change. Those universities include Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, Harvard University and the University of Nebraska.

“Climate change is posing a threat to more people, in more places, to their public health,”  White House senior adviser Brian Deese told reporters on a conference call today, according to The Washington Post.

Obama was scheduled to meet today at Howard University in Washington with public experts and senior administration officials, as well as the mother of a child suffering from asthma. Asthma is made much worse by warmer temperatures that contribute to the formation of smog.  Deese cited a recent study by the American Thoracic Society that found that seven out of 10 doctors reported climate change is contributing to more health problems among their patients.

Related: How Climate Change Costs Could Soar to the Billions

“One thing that we know is the most salient arguments around climate change are the ones around health impacts and involve meeting people where they are,” Deese told reporters.

Gerald Davis, a physical fitness trainer in Washington who suffers from asthma, applauded the president’s new initiative -- although he wondered whether it is coming too late. He said the combination of air pollution, wide-spread pollen throughout the spring and dramatic changes in temperature have made it very difficult for him to breathe and sleep at night.

“If you don’t believe in global warming, wake up with me in the morning,” Davis said in an interview today.

Asthma is a chronic obstructive lung disease, caused by increased reaction of the airways to various stimuli such as pollen, mold, dust and animal dander, according to the American Lung Association. Asthma can be a life-threatening disease if not properly managed.

Related: Despite Evidence, Global Warming Ranks Low on Americans’ Worry List

Experts say asthma is one of the most common chronic disorders in childhood that currently affects an estimated 7.1 million children under the age of 18. Exposure to cold air or sudden temperate change can also cause dangerous reactions.

The annual direct health care cost of asthma is approximately $50.1 billion, according to the   lung association. Indirect costs such as lost productivity add another $5.9 billion to the total.

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: