Climate Change is the Biggest Health Innovation Opportunity of Our Times
There are viable approaches to save millions of lives and trillions of dollars
If you’re looking to make a meaningful dent in the universe, few opportunities loom as large as addressing the root causes of climate change. That’s the case even if you don’t believe we’re facing a climate crisis—and more so if you do.
This point was brought home to me recently by Dr. Jonathan Patz, a panelist in a discussion with the senior management of the American Medical Association (AMA) on the health implications of climate change. Dr. Modena Wilson, Health and Science Officer Emerita of the AMA and one of the session’s organizers, has described climate change as “the mother of all threats to human health.” As the discussion moderator, I pressed Patz on what he viewed as worse case health-related scenarios. But he would have none of that.
Patz certainly has the deep expertise to answer to my question. In addition to being a physician, he is director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin and, for 15 years, was a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) — the organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for their work on climate change.
But Patz refused to talk about worse cases until I allowed him to set the stage with the best-case scenarios. We’ve focused on the doom and gloom ad nauseum, he observed, and that hasn’t carried the day.
Don’t get distracted by polar bears, he said, the global climate crisis is the greatest health opportunity of our times. He pointed to prime examples in three industry sectors: energy, food and transportation.
Energy. Ambient air pollution from fossil-fuel-based energy generation already kills millions each year. According to The Lancet: “long-term exposure to ambient fine particle air pollution caused 4.2 million deaths and 103 million lost years of healthy life in 2015. This was 7.6% of total global mortality, making it the fifth-ranked global risk factor in 2015.” The World Bank estimated that the direct lost income due to premature deaths caused by ambient air pollution was $225 billion in 2013. The welfare loss was $3.552 trillion.
Food. Cardiovascular disease and diabetes kill even more people than air pollution each year, accounting for more than 15 million deaths in 2016, according to the world health organization. A wide range of research, such as reported here and here, shows that high red meat diets contributes significantly to risk for both types of diseases.
Transportation. Physical inactivity is a risk factor for many noncommunicable diseases and may be responsible for more than 5 million premature deaths each year. A significant contributor to sedentary lifestyles is the design of transportation systems in the U.S., where 40% of trips by car are less than 2 miles.
Not only do our energy, food and transportation systems contribute to premature death, disease, loss wages and diminished economic output, there are other direct economic consequences as well — as starkly evidenced by crippling and rising healthcare costs across the globe.
In each case, there are viable approaches to meaningful innovation and better outcomes. For example, the wholesale price of solar panels has dropped by 99% since 1977, and solar and wind energy prices dropped 80% and 30%, respectively, and will soon be cheaper than coal. There are many meat and plant-based alternatives to beef. Innovative urban design including new micro-mobility options can dramatically combat physical inactivity. According to one study, U.S. cities with the highest rates of walking and cycling to work have obesity rates 20% lower and diabetes rates 23% lower compared to U.S. cities with the lowest rates of walking and cycling.
Regardless of one’s views on climate change science, Patz pointed out, we can all support clean air from low-carbon energy, healthier plant-based diets, safe routes to schools, physically fit children and adults from cities designed for people, not just cars, and reduced stress, depression and anxiety.
And, in the process, also mitigate and adapt to climate change.
That’s because energy, food and transportation collectively make up more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions, and many of the solutions to today’s health challenges would also put a big dent in current emissions and expected future growth. Even significantly lowering the consumption of red meat would help materially. The more than 1.5 billion cows worldwide, and the clearing of the forests to make room for them, contribute significantly to greenhouse gases. Increasing physical activity by reducing the number of short car rides would lower polluting emissions.
Like the U.S. Clean Air Act, which delivered benefits that were 30 times greater than cost ($2 trillion in benefits vs $65 billion in cost), the best-case scenarios for addressing existing health hazards can dramatic returns on investment—while also contributing materially to climate change. For example, one estimate is that, on average globally, the benefits of cleaner, low carbon energy for future air quality and human health ranged from 1.7 to 12 times greater than the cost, with some regions seeing benefits 10 to 70 times greater than the cost.
Of course, many details need to be worked out. Therein lies the opportunity for meaningful—and very profitable—innovation. For more details on Dr. Patz’s perspective, see his in-depth article in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and watch his TEDx talk:
Still, meaningful innovation addressing complex problems requires more than a single-minded focus on the best-case scenarios; it requires deep understanding of, and proactive attention to, the worse-case scenarios as well. In an upcoming article, I will come back to the issue of why the global climate crisis, as Dr. Wilson pointed out, is the mother of all threats to human health.