How Our Environment Impacts Our Health

Matt Cox, PhD
Greenlink Analytics

Guest Blog By: Dr. Matt Cox

Two facts to start with:

  1. At the end of July, the CDC forecasted that the rate of COVID deaths is going to accelerate over the next month (at least).
  2. 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act.

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, with a respiratory virus wreaking havoc on the American population and its economy. The human toll continues to grow in many communities, cities, and states; deaths and hospitalizations are up, to say nothing of the impacts of social isolation, quarantines, and the recession.

How is that connected to the passage of one of America’s most important environmental laws? Simply put, if the Clean Air Act had never been passed, these COVID outcomes would almost certainly be much worse.

In 2011, the EPA projected that the Clean Air Act would help the country dodge 200,000 heart attacks and 230,000 premature deaths this year, although I’m pretty sure they didn’t factor “global pandemic” into their model.

Economists, engineers, and policy analysts have estimated the human damage wrought by air pollution, coming in with a price tag over $750 billion a year, or about 5% of US GDP.

These costs are almost entirely the result of the impact on public health – lost workdays, heart attacks, strokes, and premature deaths. How many COVID deaths would not have occurred if we had better air quality? Unfortunately, our air quality has recently been getting worse, impacting about half of the US population.

One focus of my organization is trying to improve outcomes across the country, community by community, city by city, state by state, by working on energy and environmental policy. Energy consumption is a major cause of air pollution across this country, and the impacts are not randomly distributed. Where you live and what you live in are major drivers of energy costs, and systemic racism in the American context has led to frontline communities bearing the brunt of these costs.

This is not new in American life – the environmental justice movement started in a rural county of North Carolina in the early 80s. These concerns are increasingly studied through energy burdens – the percent of household income spent on energy bills.

Structural and systemic causes drive low-income and communities of color to face higher barriers to accessing opportunities to alleviate high utility burdens [1] [2] [3], including low wages, the wealth gap, and other financial barriers [4], historical governmental policies such as redlining [5], housing quality [6], and even higher costs for energy-efficient equipment from neighborhood retailers [7]. Utility bills are also the most commonly-cited reason that people turn to short-term loan products, contributing to chronic poverty in the United States [8]. And ultimately, this circles back to health again – in addition to the toll on mental health such levels of stress can have, a fifth of American households report skipping a meal or not filling a prescription in order to keep the lights on.

So that’s a lot of doom and gloom. What do we do about it? Clean energy has a lot to offer this conversation and demonstrates how so much of this is tied together. From 2016 through 2019, we were asked to assess the public health impact of one of the most impactful energy efficiency programs of the past decade – the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge. We utilized our AI-enabled modeling of the US energy system to assess the impacts, and the results were eye-opening.

This voluntary program in Atlanta, Georgia, had public health benefits as far away as Maine and Minnesota, and in 2017, the biggest beneficiary of the whole effort wasn’t even Atlanta – it was Birmingham, Alabama! The effort had also added jobs to the city and grown the economy.

We’ve also done recent studies of full-on clean energy transitions in states with significant Appalachian footprints – North Carolina (cool video summary) and Virginia. In North Carolina, a big push would save folks $100 a year, create over 100,000 jobs, reduce every major pollutant, and in the process reduce missed work days by 255 YEARS while saving 1200 lives. In Virginia, we showed that a transition to a fully-decarbonized power sector would save Virginians over $3.5 billion in health costs, while also saving households thousands of dollars on energy bills and being an overall cost-effective strategy. This message was ultimately compelling enough that it became state law in early 2020, when Governor Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

There’s plenty to be optimistic about because we have the tools and the knowledge to make things better. There’s also plenty to be aware of, because there’s so much work to do to capture those opportunities to make a better world. Making the world more just in terms of health outcomes, clean energy, and many other areas can be a massive win-win…if we muster the political and economic will to bring it into being.

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[1] Ross, L., A. Drehobl, and B. Stickles. 2018. The High Cost of Energy in Rural America: Household Energy Burdens and Opportunities for Energy Efficiency. Washington, DC: ACEEE.

[2] Jessel, S., S. Sawyer, and D. Hernández. 2019. “Energy, Poverty, and Health in Climate Change: A Comprehensive Review of an Emerging Literature.” Frontiers Public Health 7: 356.

[3] Berry, C., C. Hronis, and M. Woodward. 2018. “Who’s Energy Insecure? You Might be Surprised.” In Proceedings of the ACEEE 2018 Summary Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, 13: 1–14.

[4] Jargowsky, P. 2015. Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy. New York and Rutgers-Camden: Century Foundation, and Center for Urban Research and Education.

[5] Rothstein, R. 2017. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright Publishing.

[6] Bednar, D., T. Reames, and G. Keoleian. 2017. “The Intersection of Energy Justice: Modeling the Spatial, Racial/Ethnic and Socioeconomic Patterns of Urban Residential Heating Consumption and Efficiency in Detroit, Michigan.” Energy and Buildings 143: 25–34.

[7] Reames, T., M. Reiner, M. Stacey. 2018. “An incandescent truth: Disparities in energy-efficient lighting availability and prices in an urban U.S. county.” Applied Energy Vol 218.

[8] Levy, R. and J. Sledge. 2012. A Complex Portrait: An Examination of Small-Dollar Credit Consumers. Chicago. Center for Financial Services Innovation.

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