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The cost of Big Oil’s lies, measured in dollars and lives
Researchers are tallying the fatal costs of climate destruction. Big Oil knew what was coming.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
While Big Oil is just beginning to face accountability for their outsized role in climate calamity, the rest of the world is already paying a steep price.
You may have read about one or more of the grisly climate studies published last month, quantifying some of the disastrous costs and impacts of warming across the globe. These facts and figures can sometimes feel like background noise — but together, they tell a story of the increasingly harrowing costs of Big Oil’s lies and business-as-usual.
See for yourself:
Finding: Hurricane Sandy caused an extra $8 billion in damages because of climate change.
Without warming temperatures and rising seas, Superstorm Sandy would not have destroyed tens of thousands of additional homes in New York and New Jersey, and about 71,000 people would have avoided the storm’s flooding entirely, according to findings published in the journal Nature Communications by a team of researchers at Climate Central, Stevens Institute of Technology, and Rutgers University.
While researchers cautioned that modeling flooding damages can be a complicated process, the study indicates that a growing body of attribution science could give us a better idea of how climate change worsens the destruction caused by hurricanes and other extreme weather events.
“Increasingly, we have the tools to simulate these events and study and quantify the impact of climate change on people's lives," Philip Orton, a co-author of the study from the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, told NPR.
Grist reporter Shannon Osaka notes another significant implication for research like this: it “could be used in court against oil companies.”
Municipalities across the state of California, cities and counties including Maui and Honolulu in Hawai’i, Hoboken, New Jersey, Charleston, South Carolina, Baltimore, Maryland, and the state of Delaware have filed their own lawsuits against Big Oil companies for the costs of adapting to rising seas.
Shell not only predicted that anthropogenic climate change would add fuel to storms like Hurricane Sandy — they also anticipated the lawsuits that would follow. From a 1998 internal planning memo:
Finding: The health costs of climate change and air pollution are more than $820 billion a year.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Medical Consortium on Climate and Health, and the Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action recently calculated the multi-billion-dollar public health expenses caused by climate change in the United States.
Those costs include premature death and illness caused by extreme heat, hospitalizations, premature death and treatment for vector-borne diseases, medical and mental health treatment during extreme weather disasters, and more. The report’s authors say $820 billion is likely a very conservative estimate, as many illnesses that are in fact climate-driven have not yet been categorized or counted as such.
And as is so often the case, low-income communities, Indigenous communities and people of color are saddled with the largest share of these costs.
But no one could’ve seen this coming… right?
From a 1984 presentation on “CO2 Greenhouse and Climate Issues” by a manager with Exxon’s Research & Engineering Technology Feasibility center:
Finding: Climate change is responsible for more than one-third of all global heat deaths.
Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that 37% of global heat deaths, and 35% in the United States, are directly attributable to climate change.
Looking at 732 cities across the world, researchers determined that in those cities, nearly 10,000 people die each year from climate-induced extreme heat. That’s just a small portion of overall deaths caused by a host of other climate impacts.
“These are deaths related to heat that actually can be prevented. It is something we directly cause,” Ana Vicedo-Cabrera, an epidemiologist at the Institute of Social and Preventative Medicine at the University of Bern in Switzerland, told NBC News.
But then again, who is “we”?
Another two studies published in the last week of May focused on the disproportionate exposure of low-income communities and people of color to climate-driven heat.
The first, published in the journal Nature Communications, looked at how heat was distributed in U.S. cities as of 2017. In almost all of the country’s largest urban areas, people of color lived in neighborhoods with the most dangerously high temperatures — likely thanks to a long history of discriminatory housing policies.
The second, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that residents of zip codes with lower median incomes were more likely to be hospitalized on hot days.
If only someone had known that burning fossil fuels would heat the planet…
From a 1988 Shell confidential report on “The Greenhouse Gas Effect”:
The moral of this grim story: Big Oil knew the extraordinary costs the world would face if they continued business as usual, and we are now witnessing the devastating consequences.
Accountability can’t come soon enough.
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