NORMAN — As the U.S. experiments with providing greater health care coverage to the public, we need to acknowledge the looming but under-reported health care costs that result from the burning of fossils fuels. Here in Oklahoma, many citizens living near coal-fired power plants already pay the greatest personal costs of dirty energy in the forms of cancer, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, which yearly result in 23,600 premature deaths nationwide. Because natural gas is essentially free of air-borne particulates associated with coal and produces less CO2/BTU than burning oil, it is touted as a ‘clean’ energy source. However, gas, coal, and oil are all ‘dirty fuels’ because they dump CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, which the international medical journal, The Lancet, recently identified as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.
Harvard public health expert Epstein outlines the health risks associated with climate change in the book, Changing Climate, Changing Health (Epstein & Farber, 2011). Increasing temperatures expand the range of vector-borne insects, exposing us to greater risk of diseases like Dengue fever, West Nile Virus and malaria. Major floods, heat waves, and droughts are expected to increase in frequency, increasing the risks of water-borne diseases, crop failures, and malnutrition. The 2-week heat wave in California in 2006 caused 655 deaths, 1,620 hospitalizations, and over 16,000 excess emergency room visits, at a price tag of $5.4 billion dollars. Over a 7-year. period, from 2002-09, the estimated excess in health care costs due to climate change totaled nearly $15 billion (Health Affairs, Nov. 2011). The burden that climate change is imposing on an increasingly sick planet is a bitter pill for US taxpayers, whose per capita health expenditure is already the world’s highest.
Preventive care for the planet is the most efficient prescription to mitigate rising costs. Conservative economists Art Laffer, Glenn Hubbard, and George Schultz agree that a fee on carbon at its source would be the least expensive way for the US to reduce its deadly reliance on CO2-producing fossil fuels and transition to clean, sustainable energy. A market-driven solution will level the playing field and spur major innovations in clean energy and economic growth (http://www.realclearpolicy.com/video/2013/06/27/think_tanks_debate_carbon_tax.html). Oklahoma Congressmen Cole, Inhofe, and Coburn advocate for a smaller, more efficient government with fewer intrusive regulations. We agree, and urge them to join with other Republicans to support a revenue neutral bill to put a price on carbon. Placing a fair price on carbon that compensates for external costs associated with burning of fossil fuels, costs which are currently borne only by tax-payers, is only fair. If these ‘‘externalities’ were factored into the price of fuels, alternative energy sources, such as wind, geothermal and solar, whose external costs to public and environmental health are relatively low, would soon become more competitive than fossil fuels.