The rapidly shrinking window of opportunity for the US to pass significant climate legislation will have mortal, as well as political, stakes. Millions of lives around the world will be saved, or lost, depending on whether America manages to propel itself towards a future without planet-heating emissions.
For the first time, researchers have calculated exactly how many people the US could save by acting on the climate crisis. A total of 7.4 million lives around the world will be saved over this century if the US manages to cut its emissions to net zero by 2050, according to the analysis.
The financial savings would be enormous, too, with a net zero America able to save the world $3.7tn in costs to adapt to the rising heat. As the world’s second largest polluter of greenhouse gases, the US and its political vagaries will in large part decide how many people in faraway countries will be subjected to deadly heat, as well as endure punishing storms, floods, drought and other consequences of the climate emergency.
“Each additional ton of carbon has these global impacts – there is a tangible difference in terms of death rates,” said Hannah Hess, associate director at the research group Rhodium, which is part of the Climate Impact Lab consortium that conducted the study. “There’s a sense of frustration over the lack of progress at the national level on climate but every action at state or local level makes a difference in terms of lives.”
The lab’s new “saved lives calculator” uses a model of historical death records and localized temperature projections to come up with an estimate for the number of lives saved if emissions are eliminated. The analysis just looks at lives at risk from extreme heat, meaning the true climate toll would be higher due to other growing threats such as flooding and strong storms.
Just 10 US states could save 3.7 million lives worldwide by cutting their emissions to net zero, largely due to their high consumption of fossil fuels. Texas alone could save 1.1 million lives. But even action in less populous states would have a benefit: Idaho is capable of saving about 68,000 lives, Kansas could save 126,000 lives and Hawaii could save about 16,000 lives.
Hess said that rising heat this century will cause an uneven distribution of deaths around the world, mainly focused on areas such as north and west Africa, as well as south Asia. India and Pakistan recently endured a brutal heatwave of temperatures reaching 122F (50C) in some places, which killed several hundred people and was made 30 times more likely by the climate crisis.
“People have different abilities to adapt depending on the resources they have to protect themselves from extreme heat,” said Hess. “The hottest places don’t all face equally elevated risk of death; it’s closely tied to economic growth. Within the US there are impacts in places like southern California and Texas, but the US is really eclipsed by poorer regions of the world when it comes to these sort of deaths.”
The US has yet to pass any meaningful legislation to tackle the climate crisis. Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which contained about $550bn in climate spending, was killed off in the Senate earlier this year by Republican opposition and the intransigence of Joe Manchin, a pro-coal centrist Democrat who has opposed any measures to phase out a fossil fuel industry that kills 9 million people a year globally through air pollution alone.
Democrats still hope about $300bn of this spending, mainly in the form of tax incentives to expand solar, wind and other renewable energy, could be salvaged in a separate bill and that Manchin, a crucial swing vote, may be amenable to passing this.
But time appears to be running out, with Democrats expected to lose their tenuous hold on Congress in November’s midterm elections. “The bottom line is we got some tight windows here we have to work in, but we’ll see,” Manchin told reporters last week. “We’ve just got to make some decisions here.”
Fears over inflation and the impact of the war in Ukraine have overshadowed the increasingly urgent need for some sort of climate legislation, but these concerns could be abated by more domestic clean energy production, according to Paul Bledsoe, who was a science adviser to Bill Clinton’s administration and is now strategic adviser to the Progressive Policy Institute.
“Ironically these crises may have increased the likelihood that Congress will act on clean energy legislation,” said Bledsoe. “If you don’t want these oil shocks from things that happen overseas, you’ve got to reduce demand for oil at home. The imperatives of inflation and security are solved by the same clean energy technology and I think that factor will be enough to get this over the line.”
Failure to pass any legislation would leave the US, and the world, far short in the effort to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. It would also severely wound Biden, who has made climate action central to his administration.
“If the Democrats don’t act and their majorities are lost in the fall, it will leave the United States without an effective climate policy at this moment of crisis,” said Bledsoe.
“It’s hard to imagine a more devastating outcome for both the party and the world. It’s unthinkable that it won’t get done. It would be devastating to Biden’s legacy.”