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A 2019 study found that lower natural gas prices between 2005 and 2010 cut wintertime deaths by 11,000 annually, though one of the authors of the study said its analysis of mortality did not account for pollution effects.
Public health researchers caution that mortality is higher in winter, but it’s unclear that the cause is overall colder temperatures.
Other research finds that rising temperatures cost 12,000 lives a year between 2010 and 2020.
The chair of the House Republican Policy Committee, Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., says he opposes the Democratic climate change plans because they will land heavily on families of modest means.
In particular, Palmer warned that shifting toward clean energy will raise the price of natural gas at a time when tens of millions of Americans struggle to pay their energy bills.
"This impacts low-income people," Palmer said Sept. 13 at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Higher energy costs literally lead to more weather-related deaths."
Palmer went on to say that the reverse is also true.
"There’s a study that indicated that as a result of the massive decline in natural gas prices that literally we’re saving 11,000 lives per year in the U.S.," he said.
Palmer’s claim fairly represents the findings of a 2019 study on natural gas prices, but it takes a narrow view of the implications of Biden’s policies for combating climate change. And it leaves out important context about the connection between temperatures and mortality.
We reached out to Palmer’s office and did not hear back.
The 11,000 lives estimate comes from a 2019 paper from three economists that linked lower wintertime deaths to declines in natural gas prices between 2005 and 2010. They looked at the deaths from causes that are particularly high in winter — primarily cardiovascular and respiratory problems. They found that those deaths went down at the same time that natural gas prices fell.
Accounting for a number of other possible factors, they said the "price decline caused a 1.6% decrease in the winter mortality rate for households using natural gas for heating." And they said that the impact of the lower price was greater for households making under 150% of the federal poverty level.
One of the researchers, economist Seema Jayachandran at Northwestern University, said their working theory was that with lower fuel prices, people kept their homes warmer. Jayachandran acknowledged that the study didn’t consider all the implications of using more natural gas.
"We looked at mortality caused by households facing lower prices for home heating, but air pollution is another implication that we did not incorporate, and it affects mortality too," Jayachandran said.
Public health researchers caution that the link between winter weather and mortality is poorly understood. One complicating factor is the seasonal flu. Its toll can vary greatly from year to year, as it did during the period in the study Palmer cited. A generally mild flu season, such as the one from 2006 to 2007, led to fewer deaths than the year before, quite apart from fuel prices or temperatures.
"We still don’t know that it’s the overall colder temperatures that cause the higher mortality in the winter," said University of Washington professor of environmental and occupational health Kristie Ebi. "Many deaths don’t occur in the coldest places. Hypothermia is a higher risk in Houston than in New York City."
Ebi noted that if colder temperatures increased deaths, then warmer winter temperatures ought to reduce them. But "despite warmer temperatures from 1985 to 2012, cold-attributed mortality increased in the U.S.," Ebi said.
Other researchers —focused on the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like natural gas — look at deaths when it’s hot.
In a 2020 study published in GeoHealth, a group of researchers estimated that higher temperatures caused 12,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S.
A review of over 400 studies found that "most research on household energy does not consider climate change." But what that review found suggested that the effects of climate change are particularly dangerous for the very people Palmer mentioned at the hearing.
"Mortality from heat waves disproportionately affects older, minority and low-income residents who are less equipped socially, economically and physiologically to withstand high temperatures," the authors wrote. "After the 1995 Chicago heat wave, there was a clear demographic disparity in mortality rates — lower-income and older people died at much higher rates than the rest of the population."
For perspective, today's natural gas prices are up from recent lows as economic activity recovers, but not even close to historical highs. They are about where they were in 2010.
That said, the issue Palmer raises about natural gas costs is real. If the country seeks to cut back natural gas production to curb emissions, it’s possible that the price will rise. If that happens, low-income families that rely on natural gas would be vulnerable.
The Biden administration has plans to reduce those households’ energy bills by helping them consume less. It’s promoting programs to cut the cost of insulating and weatherproofing people’s homes and apartments. It wants to make home appliances more efficient.
Whether that’s enough to offset the higher energy prices is an open question.
"Energy efficiency has historically helped to address some of the energy cost burdens for the poor, but it usually does not go far enough to really shield them from the economic shocks of high energy pricing," said Diana Hernandez, a researcher at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.
It might also be difficult to tease out the impact of climate change policies on energy prices. Global prices are spiking primarily because demand is outpacing supply. But that’s a global phenomenon, not driven by U.S. policy. And concern about climate change may be a contributing factor: Investors are wary of sinking millions into new natural-gas production capacity at a time when the global appetite appears to be shifting toward renewable sources.
Palmer said, "As a result of the massive decline in natural gas prices, we’re saving 11,000 lives per year in the U.S."
That claim fairly represents a study’s findings. But the study looked narrowly at wintertime mortality related to prices, without taking into account other implications of increased natural gas use, such as air pollution.
Public health researchers warned that variation in seasonal flu and other factors make it difficult to draw clear links between cold and mortality. Meanwhile, other research finds that warmer temperatures due to climate change cause 12,000 premature deaths a year.
Palmer’s claim is partly accurate, but takes a narrow view of the implications of Biden’s policies for combating climate change and leaves out important context about research on the connection between temperatures and mortality. We rate this claim Half True.
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Interview, Kristie Ebi, professor of environmental and occupational health, University of Washington, Sept. 21, 2021
Email exchange, Diana Hernández, assistant professor, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, Sept. 22, 2021
Email exchange, Jacqueline Berger, president, Applied Public Policy Research Institute for Study and Evaluation, Sept. 22, 2021
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