Senator Bill Frist Testifies on the National Costs of Climate Change

Conasauga River in Tennessee
Conasauga River in Tennessee, United States, North America. Conasauga River in Tennessee, United States, North America. © George Ivey/The Nature Conservancy

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Today, Senator Bill Frist, M.D. testified before the United States Senate Budget Committee during a hearing, “Lessons Learned: Leadership Perspectives and Experience on the National Cost of Climate Change,” examing the national costs of climate change. Senator Frist, global board chair for The Nature Conservancy, served as Senate Majority Leader and is a former member of the committee. He was joined by former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull and fomer U.S. Ambassador to China and Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad.

Senator Frist’s overarching message to the committee was: “The topic of climate change should unite us. Protecting nature and our natural resources should be an issue that brings us together as we find solutions to our emerging climate problems. Conservation and climate action are central and urgent policy issues for the United States and the world. Preserving and building on the wins for nature that Congress recently passed will ensure a world where nature and people can thrive.”

Senator Frist’s full testimony, as prepared for delivery, can be found here.  

Excerpts are pasted below:

“I am appearing before you today drawing on three distinct experiences. First, as a heart and lung transplant surgeon who has been fortunate to travel across the United States and around the world. I have seen firsthand the detrimental effects climate change is having, and will have, on people, their communities, and nations. Yes, climate change is an environmental crisis, but it’s also a public health crisis, a food crisis, and a threat to our economic security.

“Second, as a former Senate Majority Leader and a former member of this committee from 1995-2002, I am intimately aware of how a stable federal budget is critical to the fiscal health of our economy and national security. Climate change is an economic issue. It affects individuals, families, and businesses of all sizes. The fallout from climate change – from increased droughts and flooding to hotter temperatures to rising sea levels – cost the United States billions of dollars every year. I appreciate the Budget Committee for recognizing this and for scheduling this important hearing.

“Finally, as the Chair of the Board of Directors for The Nature Conservancy, one of the most wide-reaching conservation organizations in the world with over 900 scientists and science staff across 79 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 42 through partnerships, I understand that the health and well-being of people long-term absolutely requires a sustainably healthy planet and climate. The dedicated people at TNC are working hard to build a future in which nature flourishes and people from all walks of life can enjoy happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. Their ambitious agenda is grounded in scaling solutions to match the severity of the interconnected biodiversity and climate crises, which almost by definition require sound, durable policy solutions.

“Consider these facts:

  • More extreme and dangerous heat waves – Rising greenhouse gas concentrations increase average temperatures and are making extreme heat waves more frequent and more intense. Cases of heatstroke, hypothermia, and related conditions brought on by extreme temperature conditions are climbing, and in turn exacerbating existing cases of cardiovascular, pulmonary, and renal disease.
  • Reduced and contaminated water supplies – More frequent and intense precipitation increases runoff into our water systems, increasing the risk of water- and food-related illness. At the other extreme, droughts can limit access to household water supplies for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, as well as for agriculture, transportation, and power generation.
  • Threatens our food supply – Higher temperatures directly impact our food supply, making agricultural products susceptible to toxins brought on by pests and extreme weather events. Food shortages are forecasted to lead to a rise in world hunger, and diets will be unhealthier because of the diminished nutritional value of foods.
  • Certain deadly diseases are becoming more common – Warmer temperatures are allowing some vector-borne diseases — illnesses carried and transmitted by insects or other animals — to move further north, exposing places like the U.S. to zoonotic diseases we have not previously encountered. Deforestation at scales we have previously not experienced across the Congo and Amazon basins and the forests of South East Asia is causing a precipitous decline in biodiversity.
  • Poor air quality – Rising temperatures, precipitation, and extreme weather events are increasing the prevalence of harmful air pollutants which is worsening air quality. Ozone, commonly known as smog, is particularly harmful to those individuals who suffer from chronic respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and emphysema. Annual U.S. health costs for ozone smog pollution are estimated to be $7.9 billion. A 2019 study estimated the annual health cost of ozone pollution in Nevada. They found that ozone exposure was responsible for 97 deaths, 114 hospitalizations, and 194 trips to the emergency room—and that it cost nearly $900 million.
  • Increasing wildfire risk – More people, communities and assets are being exposed to fire risk and are more vulnerable to harm. At the same time, fires are increasing in frequency and intensity, and the risks are extending beyond the communities in the immediate vicinity. We are now experiencing landscape scale fires, where fires can range across 10 or more miles.                                                                      

“All of these impacts have human and financial costs. In 2022, NOAA calculated 18 separate weather and climate disasters that cost the United States at least $1 billion. And, over the last seven years, 122 separate billion-dollar disasters have killed at least 5,000 people and cost more than $1 trillion in damage.

“The direct and after-effects of a changing climate here and around the world have direct implications across the entire U.S. federal budget, which today stands at $6.4 trillion.

“Whether infrastructure, healthcare, defense, foreign assistance, or social spending, the effects of climate change are increasing the risks to these investments, increasing costs, and expanding needs.

“For as daunting as these challenges may seem, the solutions are accessible and available today.

“This is the time for American leadership and action to address the interconnected challenges we face—biodiversity and nature loss, climate change, a global health and economic crisis. Left underinvested, these risks can severely undermine America’s place in the world, our prosperity and security interests.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. The Nature Conservancy is working to make a lasting difference around the world in 77 countries and territories (41 by direct conservation impact and 36 through partners) through a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on X.