umbrella covering home under heavy rain.

Weathering the Climate Crisis: The Health Benefits and Policy Challenges of Home Weatherization

By James R. Jolin

Weatherization serves as an important yet strikingly neglected tool not only to meet vulnerable communities’ energy needs, but also to combat the negative health effects associated with the climate crisis.

In the United States, households with lower gross income experience higher “energy burdens” — that is, the proportion of a household’s income that is expended to meet energy costs. Indeed, households earning 200% of the federal poverty line spend an estimated 8% of their income on meeting energy costs, as compared to the national median of 3%. Weatherization, the catch-all term for home improvements intended to improve the efficiency of home energy use, is a way to decrease disparate energy costs across socioeconomic classes.

Standard weatherization measures, which include (but are not limited to) repairing and modernizing temperature control systems and installing insulation, reduce the amount of money households need to spend on heating and cooling. In all, weatherization measures save over $280 on average per year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy — a modest but nonetheless important savings.

Crucially, however, weatherization also confers significant health benefits, which are not only ideal in their own right, but also result in further significant financial savings.

Generalizable national studies of weatherization indicate that the practice significantly reduces the number of instances households experience extreme temperatures. For individuals with chronic illnesses exacerbated by extreme temperatures, these reductions in temperature are crucial for improving health outcomes. Indeed, these same national studies have shown a significant reduction in the frequency of medical attention due to extreme heat or cold among individuals in weatherized versus non-weatherized homes.

Evidence compiled by Vermont’s Department of Public Health also suggests the crucial role weatherization can play in the reduction of airborne pollutants, from carbon dioxide, to nitrogen dioxide, to environmental tobacco smoke. The findings show that, as a result, respiratory and cardiovascular health outcomes improve among those living in weatherized homes.

The sum of these and other health benefits confer additional financial benefits. Considered together, all potential effects of weatherization — including reduced risk of death from fire and air contaminants, as well as asthmatic hospitalizations — can save households an estimated $14,148. What is more, these financial benefits can also generate additional health co-benefits. In one study, weatherization reduced the incidence of psychological distress in adults, likely explained by the reduced financial stress associated with reduced energy and health costs.

Given the myriad benefits, it is no wonder the U.S. federal government has instituted multiple programs to support financially the uptake of weatherization among disadvantaged communities. The Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, for instance, acknowledge and seek to sustain the virtuous cycle home weatherization engenders. But these federal weatherization assistance programs are grossly underused — even among the population that stands to gain the most from weatherizing their homes. Only an estimated 2% of eligible households take advantage of federal weatherization programs.

Marketing explains some of the story. Weatherization is, put simply, not salient for many Americans. Even the term “weatherization” itself is inaccessible, often creating more confusion than it does interest. The challenge, as well, stems from how difficult it is for federal programs to reach their target audience of working-class Americans, who may have little attention to pay to weatherization marketing materials or face language barriers. But even improved promotional efforts might not be wholly sufficient to boost weatherization: even if there is demand for federal weatherization assistance, the programs are underfunded, which limits scalability.

The complicated issues facing federal weatherization policy in the United States, coupled with the substantial health benefits weatherization offers, compel urgent action. Public health scholars can support uptake of weatherization by investing in greater research into its health benefits, which can be leveraged further as marketing tools. Economists should bring their behavioral insights to bear to shape weatherization promotion strategies. And all the while, legal scholars are necessary to help policymakers navigate the often-unclear laws governing federal weatherization programs.

As the climate crisis worsens and our public health continues to deteriorate as a result, there is no time to waste. Even if humans were to stop emitting carbon-dioxide immediately, the half-trillion tons of carbon that has been released into our atmosphere would continue to wreak havoc on our environment and human health for years after. The intractable and continued effects of the climate crisis necessitate immediate and concrete adaptation. Weatherization is one such path forward.

James Jolin

James R. Jolin is an A.B. Degree Candidate in Government and Global Health and Health Policy at Harvard College and a student intern at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. His academic interests lie at the intersection of criminal justice and public health.

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