Why Drug Abuse, Not Climate Change, Is America’s Biggest Problem – OpEd


President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress say climate change is the most serious problem facing the United States, and have proposed to spend $1.7 trillion on  infrastructure and climate, as well as many billions more, on addressing the issue. 

But America’s biggest problem is drug abuse, not climate change. In 2020, nearly 90,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses or poisonings. By contrast, just 308 people in the U.S. died from natural disasters, down from 413 in 2019. 

And while drug deaths are skyrocketing, carbon emissions are declining. U.S. emissions declined 22 percent in the U.S. since 2005, which is 5 percentage points more than President Barack Obama promised the U.S. would reduce emissions under the Paris climate treaty. 

It’s true that climate change could make some extreme weather events more intense, and that hurricanes are worse in poor nations than in rich ones. The U.S. government predicts, for example, that the maximum intensity of Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms will rise 5 percent in the twenty-first century. And none of that is counting potential lives lost from lower agricultural yields, disease, and sea level rise.

And it’s true that the Biden Administration has proposed new spending on addiction treatment and will likely do more on the issue soon. “My assumption is that later this summer, overdose deaths will be happening at a higher rate than COVID deaths,” Biden advisor and Stanford addiction specialist, Keith Humphreys, told me recently, “and everyone will get engaged in a new way then.” 

But there is no scientifically valid scenario for climate change to ever kill 90,000 people in a single year, much less in the U.S. alone. While the intensity of hurricanes may rise 5 percent, the same science predicts their frequency will decline 25 percent. Deaths from natural disasters have plummeted 99 percent in Bangladesh and other poor nations since the 1980s, even as the planet has warmed. Globally, the five-year period ending in 2020 had the fewest natural disaster deaths of any five-year period since 1900. 

Neither the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) nor any other reputable scientific body predicts a reversal in the long-term trend of declining deaths, even if temperatures rise significantly. And both IPCC and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports make clear that economic growth and existing technology can be expected to outweigh impacts of higher temperatures on food production, diseases, and sea level rise.

And while the Biden Administration has made climate change its highest priority and done vanishingly little to address the drug crisis. It has proposed spending just .02 percent of the six trillion dollar budget on the drug epidemic. Biden has yet to say anything of significance about drug policy, and he has not appointed a Drug Czar to head the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Nor have the White House, Democrats in Congress, or Democratic governors and mayors proposed a strategy to break-up open drug scenes, mandate treatment as an alternative to incarceration, and launch a national advertising campaign warning of the dangers of fentanyl, meth, and other hard drugs.

As such, President Biden and Democrats in Congress, along with much of the news media and the American people, are deeply confused about what is and is not an urgent national priority. The U.S. is in the midst of an epic drug emergency, not a climate change emergency. The 3,000-to-1 death toll should make that blindingly obvious. But visions of the secular apocalypse and taboos around drugs have triumphed over truth and reason. The longer the confusion lasts, the more people will die.

Stop Fentanyl Deaths

Hard drugs like fentanyl and meth are not only killing people directly, they are increasing homelessness and undermining public order in liberal cities. Two weeks ago I wrote a column about a San Francisco Bay Area mother named Jacqui Berlinn and her son Corey, who is at high risk of dying from fentanyl overdose on the streets of San Francisco. Jacqui has been trying to save Corey’s life for ten years, but California’s laws are against her, and the politicians are doing little to help. 

Desperate for action, Jacqui protested San Francisco’s fentanyl dealers in the Tenderloin neighborhood two weeks ago, and demanded action from politicians, generating widespread news media attention including by the San Francisco ChronicleSF Weekly and local TV

Then, last Wednesday, Jacqui and other parents of fentanyl victims protested at Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Four other parents joined us, but their situations were different from Jacqui’s. Fentanyl had already killed their children. You can watch a powerful and moving video of our protest by clicking the button below.

Watch 1-min video clip of protest

Against the insistence among some progressives that homelessness is strictly the result of poverty and housing prices, researchers for decades have documented not just the prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse among the homeless, but also those conditions’ role in creating homelessness in the first place.

A large, 5,406-person study of US veterans published in 2021 found that the major personal characteristics of the unsheltered homeless were “unmarried status, criminal justice problems, weak social support, medical diagnoses, drug (but not alcohol) problems, low income, and inability to afford basic needs.”

While just 8 and 18 percent of homeless people point to mental illness and substance abuse, respectively, as the primary cause of their homelessness in San Francisco, researchers have long understood that such self- reports are unreliable due to the socially undesirable nature of addiction, and the lack of insight that often accompanies mental illness. 

Using other methods, San Francisco’s Health Department in 2019 estimated that 4,000 of the city’s 8,035 homeless, sheltered and unsheltered, are both mentally ill and suffering from substance abuse. Of those 4,000, about 1,600 frequently used emergency psychiatric services.

The same is true in other cities. In 2019, the Los Angeles Times analyzed government data and found that two-thirds of homeless in Los Angeles struggle with either addiction or mental illness. 

In the late 1990s, I advocated drug decriminalization, harm reduction, and affordable housing before I started to focus on energy and climate change in the early 2000s. I stopped paying close attention to developments in the area, beyond voting for California state ballot initiatives to decriminalize drugs. 

But then, around 2016 and 2017, as overdose deaths rose to 70,000 per year, I started to wonder whether we had gotten drugs wrong. And so in 2019 I researched and wrote an article for Forbes“Why California Keeps Making Homelessness Worse,” which described the role of untreated addiction and mental illness in worsening homelessness, and started conducting field research, including by traveling to the Netherlands, to understand how Amsterdam dealt with a similar problem thirty years ago.

Today, drug overdose and poisoning deaths are the single largest cause of accidental death in the US. More people die of drug abuse than of homicide (13,927) or car accidents (36,096). And the rate of increase in overdose/poisoning deaths has been astonishing, from 17,000 in 2000 to 88,000 overdose and poisoning deaths between September 1, 2019, and August 1, 2020, a number that is likely to reach 90,000 when data for the rest of 2020 becomes available.

Cities are essential to protecting the environment, and yet the addiction crisis is destroying California’s cities and affecting Environmental Progress directly. Two of my colleagues moved out of San Francisco earlier this year to escape problems created by its large open drug scene. I regularly encounter, and often try to help, floridly psychotic homeless people near my office. Just one week ago, while driving on the highway, I almost hit a man with my car. He was running across the crowded highway, perhaps in a meth-induced psychosis.

Meanwhile, fentanyl is making experimentation with drugs a death sentence. “This is my son Alexander,” said Amy Neville at our Venice Beach protest last week. “He passed away last June from a single pill. I found him on the floor of his bedroom.” Alexander was just 14. He had only started experimenting with opioids that week. Jaime Puerta’s daughter thought she was sniffing a line of cocaine. It was contaminated with fentanyl and she died.

When people hear those stories, many blame the parents in a knee-jerk way, perhaps because their stories are so emotionally disturbing. In truth, experimentation with drugs is widespread and while we should strongly urge children not to do it, they should not be allowed to die for their transgressions.

A better approach would be to treat the mental health issues that often underlie the desire to use hard drugs, including pharmaceutical opioids, spend $1 billion on public service advertisements warning of their danger, and break up the open drug scenes that make hard drugs cheap and available, as Europe did 30 years ago. 

The problem, as I described in past columns, is not just that the policy makers aren’t taking the action they need to take. It’s that they’re making the problem worse. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco regulate ice cream stores more than they regulate open-air fentanyl and meth drug dealing. They not only tolerate but enable, through subsidized housing and services, open drug scenes like the ones in Tenderloin and Venice Beach. 

In San Francisco, where the overdose death rate is quadruple that of the rest of the U.S., policymakers are only now questioning whether simply reviving overdose victims is a sufficient response to two overdose deaths a day.

“I think it’s the left combined with libertarianism around substances that makes it really hard to manage these problems,” said Stanford’s Keith Humphreys. “Out west, it’s more, ‘Do whatever you want,’ and, ‘No one has a right to interfere with your view.’ Sometimes that is terrific. We’re the home of gay rights. But it doesn’t work well for addiction. The pursuit of allegedly individual freedom ends up ultimately killing the person, and does enormous damage to everybody else.”

Come Together

Motivated to address this problem, Environmental Progress’s board of directors and major donors decided last year to expand our work. And I am happy to announce that, this fall, HarperCollins will publish a new book by me on the untreated addiction, mental illness, and homeless crisis facing progressive American cities, based on our research.

The good news is that solving the addiction and overdose crisis offers a chance for Americans to come together at a time of historic division. The only way we know how to solve open-air drug scenes is with a combination of carrots and sticks, toughness and love, services and law enforcement. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Vienna, Zurich and New York City show that we do not need to choose between mass incarceration and mass homelessness. 

The Biden administration isn’t doing what needs to be done but neither did the Trump administration. While it was progressives who have overseen the liberalization of laws allowing for open drug scenes in the downtowns of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, conservatives have mostly advocated law enforcement and incarceration, rather than universal psychiatry and mandatory drug treatment.

There is a third way: mandatory drug and psychiatric treatment as an alternative to incarceration for those who commit crimes. Nobody is proposing to prosecute people using even dangerous and illegal drugs in the privacy of their homes. Nor do Californians want to return to the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next”-era of mass, involuntary hospitalization.

The flip side to our polarization is the potential to marry the best of liberal and conservative instincts. We need to be compassionate, but we need to be strict, too, with people whose addiction results in them breaking the law, whether through camping in parks and on sidewalks, defecating in streets, and selling, buying, and using hard drugs in public.

In light of the drug abuse crisis, and the opportunity for positive, unifying change, Environmental Progress is expanding our research and policy work. The word that best expresses what we are after is “peace.” It’s what’s missing from our streets and our minds, not just in progressive cities, but in America as a whole. And so we have changed Environmental Progress’s tagline to “Nature, peace, and prosperity for all,” and have launched the California Peace Campaign, complete with  Peace Principles, a Peace Agenda, and Frequently Asked Questions.

Our work is already having an impact, with elected officials in both San Francisco and Los Angeles increasingly recognizing that we are in an addiction and overdose crisis, not just one related to housing and inequality. We are nonpartisan, apolitical, and welcoming of all sides to our movement. In San Francisco, two progressive members of the Board of Supervisors attended our protest. After our protest in Venice Beach, the L.A. County Supervisor tweeted about the need for action on addiction. And several progressive elected officials spoke, on the record, and candidly, in interviews with me for my forthcoming book  

EP’s work on energy and the environment, including defending nuclear plants at risk of closure, will continue. In a recent Yale University debate, I confronted Natural Resources Defense Council for its role in shutting down nuclear plants and its conflicts-of-interest, which include direct investments through Blackrock in natural gas and solar panels made in China. (You can watch three, 2-minute clips herehere, and here, and a 32-minute version here.)

The apocalyptic climate agenda is rapidly losing legitimacy, and failing politically. This is not just because climate activists are shutting down nuclear plants and increasing emissions, proving that their real motivations have less to do with climate change and more to do with restricting economic growth. It is also because drugs are killing 3,000 times more people than the climate, making plain what’s the true emergency and what isn’t.

Please email me if you’d like to get involved, subscribe now to this newsletter, and consider making a tax-deductible donation to EP.

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD and at https://michaelshellenberger.substack.com

2 thoughts on “Why Drug Abuse, Not Climate Change, Is America’s Biggest Problem – OpEd

  • June 8, 2021 at 9:57 am

    This is spot on, though its going to take a lot of work to convince the greenies that drug abuse is worse that global warming. There cause is like a religious belief to them.

  • June 9, 2021 at 4:27 am

    USA total COVID deaths 2020 were 595,301. How is drug abuse the greatest problem? Climate change is a permanent factor in the evolution of all life on this planet forever. How is the drug abuse of a few humans a greater problem than that?


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