'No temperature rise is safe.' Really?

More than 230 medical journals have put climate change at the top of the world’s health agenda as the November COP26 climate conference in Glasgow approaches. They have published the biggest joint editorial in history to warn everyone that the greatest threat to public health is failure to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C.

The terms of the editorial are apocalyptic: “The science is unequivocal; a global increase of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average and the continued loss of biodiversity risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse.”

“Indeed,” they write, “no temperature rise is ‘safe’.”

The doctors’ rhetoric will do little to diminish conspiracy theorists’ conviction that the pandemic is being used as an excuse to create a global government. “Governments must make fundamental changes to how our societies and economies are organised and how we live,” they write.

Everything has to change: “transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, health systems, and much more”.

Basically, folks, it’s a no brainer: throw money, truckloads of money, at the climate crisis. “Many governments met the threat of the covid-19 pandemic with unprecedented funding. The environmental crisis demands a similar emergency response. Huge investment will be needed, beyond what is being considered or delivered anywhere in the world.”

Would they care to document who will pay for this? It’s hard to deny that global warming is happening. But these esteemed doctors (of medicine, not economics) are willing to bankrupt economies already teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They seem to have forgotten that tanking economies are deadly, too. According to a recent research paper for the Bank for International Settlements, “During years when GDP falls, death rates rise, primarily in emerging market and developing economies and there among children in particular.” The only good news is that death rates rise just “slightly” in advanced economies – where most of these editors live.

At the same time – somewhat paradoxically in the light of the urgency -- “Global coordination is needed to ensure that the rush for cleaner technologies does not come at the cost of more environmental destruction and human exploitation.”

Perhaps this caveat was inserted to placate the editors of Chinese journals, whose government is resisting calls to move away from coal as a source of energy.

Missing from the editorial are the nuts and bolts of how global temperatures will impact on health – or simply some guesstimates of how many people will die if the temperature rises 1.5°C.

Climate gadfly Bjorn Lomborg is sceptical of the claims in the letter. He points out that the number of climate-change related deaths has plummeted since 1920:

Over the past hundred years, annual climate-related deaths have declined by more than 96%. In the 1920s, the death count from climate-related disasters was 485,000 on average every year. In the last full decade, 2010-2019, the average was 18,362 dead per year, or 96.2% lower.

How can that be? With news of floods, hurricanes, droughts, and forest fires on the front page nearly every day, aren’t millions of people dying of natural catastrophes?

Um, no.

In a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Lomborg plotted climate and non-climate-related deaths (from events like earthquakes and tsunamis) in disasters between 1920 and 2018, averaged over decades, as well as the risk of dying from them. This shows that both the absolute number of deaths and the risk of dying has dropped precipitously.

Bjorn Lomborg / Technological Forecasting and Social Change

He concludes that “we are now much less vulnerable to climate impacts than at any time in the last 100 years. It is possible that climate change has made impacts worse over the last century … but resiliency from higher living standards has entirely swamped any potential climate impact.”

We’ve all seen images of people dying from heat stroke after scorchers in Europe, the United States and Canada. The open letter suggests that more people will succumb if there are more heat waves. But heat is a far smaller problem than cold.

An article just published in The Lancet Planetary Health (whose editor is a signatory) pointed out that “most excess deaths [between 2000 and 2019] were linked to cold temperatures (8·52%), whereas fewer were linked to hot temperatures (0·91%)” – that’s nine times as many. However, the highest proportion of deaths from cold occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa, which may be why you never read about them in the New York Times or The Guardian.

Nobody enjoys sweltering summers but resettling your grandparents from Florida to Alaska is not going to save their lives.

The open letter states that: “In the past 20 years, heat related mortality among people aged over 65 has increased by more than 50%.” But as Lomborg points out, the number of people over 65 has increased by about 50 percent as well. Didn’t the editors factcheck their statistics?

It is the doctors’ very bad luck that they have launched a call to save an unspecified and probably very small number of lives in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed 4.5 million lives.

If they were really serious about saving lives, how about stopping abortion? In 2020, there were more than 40 million of them worldwide.

Chances are, this letter will have no impact whatsoever on climate change policy. But it will almost certainly make people sicker. Experts recently warned of “an impending epidemic of mental health related disorders such as eco-anxiety, climate disaster-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and future-orientated despair.” Nothing makes people suffering from eco-anxiety more anxious than eco-doctors predicting an apocalypse.


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