Climate Change Kills 300,000 People, Plausible?
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A report released last week claiming that climate change is responsible for an estimated 300,000 deaths per year worldwide has raised some interesting questions regarding the societal impacts from climate change. It has come under fire from some experts in the disaster research and public health communities who fault the study's methods and argue that focusing on the murky estimation of climate change-related deaths may distract from efforts to address clearer public health priorities.
The report, entitled "The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis," was released by the Geneva-based nonprofit Global Humanitarian Forum, which is a new group led by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan. The report puts forward a best guess of how climate change is affecting people around the world at the present time, and how that may change in the future.
Keep reading for more on this report and reactions...
As the report notes, most climate change research to date has focused on the physical impacts of climate change, such as melting Arctic sea ice, rather than its effects on people. "Long regarded as a distant, environmental or future problem, climate change is already today a major constraint on all human efforts," the report states. "It has been creeping up on the world for years, doing its deadly work by aggravating a host of other major problems affecting society, such as Malaria and poverty."
The report generally characterizes climate change as a "threat multiplier" for society, finding that in addition to the 300,000 people that climate change kills each year, 325 million people are "seriously affected," 4 billion people are "vulnerable," and 500 million people are at "extreme risk" (the report defines each of these categories). The authors plainly stated that these numbers are nowhere near rock solid, however.
"These figures represent averages based on projected trends over many years and carry a significant margin of error. The real numbers could be lower or higher," the report states.
"It is challenging to isolate the human impact of climate change definitively from other factors such as natural variability, population growth, land use and governance," the report states. The report suggests that the estimates "be treated as indicative rather than definitive."
Despite the inclusion of such caveats, professor Roger A. Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who studies weather and climate-related disasters trends, essentially ripped the report to shreds for being, in his words, "a methodological embarrassment and poster child for how to lie with statistics."
Pielke's research has shown that socioeconomic factors are responsible for most of the increasing toll from disasters, rather than a climate-related signal. He said the report fails to take such research findings into account.
"[The report] will give ammunition to those opposed to action and divert attention away from the people who actually need help in the face of disasters, yet through this report have been reduced to a bloodless statistic for use in the promotional battle over climate policies. The report is worse than fiction, it is a lie," Pielke wrote.
Furthermore, in a post on his Dot Earth blog, the New York Times' Andy Revkin quoted public health professionals who expressed concern that the study could distract from the better-established public health crises already facing the developing world, such as malaria and waterborne illnesses.
All of these criticisms have merit, but as policymakers increasingly consider taking major steps to address climate change, it is becoming more important for experts to detail how climate change is already affecting human populations, and whether it poses a truly mortal threat now or sometime in the future. Whether or not any death can be said to have been 'caused by' climate change is debatable, but the message that climate change may already be adding stress to society, particularly in the developing world, is well-established.
The methodology of the Global Humanitarian Forum's report may not be something to replicate, but the general aim of bringing the human toll from climate change into a clearer focus should be.
| June 1, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, Science
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