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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 06/ 1/2009

Climate Change Kills 300,000 People, Plausible?

By Andrew Freedman

* Week Starts Sunny, To Turn Stormy: Full Forecast *

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.

By Andrew Freedman  | June 1, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Science  
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I doubt there's anything in that report which would stand up in a court of law. It's like trying to blame the tobacco companies for the lung-cancer deaths of heavy smokers. Most of the tobacco cases end up being thrown out of court.

In the case of climate change one has to prove that CO2 emissions from U.S. powerplants contributed to heat wave A which caused flooding in B leading to a massive cholera epidemic resulting in, say, 12,000 deaths in the wake of the flooding. It would be hard to prove the chain of causation in court. Who would have jurisdiction? The World Court? A special tribunal or "Climate Court" in, say, The Hague or Geneva?

BTW Sunday morning's storms, which were supposed to hit south of us in Virginia, hit us instead. Both AugustaJim and I should be angry; he didn't get his rain, I got dumped on again! At least I had no dance on Saturday night.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | June 1, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

One fact I forgot to post: If the venue of jurisdiction is the World Court, only those countries who AGREE to have their cases tried in the World Court will do so. Participation is voluntary. That's why we can't sue North Korea every time they conduct a nuclear test or fire off a missile. The North Koreans would simply ignore us by refusing to accept World Court jurisdiction.

The same principle holds in any court case involving climate change. You just couldn't bring the offending country into court.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | June 1, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Bombo47jea: The study I reported on does not involve court cases, but I see what you're getting at regarding causation. I am not sure what you mean by a "World Court," though, since no such court exists. Perhaps you are referring to the International Court of Justice?.

The causation issue is a major stumbling block to estimating climate change deaths, since it is extremely difficult (some argue it is impossible) to link emissions from a particular power plant, for example, to climate change impacts such as sea level rise, which might in turn endanger certain human populations.

Interestingly, U.S. courts have wrestled with some of these issues, including in the landmark Mass v EPA Supreme Court case that held that the EPA can regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | June 1, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Pielke is right. This report discredits those who (rightly) want to see action on climate change. Also, it doesn't sound like the 300,000 figure is a net number. I'm sure there's some chance that you could attribute 300,000 additional deaths per year to climate change. But you could also probably attribute hundreds of thousands of lives saved to climate change, too (wasn't there a report last year about how climate change would result in fewer people literally freezing to death in cold-weather areas?).

Anyway, the report reminds me of Michael Moore's movies. The guy uses crazy numbers to shock people when he could use conservative estimates that would be just as shocking.

Posted by: dcwarren | June 1, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

sure people have always died form bad weather for our entire human history and guess what. if you took all the carbon out of the air people would die from bad weather not going to change a thing exept to the once who are making money off this farce if the un really wanted to save lives they would put an end to war and genocide but it would not bring in the bucks this is a big money maker and theres no way to prove it worked

Posted by: getsix1 | June 1, 2009 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Getsix1, you're taking a very extreme side of this argument by asserting that climate change is a money-making conspiracy.

First, how is raising awareness about climate change making anyone money? And how could you possible prove that there is a conspiracy?

Second, even conservatives now believe climate change is real and is at least party caused by human activities. The real quacks are the ones who still believe it's some phony "conspiracy" and that our planet is "carbon starved," etc.

I think the report is pretty lame, too. But only because it doesn't appear to fully assess the costs and benefits of climate change. Everyone knows there will be large costs, including loss of life. But you also need to include benefits in the calculation. Yeah, it's probably true that costs will outweigh the benefits, but that doesn't mean the benefits don't exist. And that's why the 300,000 figure is almost certainly an overestimate. That many people may die because of global warming each year, but you have to subtract the estimated number of people who will not die because of the benefits of a warmer climate.

Posted by: dcwarren | June 1, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

dcwarren, I read getsix1's comment three times because I thought I must be missing something. You allege that getsix1 asserted that "climate change is a money-making conspiracy". That simply isn't true. getsix1 never wrote or asserted any such thing.

getsix1 wrote that the people are "making money off this farce". You may take issue with the word "farce", but I don't see how any thinking adult could possibly take issue with the assertion that people are "are making money off" of the man made global warming theory. Are you?

I truly don't understand what your beef is with what getsix1 wrote. If you take out of the equation the words that you put in his/her mouth, and you look solely at what getsix1 wrote, what's your issue? The only possible issue I can see is the word "farce".

If one were to remove the word "farce" from what getsix1 wrote, I don't see how any person could disagree with his comment.

I'm not saying that I personally would remove the word farce, I wouldn't. If I did, it would only be to replace it with a stronger word, like scam. I think scam is more accurate whenever money is changing hands. Farce is too kind to those perpetrating this scam.

Anyway, back to what getsix1 wrote. After removing the words that you put into his/her mouth, what is your issue with what getsix1 actually wrote?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | June 2, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

I think Pielke nailed it when he wrote, "The report is worse than fiction, it is a lie". That summarizes it perfectly. It is a lie.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | June 2, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

it is extremely difficult to say 300,000 deaths were caused by global warming last year - almost no matter how much "uncertainty" is expressed in the numbers. it undermines the certainties associated with the physical realities of global warming. it makes us look silly.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | June 2, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Walter: clearly it is difficult to quantify the number of people dying worldwide from climate change, if people are dying from it at all. However, I think that human impacts of climate change are worth studying, because after all, the physical impacts will in turn affect humanity in myriad ways. Right now though, there is a lot more clarity regarding physical impacts than there is concerning human impacts.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | June 2, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

In NTSB crash reports, they often talk about how weather was a "factor" in a plane crash. The same could be said about hundreds of thousands of deaths, I imagine. Just as how weather does not cause an airplane to crash, but rather contributes to the tragedy (as was the case with Air France 447), climate change itself likely does not cause deaths--but may play a role in them.

Of course, just as planes adapt to weather phenomena to stay in the sky, we'll have to adopt to changing climate patterns.

Posted by: KBurchfiel | June 2, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

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