Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Climate Change and Death Rates

I came across two interesting stories today in UK newspapers on the issue of deaths caused by climate change. The first is this piece by Simon Lewis who asks "Climate change is killing us. So why are we still so reluctant to quantify the deaths it has caused?". Well, this story from two weeks ago in the BBC News perhaps offers an answer- because climate change may actually result in less domestic deaths for the UK.

As the story highlights, the winter weather in the UK kills approximately 20 000 people each year. Whereas an extremely hot summer (which has only a 25% chance of occuring in the next 10 years) would only claim 6000 lives. The report was commissioned by the UK Department of Health and Health Protection Agency (HPA). It also mentions that greater exposure to the sun could result in an increase in skin cancer, but it could also result in a decline of other kinds of cancer (see my recent post on that here).

I suspect the data provided in this UK report is not the kind of info Dr. Lewis was hoping for as it would suggest that the imperative to reverse climate change is not the single biggest issue facing humanity (or at least the UK). Of course climate change is an important concern, but then there are lots of pressing issues facing humanity. And so our response to any one thing must be fair and proportionate or else we run the risk of doing more harm than good. So we must be clear on what the costs to human lives will be from climate change versus other things- like poverty, cancer, war, etc. And without sound empirical evidence that climate change will cause anything close to the costs of conflict (see this), or something like cancer, which killed 7 million people worldwide in just the year 2005 alone (see here), then it is unjust for us to treat climate change as if it is the number one priority of the world.

Now there is some overlap between issues like poverty, disease and climate change. But I have always found it odd that climate change seems to have impaired the historical sensibilities of many intelligent people, as if starvation and disease (as well as hot summer days and the hurricanes) are recent phenomena that did not occur before temperatures rose. Furthermore, if we really want to benefit the globally disadvantaged then we should advocate those things that will help the poor now (not in 50 or 100 years). No doubt tackling climate change can be a part of a global strategy, but it is only a small part of it. Unfortunately we do not hear enough about the importance of other things (e.g. like providing bed nets for malaria, tackling HIV, removing the farming subsidizes that exclude the poor from competing on the market, etc.)

For an excellent overview of the complexities involved with climate change justice I highly recommend Cass Sunstein and Eric Posner's article "Climate Change Justice"