BJORN LOMBORG: A one-sided climate focus leads us badly astray
Headlines across the world tell us that hundreds have died after the recent heatwaves in Canada and the northwestern US. The stories invariably blame climate change and admonish us to tackle it urgently. However, they mostly reveal how one-sided climate alarmist reporting leaves us badly informed.
The stories are based on a kernel of truth. Global warming is a real and man-made problem that needs addressing. And as temperatures increase it will make heatwaves more likely. But they turn a blind eye to reporting the full story and ask us to focus on the least effective ways to help.
Heat deaths are beguilingly click-worthy when bodies pile up during a single news cycle, primed to be blamed on global warming. Yet, most heat deaths happen without a news crew to document them. Studies show that heat kills about 2,500 people every year in the US and Canada. Heat deaths are actually a bigger problem than the news reports would suggest.
However, and almost entirely ignored by politicians and media, rising temperatures also reduce cold waves and cold deaths. Cold restricts blood flow to keep our core warm, increasing blood pressure and killing through strokes, heart attacks and respiratory diseases. Those deaths are rarely reported, because they don’t fit the climate narrative. Of course, if they were just a curiosity, the indifference might be justified, but they aren’t. Each year more than 100,000 people die from cold in the US and 13,000 in Canada — more than 40 cold deaths for every heat death.
Indeed, cold deaths vastly outweigh heat deaths worldwide. This is not just true for cold countries like Canada but also warmer countries such as the US, Spain and Brazil. Even in India, cold deaths outweigh heat deaths by seven to one. Globally, about 300,000 deaths are caused each year by heat, whereas almost 1.7-million people die of cold.
A recent widely reported study found that higher temperatures are now responsible for about 100,000 of those heat deaths. But the researchers ignored cold deaths. A landmark study in The Lancet shows that climate change over the past decades has across every region avoided more cold deaths than it has caused additional heat deaths. On average, it has avoided upwards of twice as many deaths, resulting in perhaps 200,000 fewer cold deaths each year.
Moreover, when reporting emphasises the need to cut CO₂, it pushes some of the least effective ways to help future victims of heat and cold. Climate policy will, at best, slightly slow the increase in heat deaths. We already know much more effective and simpler ways to help. Heat deaths are generally declining in countries with good data, because they can be effectively tackled with more widely available air-conditioning, heat alerts, open public pools and air-conditioned malls, while encouraging people to use fans and drink plenty of water.
This is abundantly clear for the US: it has seen increasing hot days since 1960, affecting a much larger population. Yet, the number of heat deaths has halved. The rest of the world needs access to the same simple technologies to drastically reduce heat deaths. Tackling cold deaths turns out to be much harder, because it requires well-heated homes over weeks and months. Moreover, strong climate policies will increase heating costs and make cold deaths even more prevalent.
Researchers have looked at the natural experiment in the US that happened since 2010 when fracking delivered a dramatic reduction in the costs of natural gas. This made gas-heated homes warmer and safer, because especially poorer households could afford better heating. The study estimated that these lower energy prices save about 11,000 Americans from dying in winter every year. This alone saves four times the lives lost from all North American heat deaths.
If climate policy is to work, it has to drive up prices of energy to reduce consumption. A climate policy that drives gas prices back up will mean fewer people will be able to afford to adequately heat their homes, and the consequent death rate will go back up. Climate change is still a real problem that affects many other areas than heat and cold. We need to tackle it effectively through innovation to make green energy cheap enough that everyone will want to switch.
But when it comes to tackling heat and cold deaths, climate reporting leaves us badly informed. It makes us focus on the costliest and least effective way to help future victims of heat and cold. It even risks worsening cold deaths by raising heating costs. Moreover, it simply tells us a misleading story of heat deaths, ignoring the much greater avoided cold deaths. For now, global warming saves us more deaths than it causes, possibly 100,000 lives each year.
• Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is ‘False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet’.
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