Climate change could kill 500,000 a year by 2030

Climate change could kill 500,000 a year by 2030 – 29 May 2009 – New Scientist

A new report on The Human Impact of Climate Change issued last week by the Global Humanitarian Forum concludes that climate change is already responsible for approximately 300,000 deaths a year, 90% of them in the developing world.

Former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who heads the Global Humanitarian Forum, argued that the disparities between developed and developing countries must be given more attention in the upcoming climate summit to be held in Copenhagen in December. While most of the deaths from climate change are in developing countries, the majority of the carbon emissions responsible for that climate change come from developed nations:

Climate justice means pollution has a cost and those costs must be born by the polluter. The 15 least developed countries contributed less than 1% of global carbon emissions, and yet it is they that suffer the most.

New Scientist reports on this study without much analysis or scrutiny, as is typical; when a report raising questions about this one is released, New Scientist will report that, too. Over on The New York Times, on the “Dot Earth” feature, Andrew Revkin is more critical. In particular, he questions the robustness of the figures on deaths due to climate change, while acknowledging the truth of the general picture – of the uneven distribution of suffering due to climate change and responsibility for that climate change.

In this Dot Earth entry and in an separate news article on the Global Humanitarian Forum report, Revkin draws on the work Roger A. Pielke, Jr., a scientist seen by many as in league with climate change deniers [see, eg, SourceWatch]. Revkin pulls a far-too-common maneuvre in discussing Pielke’s views. While he acknowledges that Pielke is controversial, he does so in a way which makes light of the controversy and works to dismiss those who distrust Pielke’s arguments: he says that Pielke “has a habit of getting under the skin of environemental campaigners.” After this rhetorical dismissal of Pielke’s critics as thin-skin and easily irritated – not worthy of serious consideration – Revkin then goes on immediately to bolster the credibility of Pielke by saying he has “co-authored significant studies of disasters and climate.” It’s an effective double-whammy: a slyly indirect dismissal of Pielke’s critics, followed by overt, “factual” support for Pielke’s work. There are also some other dubious argumentative and rhetorical moves in the presentation of the views of Dr. Guha-Sapir, and the way they are linked with the views of Dr. Pielke.

Revkin’s use of Pielke and attempts to denigrate or downplay the report from the Global Humanitarian Forum are disturbing, but as long as The New York Times remains the de facto paper of record at the centre of the American public sphere, it will be important to read and consider – and where necessary refute or raise questions about – what they publish.

guardian_blueOne way to do that is to look at how the same issue is addressed in other news sources. The Guardian (UK) also covered the Global Humanitarian Forum report, quoting from it fairly extensively and including a range of figures in addition to the ones on overall deaths due to climate change. The concluding paragraph of the Guardian article acknowledges the lack of certainty around the mortality figures, but also gives a solid endorsement of the report by listing the sources from which those figures were derived and the names of important figures who reviewed the report:

Calculations for the report are based on data provided by the World Bank, the World Health organisation, the UN, the Potsdam Institute For Climate Impact Research, and others, including leading insurance companies and Oxfam. However, the authors accept that the estimates are uncertain and could be higher or lower. The paper was reviewed by 10 of the world’s leading experts including Rajendra Pachauri, Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University and Margareta Wahlström, assistant UN secretary general for disaster risk reduction.

The Guardian thus presents a much more positive view of the report than NYT; both acknowledge that there is uncertainty about the figures on deaths, but do so in very different ways – with the NYT piece in Dot Earth featuring the questioning of the figures in the beginning, at the start of a piece filled with criticisms, and The Guardian at the end, in an article that is otherwise positive.

What’s the truth? Everyone seems to agree that there are questions about the figures, but it would be useful to know what the range of possibilities are. It is worth considering how much of a difference it would really make if the actual figure is closer to 200,000 deaths due to climate change a year rather than 300,000 – with those deaths still massively concentrated in poorer nations, while global warming is mostly a product of richer nations. Hopefully, with a bit more time, more in-depth and balanced analyses of the report will appear that will address questions such as this.

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