National Post (National Edition)
Climate change and deaths from extreme heat and cold
Headlines across the world tell us that hundreds of people have died after the recent heat waves in Canada and the northwestern U.S. The stories invariably blame climate change and admonish us to tackle it urgently. What they mostly reveal, however, is how one-sided, 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 rising temperatures will make heat waves more likely. But the reporting turns a blind eye to the full story and also asks us to focus on the least effective ways to help.
Heat deaths are actually a bigger problem than the news reports would suggest. Most heat deaths happen without a news crew to document them. Studies show that heat kills about 2,500 people every year in the U.S. and Canada.
What is almost entirely ignored by politicians and media, however, is that rising temperatures also have the effect of reducing cold waves and cold deaths. Cold restricts blood flow needed to keep our core warm, increasing blood pressure and killing through strokes, heart attacks, and respiratory diseases. But because they don't fit the current climate narrative deaths from cold are rarely reported. 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 U.S. and 13,000 in Canada — which is more than 40 cold deaths for every heat death.
On a worldwide basis, cold deaths vastly outnumber heat deaths. This is not just true for cold countries like Canada but also warmer countries like the U.S., Spain and Brazil. Even in India, cold deaths outnumber heat deaths by seven to one. Globally, every year about 300,000 deaths are caused by heat, whereas almost 1.7 million people die of cold.
A widely reported recent study found that higher temperatures are now responsible for about 100,000 of those heat deaths. But the study's authors ignored cold deaths. A landmark study in Lancet shows that across every region climate change has brought a greater reduction in cold deaths over the past few decades 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.
Apart from not mentioning that higher temperatures reduce deaths from cold, reporting that emphasizes the need to cut CO2 usually pushes some of the least effective ways to help future victims of heat and cold. At best, climate policy will slow the increase in heat deaths only slightly. But we already know much more effective and simpler ways to help.
Heat deaths are generally declining in countries with good data, because heat deaths can be effectively tackled with more widely available air conditioning, heat alerts, open public pools and air-conditioned malls and by encouraging people to use fans and drink plenty of water. This is abundantly clear for the U.S., where hot days have increased since 1960, and have come to affect a much larger population. Yet the number of U.S. 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 U.S. since 2010 as fracking has delivered a dramatic reduction in the cost of natural gas. This made gas-heated homes warmer and safer because poorer households, in particular, could afford better heating. The study estimated that these lower energy prices save about 11,000 Americans from dying every winter. That alone is four times the lives lost from all North American heat deaths.
If climate policy is to work, it has to drive up the price of energy in order 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 as a consequence the death rate will go back up.
Climate change is a real problem that affects many other things 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, current 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 exacerbating cold deaths by raising heating costs. Moreover, it simply tells us a misleading story of heat deaths, ignoring the much greater number of avoided cold deaths. For now, global warming reduces more deaths than it causes, saving possibly 100,000 lives each year.
Bjorn 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.
COLD DEATHS VASTLY OUTNUMBER HEAT DEATHS.