Lancet study shows 480,000 die each year from extreme heat, but nine times more—4.5 million—die from extreme cold
By Bjorn Lomborg, National Post, August 26, 2023
As surely as temperatures rise during the summer, climate alarmism serves up more stories of life-threatening heat domes, apocalyptic fires and biblical floods, all blamed squarely on global warming. Yet the data to prove this link is often cherry-picked, and the proposed policy responses are enormously ineffective.
Heat waves are clearly made worse by global warming. But the non-stop media coverage of high temperatures in the summertime fails to tell the bigger story: temperature-driven deaths are overwhelmingly caused by cold.
In the United States and Canada, a recent Lancet study found that 20,000 people die each year from heat, but 170,000 die from cold. Globally, the study finds 4.5-million cold deaths, which is nine-times more than global heat deaths.
The study also finds that temperatures increasing half a degree Celsius in the first two decades of this century have caused an additional 116,000 heat deaths annually. But warmer temperatures now also avoid 283,000 cold deaths every year. Reporting only on the former leaves us poorly informed.
Net Zero policies poor solution for heat and cold deaths
Around the world, governments have promised to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions at a cost beyond $5.6-trillion annually. Scared populations will of course be more likely to clamour for the perceived safety of such policies. But these policies help tackle heat and cold deaths very poorly.
Even if all the world’s ambitious carbon-cutting promises were magically enacted, these policies would only slow future warming. Stronger heat waves would still kill more people, just slightly fewer than they would have.
A sensible response would focus first on resilience, meaning more air conditioning and cooler cities through greenery and water features. After the 2003 heat waves, France’s rational reforms, including mandatory air conditioning in care homes, reduced heat deaths 10-fold, despite higher temperatures.
Avoiding both cold and heat deaths requires affordable energy access. In the U.S., cheap gas from fracking allowed millions to keep warmer on low budgets, saving 12,500 lives each year. Climate policy, which inevitably makes energy more expensive, achieves the opposite.
Along with temperature spikes, alarming images of forest fires share the front pages this summer. You’d easily get the sense that the planet is on fire. The reality, however, is that since NASA satellites started accurately recording fires across the entire surface of the planet two decades ago, there has been a strong downward trend. In the early 2000s, three per cent of the world’s land area burned each year. Last year, fire burned 2.2 per cent of the world’s land area, a new record low. Yet, you would struggle to find that reported anywhere.
Wildfires down globally, not up
This year, fires have burned much more in the Americas than over the past decade. This has constantly been reported in the media. But fires have burned much less in both Africa and Europe compared to the last decade. Cumulatively to Aug. 12, the Global Wildfire Information System shows that the whole world has actually burned less than the average over the last decade.
While the media constantly focuses on Greece, which has burned much more, it omits the fact that most of Europe has burned much less. Indeed, by Aug. 12, all of Europe has cumulatively burned less than it has by this point in the year during any of the last 10 years. Yet, this has scarcely been reported anywhere.
The fire in Hawaii is deeply tragic. Yet, it is lazy and unhelpful for pundits to use the tragedy to incorrectly blame climate change. They claim it was tinderbox dry, but through most of the past 23 years, Maui County was drier than the week that it burned. Hawaii’s drought is blamed on climate, but the most recent scientific study shows no climate signal.
Cutting emissions is least effective ‘solution’ for future fires
Pointing wrongly to climate change is dangerous because cutting emissions is one of the least effective ways to help prevent future fires. Much faster, more effective and cheaper solutions include controlled fires to burn away vegetation that could otherwise result in wildfires, improving zoning and enhancing forest management.
Floods are similarly routinely ascribed to global warming. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report has “low confidence in general statements to attribute changes in flood events to anthropogenic climate change.”
The experts emphasize that neither river nor coastal floods are currently statistically detectable from the background noise of natural climate variability. Indeed, the United Nations panel finds that such floods won’t be statistically detectable by the end of the century, even under an extreme scenario.
In the U.S., flood damage cost 0.5 per cent of GDP in the early 1900s. Now, it costs one-tenth of that, because greater resiliency and development vastly outweigh any residual climate effects.
While climate alarmism reaches new heights of scariness — with the UN secretary-general’s “global boiling” claims entering ridiculous territory — the reality is more prosaic. Global warming will cause costs equivalent to one or two recessions over the rest of this century. That makes it a real problem, but not an end-ofthe-world catastrophe that justifies the costliest policies.
The common-sense response would be to recognize that both climate change and carbon-cutting policies incur costs. We should carefully negotiate a middle pathway where we aim for effective approaches that do the most to reduce damages at a reasonable cost.
To do better on climate, we must resist the misleading, alarmist climate narrative. Panic is a terrible advisor.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His brand new book is Best Things First.