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Quantifying the unquantifiable: global warming’s elusive death toll

Cross-posted from Nature’s The Great Beyond blog.

sidepicbig_662.jpgThe Global Humanitarian Forum certainly attracted some publicity last week when it published a report suggesting that global warming kills 315,000 people each year and seriously harms another 300,000. Total price tag: $125 billion annually.

Such numbers are as appealing to journalists as they are to those who put them out, precisely because they are easy to understand and explain. They should also raise alarms, and for the very same reasons. It’s not that anybody really doubts that global warming is impacting ecosystems and communities and thus affecting lives, but these are complex issues that resist quick attempts at quantification.

The New York Times published a quick story about the report while raising some basic questions about the estimations. The story quotes Roger Pielke Jr., who has been researching these issues for years, calling the report a “methodological embarrassment” that simply glosses over socioeconomic factors (like people moving into hurricane-prone coasts). For an in-depth discussion, check Pielke’s blog.

Although the GHF didn’t shy away from using the eye-catching estimates, the authors do explain their calculations in the report. Among other things, they cite data from Munich Re estimating that 40 percent of the increase in weather-related disasters from 1980 to present is due to climate change. As it happens, Pielke says Munich Re itself has come to the opposite conclusion when it comes to assessing the data and assigning blame.

Pielke’s message appears to be getting out there. Reuters followed up its initial story with a second, more thematic piece raising various questions about this kind of research.

Jeff Tollefson


  1. Report this comment

    Bishop Hill said:


    Is there a link for that comment by Munich Re? I don’t see it on Pielke’s thread.

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    Bishop Hill said:


    Thanks for that. The link you give seems to predate Pielke’s post – strange sort of rebuttal!

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    Martin Gustafsson said:

    Probably the most high-level climate change death toll produced in recent years was that of the World Health Organization, in its 2002 World Health Report. Their estimate was 154,000 annually. The WHO seems not to have returned to this matter in subsequent reports.

    Tim Flannery, in his The weather makers (p. 125 of the 2005 edition), makes the fascinating argument that the conflict in Darfur is to a large degree caused by the deteriorating productivity of land in eastern Sudan, which in turn is rooted in climate change.

    Linking events to climate change is inevitably difficult. However, these linkages must be drawn, even if the levels of certainty are low, as part of the process of educating the public, the media and decision-makers about the urgency of the need to mitigate climate change. Even reasonable speculation of actual human consequences should be welcomed in a policy area that is sometimes paralysed by technical complexity and abstracted from reality.

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