Deadly heat

A controversial report from Kofi Annan's group says global warming is killing hundreds of thousands a year.

Published May 30, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

Climate change is currently killing 300,000 people a year around the world, while seriously impacting the lives of hundreds of millions more, states a controversial new report from the Global Humanitarian Forum in Geneva. The report, "Human Impact Report: Climate Change -- The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis," predicts that by 2030, approximately 500,000 people will lose their lives to global warming annually. Even today, it charges that 325 million people are seriously affected by climate change, at a total economic cost of $125 billion a year.

"Climate change is a silent human crisis. Yet it is the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our time," said Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, who is now the president of the Global Humanitarian Forum, in a statement. "Already today it causes suffering to hundreds of millions of people, most of whom are not even aware that they are victims of climate change. We need an international agreement to contain climate change and reduce its widespread suffering."

The report declares that global warming increases both massive flooding and drought, and that it leads to deaths from malnutrition, diarrhea, heat and tropical diseases such as malaria. It charged that 99 percent of climate causalities take place in developing countries. It was prepared in advance of United Nations climate talks, scheduled to take place in Bonn next week. That conference will pave the way for major climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009. These will be aimed at creating a successor to the Kyoto climate treaty, which expires in 2012.

However, as soon as the report was released, questions were raised about its methodology. Critics accused the authors of being climate-centric in blaming hundreds of thousands of deaths on catastrophic weather. Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, wrote on his blog that the report is a "methodological embarrassment and a poster child for how to lie with statistics," charging that its flaws will harm the cause of inciting action on global warming. "It will give ammunition to those opposed to action," he wrote, "and divert attention away from the people who actually need help in the face of disasters, yet through this report have been reduced to a bloodless statistic for use in the promotional battle over climate policies."

Climate observers also point out that it's impossible to finger global warming as the cause of any specific hurricane, although it can be linked to a trend of more intense hurricanes in general. So, as the Economist notes, when the report says that 26 million people have already been displaced by climate change, should that include the hundreds of thousands in Bangladesh and India displaced by Cyclone Aila, which hit on May 25? Similarly, when a 2-year-old in a developing country, lacking access to clean water, dies of diarrhea during a drought likely exacerbated by climate change, is she a victim of poverty, global warming, population growth, or all three?

"Any number is going to be controversial," says Eban Goodstein, an environmental economist at Lewis & Clark College. "But I think the general point is that we're already seeing severe climate stresses in places like Australia and Africa, and it's having real-world impacts. Global warming is just an added stressor on the backs of poor people in developing countries, who are already facing difficult lives."

And let's not forget that human-induced global warming is a problem caused by the rich that most keenly impacts the poor. "Climate change is a human crisis which threatens to overwhelm the humanitarian system and turn back the clock on development," said Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam, who is also on the board of Global Humanitarian Forum, in a statement. "It is also a gross injustice -- poor people in developing countries bear over 90 percent of the burden -- through death, disease, destitution and financial loss -- yet are least responsible for creating the problem. Despite this, funding from rich countries to help the poor and vulnerable adapt to climate change is not even 1 percent of what is needed. This glaring injustice must be addressed at Copenhagen in December."

The authors of the report do suggest that their mortality numbers are by no means exact. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, one of 12 experts who reviewed the report before publication, told the New York Times' Andrew Revkin that reporting the numbers as fact is a mistake: "I don't think headline numbers that give a sense of precision we don't have are either necessary or helpful. The facts with all the uncertainties are dramatic enough. We're just going to face a growing crisis. From Chad to Sudan, the Ogaden, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, this long stretch of drylands is being pummeled by this combination of environmental degradation, including climate instability, together with massive population growth."

A 2003 World Health Organization estimate put the annual climate change death toll at 150,000 deaths per year in 2000. Whichever estimate may be closest to the truth, the big picture is: It's likely we ain't seen nothing yet. "We've had only a degree and a half of Fahrenheit warming in the last 100 years," explains Goodstein. "If we work our hardest to abate global warming, we're going to get another 4 degrees, and it's starting to look like business as usual means 10 degrees Fahrenheit. That's a swing in global temperatures of Ice Age magnitude, only in the opposite direction."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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Environment Global Warming Science