Our last post got us thinking a bit more about the WHO’s attribution of 150,000 deaths a year to climate change, now superseded by the GHF’s 300,000.
As we said, headlines – thousands and thousands of them – were generated by the ’cause’ that was least significant in the WHO’s own study. The 0.5% of deaths attributed to climate change amounted to around 150,000, while the causes of the remaining 42,157,155 deaths went largely undiscussed, principally because conventional wisdom informs that ‘climate change is the biggest threat facing mankind’ and ‘climate change is worse for the poor’.
The WHO report bases its estimation on the role of climate change in producing conditions which encourage the proliferation of disease vectors: more rain means more stagnant water for mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite, for instance. This seems to be us to be nonsense for two main reasons. First, if we took seriously the issue of malaria, there would have been no deaths caused by it, and many fewer deaths attributable to climate change. Second, the method by which the estimation was turned into raw numbers is highly dubious.
Nonetheless, factoids such as those produced by the WHO operate in the argument of activists such as Franny Armstrong, director of The Age of Stupid, as a form of a priori knowledge that can be used to produce further claims about climate change. For example, we know that gravity causes objects to fall towards the ground – it is a given. Therefore, we know, without needing to see it, that releasing a fragile object at height will cause it to fall and break. The given knowledge about gravity allows necessary conclusions to be drawn. As Armstrong puts it when trying to explain to the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband that he was asking ‘other people in other countries to sacrifice their lives’ to preserve our ‘right to … fly, as many times as [we] want to’, ‘One follows the other’. This is because, in her view, a ‘hundred and fifty thousand people … are already dying from climate change every year, according to the World Health Organisation’. Anything which causes climate change is therefore, in Armstrong’s moral calculus, causing the deaths of thousands of people.
But, it is only necessarily true that climate change causes increased deaths if it is necessarily true that it is not possible to deal with the problem of malaria (for instance) as a first order effect. We know that it is possible to deal with the problem of malaria (it has been abolished from wealthier countries), therefore we know that there is no necessary connection between climate change the 150,000 deaths that the WHO attributed to it. The relationship is contingent. We know, therefore, that Armstrong’s reasoning is bogus: it is not the case that ‘the one follows the other': something else is needed to explain why and how climate change ’causes’ 150,000 deaths.
The arguments that many activists put forward are effectively a cascade of ‘one follows the other’ assumptions that diminish in their necessity and certainty as they move away from what has been established by climate science, into the increasingly contingent domain of Nth-order effects of Nth-order effects.
This chain of reasoning can start out with facts we can be very sure about. The ‘consensus’, in other words. We know, for instance, that we produce CO2, and that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. But, in spite of a broad consensus, the effect of that CO2 in terms of likely temperature rise is the subject of some questioning. The subject of more questioning is the likely climate change, such as rainfall patterns, that increased temperatures will cause. Even less certain is how species of animals will respond. Less certain again is the effect that the preceding effects will have on humans. We move from a scientific claim, through increasingly speculative and contingent layers of effect, ultimately to questions about society itself. Of course, we can say that increased precipitation causes better conditions for mosquitoes, generally. But the point is that, such a cascade doesn’t want us to understand simply the relationship between increased precipitation and mosquitoes, but between climate change and death. We could, with the right intervention, abolish the relationship between increased precipitation and mosquitoes altogether. Hence, the relationship between precipitation and malaria is of an entirely different category as the relationship between CO2 concentration and global temperature. We can’t stop CO2 being a greenhouse gas. We can stop rainfall creating habitats for mosquitoes, and we can develop a way of preventing malaria entirely through a number of interventions.
The social effects that have been given as reasons to mitigate climate change – climate refugees, resource war, famine, plague, and so on – exist at the end of such chains of reasoning.
Two claims are made about climate politics by many of its adherents.
First, it almost goes without saying that it is the greater-order effects of climate change that are the premise of environmental politics. It is the possibility of catastrophe that drives most environmentalism, particularly in the political mainstream.
Second, it has been long argued that these greater-order effects of climate change have been produced as facts by science – the WHO’s statistic, for instance. As Franny Armstrong puts it in her argument with Ed Miliband, it’s not her wish we reduce the amount of flying we do by 95 per cent, but science which demands it. Miliband responds to Armstrong by agreeing that we need to respond to ‘the science’. This same schematic of demarcated science and politics operates at all levels of debate about climate policies.
But as we have explained, the ‘facts’ relating to the consequences of climate change (e.g. 150,000 deaths), are only contingently true, and may not even be true at all. Something which is contingent cannot be a necessary fact. The effect of climate change on human society is contingent on many factors that cannot be easily (if at all) understood scientifically. It is fundamentally people’s ability to adapt spontaneously and autonomously to climate – changing or not – that explains the outcome of climate change in the world that was looked at by the WHO. The claim that ‘climate change caused X deaths’ is therefore significant only if we can say that the circumstances that allowed climate change to claim so many lives – poverty – are an unchangeable fact about the world. But the fact of poverty owes very little to science, and very much to politics. We cannot explain poverty scientifically. We can explain it politically, even if it is harder to reach an agreement about how best to remedy it.
It cannot be argued, therefore, that the premise of climate politics (catastrophe) is the conclusion of climate science. Between the start of the scientific evaluation of climate science, and its conclusion is an assumption that is deeply political: that the poverty that allows climate change to cause deaths from malaria is a natural phenomenon. The claim that climate science is prior to, and distinct from climate politics therefore cannot be sustained.
In order to make the argument for the mitigation of climate change on the basis of its consequences, it is necessary to argue that the relationship between anthropogenic CO2 and its catastrophic Nth order effects is necessary. But the only reason that it is necessary that climate change will increase the number of deaths from Nth order effects is because the environmental movement have displaced from the political agenda any possibility of technological advance and economic development that doesn’t meet their requirements of ‘sustainability’.
We have long argued here on Climate Resistance that two things can be said about what emerges from the climate debate:
1. Environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It rules out the possibility that the world can continue to improve, which carries the consequence of making people ever more subject to environmental changes, whatever the cause of that change.
2. Climate politics are prior to climate science. Although environmentalists argue that they are responding to climate change, it is transparently the case that catastrophe is the premise of climate politics, and more significantly, it is the premise of any scientific research which posits a necessary relationship between climate change and the social-effects of climate change.
In other words, the argument for action to mitigate climate change takes its own conclusion as its premise. It makes it necessary that climate change will cause Nth order effects simply by positing that it is necessary that climate change will cause Nth order effects.
That is why we argue here for politics to be put back at the centre of the climate debate. In part, because it is clear that the expectation of science to be decisive and instructive is beyond its means. Consequently, vaguely plausible theoretical projections get passed off as empirical facts as the environmental agenda seeks to satisfy its claims to objectivity, further confusing the boundaries between politics and science. What organisations such as the WHO, GHF and the IPCC are engaged in is less the generation of evidence for evidence-based policy-making, and more policy-based evidence-making.
But more importantly, accepting the putative necessity of the relationship between the climate and the health of human society rules out human interests being the organising principle of politics. If we accept that there are ‘natural’ and necessary relationships between the environment and social effects then we rule out the discussion about how to abolish effects such as poverty, famine, malaria, in favour of merely mediating them by reducing quality of life elsewhere. That is why the 42 million+ deaths due to non-climate effects get ignored in favour of the claim that our profligate use of carbon causes 150,000 (or 300,000, take your pick, or simply pluck a number out of thin air) deaths in the developing world.
These 150/300 thousand deaths are not used out of sympathy. They are used as moral weapons in a debate that lacks substance. Already, the figure of 300,000 deaths has been used in Parliament to encourage the UK’s commitment to the Copenhagen conference later this year. There is no doubt that the dubious figure will resurface again, stripped of all the caution that its authors attached to their findings, and in the style of Franny Armstrong, it will be used to arm arguments for an international response to climate change that will, necessarily, cause more problems for poor people than it will solve.
Roger Pielke Jr. has a number of interesting posts on the subject of the 300,000 deaths statistic over at his Prometheus blog.