The Illusion and Politics of Necessity

Our last post got us thinking a bit more about the WHO’s attribution of 150,000 deaths a year to climate change, now superseded by the GHF’s 300,000.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.

The Age of the Age of Stupid

It is telling that parts of the environmental movement attempt to ram home their message by telling the rest of the world that they are stupid for not getting it.

As we have shown here on Climate Resistance, some argue that psychological mechanisms might be to blame for our failure to respond to climate change, and devise techniques that might ‘encourage’ us to behave ‘responsibly’. Others claim that the feckless public’s scepticism and denial are the result of conspiracies to distort science’s message, or that a ‘balance’ of views in the media gives a credibility to false ideas. Some even say that the issue of climate change is just too serious and big an issue for democracy to cope with – we vote selfishly, and our sinful minds cannot possibly understand the enormity of the tragedy that we are making. What fools we are.

But the last thing those who make such claims ever look at to explain their failure is their own argument. So who are they calling stupid?

All of us, it seems. One such case is ‘The Age of Stupid’ – a film that points its big pointy finger at the people of the world, and damns them for their stupidity.

Franny Armstrong, the director of the film, was at the Hay Festival last weekend, sharing the stage with climate change minister, Ed Miliband. As the Guardian’s James Randerson reports:

What we saw on stage was a clash between the absolutism of the single-minded campaigner and the art of realpolitik. For Armstrong the situation is clear. Already, 150,000 people are dying each year as a result of human-caused climate change – according to the World Health Organisation – so the consumerist growth model that has created the problem has to go.

But, countered Miliband, that would deny developing countries like China and India their chance to grow their economies. “If you say to them look, we’ve had this growth model for 50 years or whatever it is but now we’ve discovered it’s a real problem and you can’t carry on growing, there’s no way to can persuade them to be part of a global agreement,” he said.

Here is what they said to each other, according to the Guardian’s podcast coverage of the festival:

MILIBAND: Even after the recession, even after putting a price on carbon, passenger demand in the UK is expected to double. Now your position says, err…

ARMSTRONG: Ninety-five per cent cut in flights by 2020.

MILIBAND: You’d like a ninety-five per cent cut in flights?

ARMSTRONG: Yep. No, the science… It doesn’t matter what I’d like… If we’re going to prevent runaway climate change, which is the goal. Then ninety-five percent cut in flights, yeah. But I think what you said is absolutely key. Like it was only one generation ago, perhaps two [laughs] that err, flying was a magical once-in-a-lifetime experience that you’d look forward to. You know, you’d save up, and you’d go, you know, once a decade. That’s what we’re talking about, everybody in the room could fly about once a decade. And then wed be back to being a magical experience and what’s wrong with that? I think we have to look at the level of sacrifice, don’t we, because what we’re saying is you think the British people wouldn’t agree to sacrifice [laughs] erm, their right to go on holiday as many times as they… fly, as many times as they want to.


ARMSTRONG: Hang on, let me finish. But in order… We’re therefore gonna ask other people in other countries to sacrifice their lives. I.E. the hundred and fifty thousand people who are already dying from climate change every year, according to the World Health Organisation.

MILIBAND: I’m not saying that, come on. I’m not saying that.

ARMSTRONG: No but you are. One follows the other.

This exchange epitomises the climate ‘debate’ in a number of ways.

First, it isn’t a debate. Miliband and Armstrong’s positions are not counterposed. Miliband is nothing if not a committed environmentalist. Yet he recognises that what both he and Armstrong want ain’t a vote-winner, and the public remain unconvinced about the environmental issue. Knowing that environmental policies therefore lack the legitimacy such far-reaching policies ought to have, he recently called for the green movement to demonstrate the kind of mass-movement that has driven political change in the past. As he said last year:

When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.

But the environmental movement cannot muster it. Too few people – only a small number of protesters and the UK establishment, it seems – are interested in the subject at all. Nonetheless, Miliband has been instrumental in driving forward the environmental agenda, which forms a substantial part of the government’s own legislation. Because it does suit the political establishment, it has proceeded without any real parliamentary scrutiny – virtually all MPs, with only a few exceptions, are entirely uncritical of anything ‘green’ – and without environmentalism being tested at the ballot box. This democratic oversight is overcome by deferring many of the parameters of our environmental strategy to an unaccountable, unelected panel – the Climate Change Committee, and of course, to the Stern Report, and to the IPCC; each papering over the nuances, doubt, uncertainties and scientific caution of the previous.

The second is the way Armstrong hides her naked prejudice behind science. It’s not her that wants a 95 per cent cut in flights, it’s science. It has spoken to her. But wherever Armstrong got her claim that a 95 per cent cut in flights is necessary to avoid ‘runaway climate change’ and the deaths of 150,000 people, it was not from scientific literature, and it was not from scientists. It’s an argument that has been assembled from bits of science, and strung together like a Frankenstein monster – a highly dubious form of inductive reasoning which allows her to claim that Miliband is making an argument for ‘other people in other countries to sacrifice their lives’. Her chain of reasoning is that i) flights cause CO2, ii) CO2 causes global warming, iii) which will cause runaway climate change, iv) which kills people – the WHO says so, v) these are mostly poor people in other countries. There is no sense of proportion at any stage of this form of reasoning. There is no attention given to the caveats and caution or scope that the original research – if indeed it was research – presented.

This is a major problem for Armstrong if she wants to persuade anybody who isn’t stupid. Anyone who isn’t stupid is able to see for themselves, with just a little research, how her argument stacks up, or doesn’t.

The statistic of 150,000 climate change deaths is from the WHO’s The World Health Report 2002, page 72 of which says:

Climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, 6% of malaria in some middle income countries and 7% of dengue fever in some industrialized countries. In total, the attributable mortality was 154 000 (0.3%) deaths and the attributable burden was 5.5 million (0.4%) DALYs. About 46% this burden occurred in SEAR-D, 23% in AFR-E and a further 14% in EMR-D.

‘Estimated’. There is no footnote explaining the method by which the estimate was achieved. for that, we need to look to press releases. This one, from Reuters, via

The book estimated climate change was to blame for 2.4 percent of cases of diarrhoea because, Campbell-Lendrum said, the heat would exacerbate bacterial contamination of food.

Climate change was also behind two percent of all cases of malaria, because increased rainfall created new breeding grounds for mosquitoes which carry the disease, he said.

There is a logical problem here with using a model to attribute deaths from cause A to ultimate cause B. By virtue of being directly caused by A, we cannot say empirically, that B was responsible for any particular death. The relationship between the cause of climate change, and an Nth order effect of climate change is theoretical, not empirical, and is itself based on a speculative chain of reasoning which is unlikely to carry much necessity. People who were killed by malaria, which was caused by an increased rainfall, which was caused by climate change, which was caused by somebody driving a 4×4 in South London, were killed, first and foremost, by malaria. The relationship between the ultimate cause (CO2) and ultimate effect (150,000 deaths from disease) – which we have to take at face value, because the WHO have decided not to tell us how it was established – is contingent: things could have happened otherwise. For instance, we might have abolished malaria and dengue fever, and the developing world might have been more developed such that more people had fridges and freezers, and medicine – very simple medicine, as it happens – to deal with diarrhoea. If that had happened – and it’s not a stretch of the imagination – there would have been no deaths from climate change. So why campaign for less cars, rather than more fridges and more medicine?

But let’s be charitable to the WHO and their researchers, for a moment. Perhaps there is a value in estimating the influence of climate changes on disease, based on assumptions. It might open up some discussion about strategies that might be followed to confront malaria, and where investments might be best made. Theoretical models aren’t in themselves, ‘bad’, and can be useful to testing existing knowledge, perhaps between different disciplines. But, look, these researchers aren’t as interested in the 98% of malaria cases which aren’t ’caused’ by climate change as the 2% that they assume is caused by climate change.

Even according to WHO’s own statistics, climate change is just about the least pressing problem for anyone in the developing world. Even being overweight or physically inactive in regions where we typically understand life to be characterised by scarcity of food, and hard physical labour are each bigger problems than climate change. The WHO table attributes 404,418 deaths in the high-mortality developing world to being overweight, nearly three times as many as it claims die from climate change (144,714). That’s nothing, of course, compared to the problem of being undernourished, which kills 5,610,300 – 38 times as many as climate change. Yet, arguably it is a much much easier problem to solve, at face value, than climate change. Moreover, the likes of Armstrong repeat the claim that ‘climate change is the biggest problem facing mankind’, and that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. Is this really the picture that emerges from this research?

To read the oft-quoted headlines that the WHO’s report had generated since being published in 2002, you’d have thought so.

A Google search for 150000 deaths climate change WHO yields 150,000 search results. Perhaps the least interesting statistic that the WHO generated… indeed, the item nearly at the bottom of the table… is what generated the largest number of headlines.

More to the point, whereas it is relatively easy to measure the number of deaths attributed to a first-order cause, such as malaria, there have been no deaths anywhere in the world that can be directly attributable to climate change. Yet even establishing how many people die from malaria is fraught with complications. They aren’t all counted. None of the statistics represented by the WHO’s research are empirical ‘facts’. They are all the result of projections, estimations, and assumptions, calculated from known data of varying quality.

But the result of the theoretical model is treated outside the scope of the study as an empirical result. It is presented as a fact that 150,000 people die a year from climate change. It is Armstrong’s starting point. Without it, she wouldn’t have a case. Or at least she wouldn’t have had one until late last week. Because that’s when Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum launched its much-publicised report (pdf) revealing that it’s actually 300,000 people per year dying as a result of climate change.

The Guardian jumped on it, naturally, calling on George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and John Vidal to hit its significance home. Of those, only Vidal mentioned the highly speculative nature of the estimate. Lynas was the silliest:

These numbers are vitally important, because they provide a direct evidence-based link between culpability – those responsible for the emissions driving climate change – and victimhood, those who are suffering the consequences, including losing their lives […] The legal implications are analogous to those faced by the tobacco industry once evidence solidified about the links between smoking and cancer. Shareholders and investors in fossil fuels need to be aware that they now face a liability that will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars – their products are killing people, and it is only a matter of time before the wheels of international justice begin to turn.

Just like Franny Armstrong, Lynas grasps at the statistics as objective support for his politics. In his case it’s that those dirty oil companies are guilty of crimes against humanity and that he now sees a way to quantify those crimes. Of course, it’s pure fantasy. All one would have to do to counter his case would be to put together a report ‘estimating’ the number of lives saved each year by the burning of fossil fuels – through the provision of emergency services, heating, nutrition etc etc. But there’s the rub. The WHO isn’t going to carry out such a study. Just as it’s not going to carry out a study that comes up with a figure for the number of deaths caused by a stable climate. And nor is any celebrity diplomat with a charity at his disposal and connections at the highest level. As we say quite often, the politics is prior to the science. The WHO and Kofi Annan are responding to a hunger for statistics that confirm that climate change is real, happening and that something has to be done. Forget the starving millions, there are the appetites of directionless journalists, politicians, NGOs and diplomats to satisfy. Not to mention intergovernmental organisations such as the WHO itself. Neither the WHO nor the GHF have much to go on, of course, as they are quite prepared to admit in their respective reports. They do the best they can to cobble something together, shrouding their findings in caveats, qualifications, provisos and caution. But once the figures are out there, those caveats, qualifications, provisos and caution can be forgotten about. The job is done. Anyone is free to use these stats as they like. WHO won’t complain. Nor will Kofi Annan.

That’s the trouble with political consensuses. They are consensual. The only ones willing to challenge them are by definition outside of the consensus. And if you’re outside the political consensus, you’re a denier. And if you’re a denier, you can’t be trusted. Your money is corrupting. Your challenges can be written off as politically motivated. You can be ignored.

So, while the existence of a political consensus on climate change means that anyone who does not sign up to it is wrong by definition, the only ones who can possibly challenge that consensus are those who do not sign up to it. And indeed, even to try and challenge the consensus is evidence that one sits outside it and is, therefore, guilty of denialism.

And meanwhile, Lynas can demand that climate change must take precedence over all of the other problems out there that are ‘worse for the poor’ (which he does) – indeed, that are worse for the poor than climate change, according to no less than the WHO itself – and still be a respected member of the political climate change community.

It all leaves us in a farcical situation in which it does not matter what one’s own personal interests are, just as long as they incline one towards the proper sort of political bias. So, while just about the only group likely to make a case for the historical benefits of fossil fuels is the oil industry – who cannot be trusted because they are the fossil fuel industry – the press and politicians are more than happy to swallow the GHF report despite the fact that much of the crucial data on which its 300,000 figure is based is provided by insurance giants Munich Re, when risk insurers have as much interest in generating fear of climate change as Exxon has in generating doubt. And despite the fact that Munich Re’s data is highly questionable.

In the heat of the climate battle, excited activists like Armstrong and Lynas have absorbed

the numerical product of assumptions as concrete, cold, objective, hard, solid and unchallengeable, necessary facts about the world. These nebulous and often spurious assertions are taken out of any context in which they can be seen in proportion, and become the foundation of moral reasoning. In this way, the likes of Armstrong and Lynas project superficially plausible, but fundamentally flawed statistics into the future to make statements about what is happening in the present. Hence, Armstrong tells Miliband that he’s asking other people to sacrifice their lives so that we can go on holiday.

We might say, ‘ho hum, it’s just a couple of eco-loons’, nobody’s listening. But Miliband – a senior UK politician – is listening. He’s made two appearances with Armstrong recently: first at the launch of her film, and now at the Hay festival, apparently in order to demonstrate the UK government’s commitment to the environmental agenda. Why else would he be there? Try getting a politician such as Miliband to debate with a climate change ‘denier’, let alone a ‘sceptic’, let alone someone who’s critical of the politics. He would run a mile. Instead, he poses on stages with eco-warriors.

Even when she’s clearly mistaken, and trying to embarrass him, Miliband cannot point out to Armstrong that she’s a lunatic. He can neither challenge, nor expose her bogus way of thinking about things. He can’t assure the audience that she’s making stuff up, or taking things out of proportion, or that ‘one thing’ really does not ‘follow the other’, as she claims. Far from demonstrating the shallowness of the ‘one thing following the other’ argument, he instead tells Armstrong, that, yes, people aren’t going to give up their flights, but that he’s happy to make them more expensive:

I’m saying that we have to achieve the scientific… the… the… the cuts in emissions that science demands of us. And that is very important. But… but I’m saying that flying is the most difficult thing to tackle, partly technologically, err, speaking. I am saying that the price of airline tickets will go up including in the United Kingdom. We… we’re… it’s part of our emissions trading scheme, which means there is a price on err carbon emissions from aviation from the first… for the first time. I’m saying actually domestic flights will get much less err frequent, people will do them much less, and you got to expand high speed rail and you’ve got to have a big change in the relation to err public transport. But I am also saying that as someone in the art of persuasion, it… you know, you have probably twenty per cent of people in this country who are deeply committed on climate change. Maybe forty per cent who are… sort of… think it’s kind of… you know… right to do something but aren’t particularly engaged in it. And then a whole group of other people. In the art of persuasion, I’m not convinced that saying to people in my constituency, who are able to do something, and go to places that their parents could not have dreamed of, that that’s all got to end overnight is realistic. Which is what you’re saying.

Is it conceivable that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has not heard the ‘150,000 deaths from climate change’ factoid before? Of course he has. Can he really not know what its limitations are, and what criticisms have been made of it? Of course he does. But it wouldn’t be expedient to start challenging the very people he is turning to in the hope that they, through their films and through fear-mongery, will create support, and therefore legitimacy, for the policies he has devised.

He must think we’re stupid.

Here’s some more Stupid factoid tennis between Armstrong and Miliband.

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