Bogus Body Counts: Casualties in the Climate War

by | Mar 7, 2008

CommentIsFree, rather like Grist, is a rich mine of ecobabble. Its writers are so prolific that it’s hard to keep up with their imaginations. Yet its writers are also often the highly qualified experts we’re all being asked to invest our confidence in. We missed “It’s time for a body count” by Dr Simon Lewis, who is a Royal Society research fellow at the Earth and Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds, last week. But it is an article of such absurdity, it’s worth digging up. He is one of the experts who are telling us what the priorities for the future ought to be, after all.

Lewis begins by giving a quick account of a trial following some direct action which aimed to shut down a UK power station.

In the trial, for which I was an expert witness, crucial questions were how many people does climate change kill, and what proportion is the UK responsible for? 

Lewis believes that an accurate body count attributed to human CO2 will help us prioritise global warming:

The World Heath Organisation publishes the only global estimate of the number killed by climate change – about 150,000 annually. Worryingly, this estimate comes from a single modelling study in 2002, and includes only four impacts of climate change (deaths from one strain of malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea-type diseases and flooding). It is, as the authors point out, a highly conservative first estimate and, by now, considerably out of date. 

In other words, we don’t know how many people die as a result of climate change, and there’s no evidence for it…. but it must be much higher… because… science says… well… erm… it just must be.

We can, with a greater degree of accuracy, measure the effects of lack of money and development on humans. According to a recent UNICEF report, The State of the World’s Children, 9.7 million under-fives die every year – mostly in under-developed regions, and from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea (17%), malaria (8%), and pnuemonia (19%). Even if the entire world focused its efforts on climate change mitigation, that figure would barely change. In fact, the figure is a historic low – the first time it has ever been under 10 million, according to the report’s authors.

Climate kills people, changing or not. A “stable” climate is dangerous if you’re not equipped to cope with it. If climate change will be “worse for the poor” – as is often claimed – then, as we have argued before, the problem is that people are poor.

All such attempts to use the poor to lend moral weight to climate mitigation policies are bankrupt. Poverty necessarily involves a close, dependent relationship with Mother Nature and a vulnerability to her every whim – one’s ability to shape one’s own future is diminished by the necessity of merely surviving in the present. In contrast, development buffers people against the elements. And yet that security is precisely what the environmental movement, in pushing mitigation over adaptation, seems intent on denying people. Justifying the push for mitigation using the story of the poor’s battle with the elements won’t help them, but it might well prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

“Why are we relying on a single, limited, out-of-date study for our information on the numbers of people killed by climate change?” asks Lewis. The reasoning seems to imply that such a figure is even possible. But this legitimises a very nasty approach to human problems. If someone lacks access to resources, and is killed in a flood or drought, what has really killed them? Environmentalism transforms the moral imperative to help other humans into a responsibility to balance atmospheric gases. Such are the consequences of using climate science as a stand-in for moral philosophy.

Lewis continues by explaining that accepting responsibility for whatever figure would be found isn’t politically convenient.

Politicians have not asked for a body count. But why not? Perhaps there are parallels with another politically charged issue involving widespread mortality, where nobody counted: the war in Iraq. Governments probably do not want to hear about people dying in foreign lands because of their own choices. Who is going to fund comprehensive studies when the headline might read “British carbon emissions responsible for 3,000 deaths last year”?

And here, Lewis forgets that the most compelling image in the climate change battle for media attention has not been the dying baby, but the polar bear clinging to an iceberg. We have plenty of mortality statistics (ie, 9.7 million children) which we could take responsibility for solving, without feeling responsible for causing. The problem is that “science” can’t actually find a way of blaming anyone for it. And here is the rub: as a moral philosophy, Environmentalism operates on blame, by the “scientific” attribution of causes to effects. In other words, guilt is the substance of the Environmentalists’ version of “solidarity”.


  1. john a. bailo

    Human babies don’t interest the Greens. Remember the name of their theory ANTHROGENIC-global warming. We, Man, are to blame. The Greens are Man haters. They don’t want people to succeed, they only want to find things to blame on us.

    They will not recognize the concept of Dominion…that Man is not a dumb beast who should be spinning webs out of mulch or huts from fronds like the other creatures, but has the right to remake the world as we see fit. That doesn’t mean we can’t respect Nature (and Nature will make us respect her). The issue is: Does Man Have Primogeniture on Earth?

  2. Bishop Hill

    Dr Lewis appears to be involved in the study of biodiversity in tropical rainforests. Why on earth was he called as an expert witness to testify on deaths from climate change. Wouldn’t that require an epidemiologist?

  3. john a. bailo

    Deaths from climate change? DEATHS?

    The last time I looked it up on the Internet, there are 6 BILLION people on the planet. That achievement occurred entirely during the period “Global Warming” from 1830 on! If anything, “climate change” could be associated with the greatest increase in human life, and food supply (number of wheat fields, number of cows, pigs, chickens) in the history of Earth.


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