Dead Babies – Conscripts in the Climate War

by | Nov 9, 2009

The Save the Children Alliance purport to be

… the world’s largest leading independent children’s rights organisation, with members in 29 countries and operational programmes in more than 100. We fight for children’s rights and deliver lasting improvements to children’s lives worldwide.

Last week the organisation released a report, claiming that

Climate change could kill 250,000 children next year, and the figure could rise to more than 400,000 by 2030…

So many dead babies are, so to speak, an army on its way to Copenhagen to fight in the climate wars for a strong international agreement to mitigate climate change, as the campaign’s website reveals:

This report, published in advance of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, examines those vulnerabilities and identifies the adaptation measures that can be taken to benefit children.

It is interesting to see how, in the debate about the future of the planet, it is children that have lost their lives that carry greater weight than the discussion about what those lives could have been. It is a curious thing that to argue for development – rather than climate change mitigation – is to be the baby-hater in opposition to Malthusians such as Save the Children.

Because, as we have pointed out previously, with similar statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Humanitarian Foundation (GHF), the number of people who die from climate change is far, far, less than the number of people who die, or are affected by, poverty.

This was the argument of Ben’s presentation at York University, featured in the previous post.  Here, again, are the figures from the WHO, showing the number of deaths attributed to a range of conditions across the world:

Here is the same table, modified to show how these rank, relative to climate change…

Being underweight kills 23.7 times as many people as climate change, according to the WHO

Yet, compare this figure to the statements made by Save the Children, in the executive summary of their report… (our emphasis),

Climate change is the biggest global health threat to children in the 21st century. Without concerted action, millions of children will be at increased risk from disease, undernutrition, water scarcity, disasters, and the collapse of public services and infrastructure. No one will be immune to the effects of climate change, but one of the largest groups to be affected will be children under the age of five.

It seems to us that there are 65 times the number of deaths attributable to the effects of poverty as there are deaths attributable to climate change. In terms of the years of life lost due to climate change (from the same WHO report), the effects of poverty claim 84 times as many.

So how can Save the Children make the claim that ‘Climate change is the biggest global health threat’?

More to the point, the WHO are entirely vague. It is not clear, for instance, if the table above includes deaths from diseases such as malaria. There are many more deaths from the effects of poverty not included in the WHO’s reports. Nor does it explain clearly how many of the figures were derived. All it says on the matter is this.

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, how? Why isn’t there a more detailed explanation of how these statistics were estimated and distributed across the four factors, and presented in such a way that they could be compared to the total effect of each factor?

The basis for these claims doesn’t seem to appear from the WHO until its ‘Climate change and human health – risks and responses’ report published a few months later. These figures are attached to many caveats about the method, and there is good reason to doubt them. Yet it is worth taking them – for the moment – at face value, because, first, they are in contrast to other figures showing a much greater effect, and because it is after these figures were stripped of the caveats that they became currency in the political debate.

As discovered by Mark Bahner, and reported on Roger Pielke Jr’s blog, the GHF took these statistics and doubled them.

In order to produce their new statistic, Save the Children have simply multiplied the number of deaths attributed to climate change in the GHF report, by the ratio of child-to-adult deaths.Voilà… 250,000.

Never mind the implication that more than 16 million children die from non-climate related effects. Instead, by the moral authority vested in them by a quarter of a million dead infants and back-of-an-envelope statistics, Save the Children issue their instructions to the world:

1. Donors and national governments should strengthen and ‘climate proof’ health, water and sanitation systems in developing countries with high levels of child mortality.

2. Donors, national governments and multilateral institutions should increase investment for and support to social protection strategies that have proven effective in tackling malnutrition and poverty among the poorest families.

3. Adaptation to climate change should involve children and support interventions that have been proven to respond to their needs and priorities. Children have the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives, and as such, adaptation planning, particularly National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), must involve children in identifying appropriate interventions.

4. Donors, national governments and the UN should ensure that the humanitarian system is fit for purpose and ready to cope with increased demand.

5. Donors and national governments should put multi-hazard early warning systems in place to alert officials to both slow- and rapid-onset disasters, as well as epidemics, before they reach full emergency levels.

6. Investments in disaster risk reduction by donors, national governments, the UN and multilateral institutions should be child-centred and ensure that children participate in identifying appropriate interventions.

7. National governments must sign a binding agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

Two things strike us about these commandments.

First, why is climate change a greater problem if it is children who experience it disproportionately? It is, of course, children who always experience poverty most deeply, by virtue of being less able to either fight for, or otherwise change their circumstances, and their general vulnerability. But why is it that the fact of children experiencing poverty seems to be a greater moral imperative than adults experiencing it? Are the plights of these children so different to their parents’?

Second, there is the assertion that ‘Children have the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives’. But do they? Isn’t the whole point of not allowing a child to make decisions about their future owed to the fact they they don’t understand what it is they are deciding?

This second point is not something that we in the West would accept. Children do not have the right to vote. They do not have the right to chose what schools they go to, what subjects they study, what kind of house they live in… and so on, because we know that adults make better decisions for them. Yet Save the Children seem to want to extend some form of democratic rights to infants, only in those regions where even the choices available to adults seem desperately limited.

This is absurd, not least because it seems to assume that the adults concerned wouldn’t do everything they could to protect the interests of their children. A further implication is that the options available – generally, not just to children – are so totally and unchangeably limited such that it creates a difference between the interests of adults and children that demands intervention.

Is this the politically-correct manifestation of the principle of ‘divide and rule’?

Last year, we wrote about Oxfam’s report, ‘Survival of the fittest – Pastoralism and climate change in East Africa’. The report argued that:

Climate change is having a destructive impact on many groups around the world. Pastoralists in East Africa have been adapting to climate variability for millennia and their adaptability ought to enable them to cope with this growing challenge. This paper explains the policies required to enable sustainable and productive pastoralist communities to cope with the impact of climate change and generate sustainable livelihoods.

We said at the time:

Oxfam’s legitimacy on the world stage, and its role is entirely founded on the idea of there being an excluded voiceless people and forces in society which exclude them. There is nothing wrong with campaigning for change. But Oxfam would be impotent without voiceless victims to speak for. It needs a constituency, or it is redundant. Were the lives of the poor to be transformed such that they became politically and economically powerful, under the logic of Oxfam’s climate campaign, it would need to regard them as the criminals in the picture of the world they have painted. Instead of arguing for factories, roads, infrastructure (all the things which made Western lives better) Oxfam uses climate change to create the idea of victims and culprits, in an argument for ’sustainablity’ over development. The tragedy is that the only thing it will sustain is poverty… And Oxfam. It claims that natural disasters are happening because of Western lifestyles, when in reality, natural disasters happen because of a lack of development.

The same seems true today of Save the Children.

By identifying a unique constituency, NGOs can position themselves as their de-facto representatives. Members of Oxfam’s pastoral communities stand in contrast to other people from those countries who have urban, or semi-rural lifestyles. The children that are the object of Save the Children stand in contrast to the seemingly feckless adults who cannot take responsibility for them. Pastoral society generally lacks the sophistication and resources to participate in world-wide negotiations, as do children, so global NGOs rush to speak on their behalf.

It would be much harder to make this criticism of NGOs were they not so preoccupied with the climate issue. What this obsession speaks to is the difficulty NGOs have in understanding the phenomenon they purport to address – the need for development. They are in a bind because development itself seemingly creates the conditions which both ameliorate and cause poverty.

The process by which these arguments are made is tortured. The WHO produced a statistic in 2002, which was amplified earlier in 2009 by the GHF, and again, now, by Save the Children. Yet these statistics themselves must surely be subject to change.

We decided to try to find out for ourselves just how many people die from the causes mentioned, in UN/WHO data. It is not a simple process. It turns out, for instance, that causes of death, such as malnutrition cannot be easily represented as a single statistic. the WHO also changed the way they report things in their World Health Report after 2004. There is also no central place for such figures, as we might expect. If any of our readers know of any useful database, we’d be very grateful if you could direct us to it. Here’s what we gathered from the available information.

Deaths (1000s) recorded in WHO’s annual World Health Report.

Report year Malaria Measles Diarrhoea
1996 2,100 1,006 3,115
1997 (1500-2700) 1,010 2,473
1998 (1500-2700) 960 2,455
1999 1,110 888 2,219
2000 1,086 875 2,213
2001 1,080 777 2,124
2002 1,124 745 2,001
2003 1,222 760 1,767
2004 1,272 611 1,798
(Latest) 881* 197** ???

* WHO, World Malaria Report, 2008

** WHO, Measles Factsheet, 2008.

What probably needs to be said first is that it is clear that recording the number of deaths is no easy task, so there is good reason to treat many of the WHO’s statistics with a good degree of caution. They say as much, in a round about way. Nonetheless, it would be hard to argue that these statistics represent a situation which is worsening.

To the claims made by the GHF and the WHO themselves that there are 300,000 deaths a year attributable to climate change, we ought to generate some new statistics.

If the WHO are right, and 2.4% of deaths from diarrhoea are caused by climate change (ie, ~54,000 deaths out of 2,213,000), then, in 2004, there were nearly 11,000 fewer deaths from climate change induced diarrhoea than in 2000. If the GHF are right, and 4% of deaths from diarrhoea are caused by climate change, then, in 2004, there were 16,000 fewer deaths from climate change induced diarrhoea than in 2000. Similarly, the GHF’s claim that climate change causes 4.5% of malaria cases reveals that nearly 10,000 fewer people from malaria caused by climate change in 2008 than in 2000. Yet the GHF maintain that 2010 is twice as bad a year for the world’s poor as 2000.

You may well be wondering why we have included measles. It was hard to find statistics representing the effect of malnutrition. Yet measles stuck out as a trend that was more than likely the product of a positive form of human intervention. This demonstrates to us most vividly that it is wrong to conceive of diseases as ‘natural’ effects. Within a generation, the number of deaths from measles has diminished by three times the number of children that Save the Children say die each year from climate change. Similarly, there are fewer cases of malaria, and diarrhoea. These positive trends are reflected in statistics for infant mortality.

According to UNICEF, the global figures for infant mortality are as follows:

1990 1995 2000 2005 2007 2008
Rate (per 1000 births) 62 60 54 48 16 45
Deaths (millions) 8.7 7.8 7.2 6.5 6.2 6.1

As a UNICEF press release explains:

“Compared to 1990, 10,000 fewer children are dying every day,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. “While progress is being made, it is unacceptable that each year 8.8 million children die before their fifth birthday.”

10,000 fewer deaths per day is likely a consequence of two things – positive interventions, and the increasing effect development.

Put that figure into context of the claims made about the number of people dying each year from climate change.

The WHO report claimed that 150,000 people died a year, from climate change. Every 15 days, that number of children survive their fifth birthday more than would have survived in 1990.

The GHF claim that 300,000 people a year die from climate change. In 1990, 300,000 fewer children lived past 5 years old, each month, than in 2009.

Save the Children claim that 250,000 die each year as a result of climate change. But this figure just doesn’t stack up, no matter how you look at it. By 2030 – nearly the same time that has passed since 1990 – it is not inconceivable that at least the same reduction could be achieved again. We do not think that it is even a stretch of the imagination to propose that infant mortality, malaria, diarrhoea and measles could be virtually abolished.

Another curious thing about the WHO and NGOs’ embracing of environmentalism is that the positive statistics must be owed to some extent to their own efforts. This ought to demonstrate that it is possible to create changes to what appear to be ‘natural’ phenomena. There is no more a ‘natural’ rate of malaria or diarrhoea such that we can say ‘climate change will increase their incidence’, any more than there is a ‘natural rate’ of measles. We have the ability to prevent these conditions. Yet these organisations seem to have, in the 21st century, an environmentally deterministic mindset. By controlling CO2, the claim seems to be, we can control the weather, and accordingly control the number of babies who develop diseases.

But ‘development agencies’ cannot take responsibility for all development and its effects. Most development is spontaneous. It is the result of people organising themselves, or the result of conventional political processes organising projects that improve lives and opportunities. This form of development accounts for the vast proportion of the improvements in human conditions throughout the world.

There is a debate to be had about the extent to which international efforts can be effective. It is hard to argue against projects such as large scale vaccination efforts and the like. But many development and aid agencies, it seems, possibly with the best intentions, may have interfered with the process of development. This seems to be increasingly the case with the reorganisation of the development agenda around the climate issue. It also seems increasingly the case that NGOs efforts are predicated on the premise of there being feckless and unable communities whose very survival is dependent on intervention – to tell them how to live, what their priorities ought to be, and what the parameters of development are. This, we feel, is consistent with environmental politics. It seeks international efforts to address ‘the problem’ outside of, and above, the normal political process. Simultaneously, people are held to be incapable of responding to environmental imperatives, and democracy itself is conceived of as analogous to consumer choice. Just as you can’t behave, as a consumer, ‘responsibly’, you cannot vote ‘responsibly’ for parties that have sufficiently strong environmental policies. It is on this basis that international agreements and the development agenda is constructed.

In order to arm that agenda with legitimacy, it seems that organisations have taken grotesque liberties with statistics. What appears at first glance to be an overwhelmingly numerical argument for a certain course of action (i.e. 250,000 dead children), when seen in its proper context, turns out to be an outright lie. Worst still, carrying out the imperative that these statistics seemingly present risks actually undermining development. Especially autonomous development. This can only precipitate the disaster that organisations purport to be saving their beneficiaries from. As we say often, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Restricting development, both in the industrialised world and in the more developed world will make people more vulnerable to climate. It has to be asked, therefore, what the agenda of NGOs really is. Is it development, or is it anti-development? Is it for the benefit of the world’s poor, or is it self-serving? Is this about ‘saving the children’, or about charities merely saving themselves


  1. geoffchambers

    Just under your last table is this paragraph, which has something wrong somewhere.
    “10,000 fewer deaths per day is likely a consequence of two things – positive interventions, and the effect of increasing deaths.”

    Congratulations on the analysis. I’d love to see some discussion here on how to get the information out to a wider audience. Every political speech on climate change can be blown apart with selected statistics from C-R.

  2. Editors

    Thanks for pointing out, Geoff – editors need an editor.

    We’re still confined to debate and blogging, it seems, but we too would like to hear about how to widen the argument in the mainstream.

  3. Luke Warmer

    Eds – another good post – the lie “Climate change is the biggest global health threat to children in the 21st century” wouldn’t be allowed to be used by a private company. This is a real governance issue which as Geoff says needs to get to a wider audience.

    I was recently given a copy of Christian Aid news (Issue 45 Autumn 2009) which is witness to their shift in focus to climate. Word count (out of 30 pages):

    “Climate Change” 42 mentions (excluding climate crisis, climate chaos, climate justice, runaway climate, changing climate, climate science, climate summit, climate friendly and at least 3 global warmings)

    “God” 1 mention

    “Jesus” 0 mentions

    PS My counts haven’t been peer-reviewed – I have excluded the letters pages where at least one writer mentions Jesus.

    The fact that CAid spent “£18 million on fundraising in 2008/09” and “Sixteen per cent of our expenditure this year went on education, advocacy and campaigning” out of a total income of £86.5 million is also quite staggering. (from their website).

    Finally, as you’ve noted in comments before – when what is left is spent using “sustainable development” to save these people’s lives there is an inevitable compromise for those threatened today against some notional future generation. This is hypocrisy.

    I mean how many lives are actually being saved by these actions?: “We support women’s councils in Afghanistan, human rights monitoring in the Gaza Strip and sustainable agriculture in Bangladesh.” The mind boggles.

  4. George Carty

    Can anyone make suggestions here about which charities people could donate to in order to actually do something constructive about poverty and underdevelopment in the Third World?

  5. Ian C

    George – one approach might be to support microfinance organisations (such as Kiva), where the borrowers themselves decide the best way to use the help. However this doesn’t address the needs of the very poorest, who are not in a position to use this kind of help – I too would welcome suggestions here.

  6. Alex Cull

    Re charities, I think Water Aid looks promising –
    Although I think they do mention climate change somewhere on their site, it’s mostly about providing safe drinking water and sanitation – the basics, really.

    Re deaths due to climate change, whenever I read about this, a question springs to mind. If, according to AGW proponents, climate change is causing hundreds of thousands of deaths now (with CO2 at 385 ppm), is there a time in the past that could be pointed to as an ideal time, from the point of view of climate change deaths? When would have been an optimum time? Somewhere in the 1600s, perhaps? Or the 1700s?

    I’m thinking of a year such as 1770, when CO2 was (presumably) at a “safe” level of 285 ppm or thereabouts. This was during the great Bengal Famine, when approximately 15 million people were said to have died in India. Poverty would have been a factor, also probable mismanagement and indifference on the part of the British East India Company; however, the main cause was crop failure, caused by a severe drought in 1769.

    I have no doubt that if we had something similar to the Bengal Famine of 1770 occurring now, AGW proponents would be blaming man-made climate change. I think the main reason why they get away with ascribing so many deaths to climate change, is that people, generally speaking, are not as conversant with history as they ought to be, and tend not to realise just how bad things often were before recent times.

  7. George Carty

    Another thought – could it be the case that Africans are indeed suffering from man-made climate change, but that this climate change is caused not by CO2, but by deforestation?

    Maybe we need to give the Africans something else to burn, so that they stop cutting down trees for firewood…

  8. Vinny Burgoo

    Today’s Daily Telegraph repeats the Save the Children claims under the headline, ‘Climate change “could kill 400,000 children every year”‘. (About four weeks ago, the same writer wrote pretty much the same story under the headline, ‘Climate change could kill 250,000 children’. The new version is presumably thought to be more Copenhagentastic.) I read and boggled at your excellent analysis when you first posted it but I didn’t realize it was the same report so went looking for the source of the numbers. First stop: the report itself. And the numbers aren’t there. _Feeling the Heat_ says that ‘85,000 children are dying from diarrhoea associated with climate change’ but gives no estimate for deaths from all causes that it associates with climate change.

    So where do the numbers come from? I agree with your suggestion that STC applied child-mortality-as-%-of-total-mortality ratios* to GHM’s numbers, but who did this? As far as I can tell, the numbers don’t come from any other recent Save the Children reports. Did some press officer decide to spice things up a bit with a bit of creative maths? (Or perhaps it was Midge Ure, who was wheeled out as an expert on erratic rainfall and dead babies in the first Telegraph press release article.)

    *80% for this year, 85% for 2030. More offerings from the Institute of Made-up Numbers?

  9. John Shade

    I’ve just put a link to this post in a comment on another post at Bishop Hill here in late 2012. Let me make it more symmetric by putting a link to that post here. It is about a meeting on ‘Climate Justice’ to be held in Edinburgh – promoted as “Amnesty International Scotland, Christian Aid Scotland, WWF Scotland and The University of Edinburgh invite you to a very special event examining Scotland’s role in delivering climate justice, featuring Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond as a keynote speaker.”
    Basically, the surrender of the development lobby to the environmental one has continued apace, but now financial compensation from the rich is being demanded to make up for the destruction of development opportunites for the poor. In this way, the development folks can perhaps sleep more easily at night while pushing CO2 scares and suppressed development (aka sustainable development) by day.


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