Not So Hot
The new climate-change study getting all the headlines is deliberately misleading. Too bad so many in the media got fooled.
September 26 was a triumph for public relations. An organization called DARA launched a report called "Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2nd Edition. A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet." The study, sponsored by 20 countries, projected some astoundingly large impacts from climate change, both on the number of deaths and the economic impacts. The report has produced a media heyday for climate alarmism, but is a house of cards built on dubious analysis and erroneous claims.
News headlines around the world reflected the study’s projections about deaths and costs. A much-quoted Reuters story, posted here by the Huffington Post, cautioned: "Climate Change Deaths Could Total 100 Million By 2030 If World Fails To Act." Businessweek‘s headline warned: "Climate Change Reducing Global GDP by $1.2 Trillion."
Nearly all the media coverage also portrayed the study uncritically, and with the assumption that these bad outcomes were crucially dependent on us not tackling climate change. (Another headline: "If world doesn’t act on climate, 100 million will die by 2030.") Bloomberg News’s story helpfully stressed that if climate change remains, unchecked the cost will escalate by 2030 to 3.2 percent of GDP or about $6.7 trillion annually.
Unfortunately, this message to the public is dramatically misleading. Serious errors or omissions (whether intentional or not) in at least three areas — climate change deaths, economic costs, and the costs of "action versus inaction" — almost entirely undermine the entire thrust of the report.
Let’s be clear. Global warming is real and man-made, and it needs an effective response. But unfounded alarmism and panic are unlikely to engender good and effective policy.
Number of Dead
First, the report is seen to claim that "climate change deaths could total 100 million by 2030." This is actually not what the report says. It carefully outlines how "the present carbon-intensive economy" is causing 4.975 million deaths per year as of 2010, and how by 2030 the "carbon economy — and climate change-related" impacts will kill 6 million people every year.
Why the cumbersome language of a "combined climate-carbon" economy? Drilling into the composition of the 4.975 million deaths in 2010, one finds these deaths are not predominantly caused by climate change (only a few newspapers like the Guardian didn’t fall for this).
Indeed, 1.4 million deaths are caused by outdoor air pollution, which is almost entirely unrelated to global warming. This air pollution, of course, is still predominantly caused by fossil fuels, but only because that is what we mostly use for fuel in the world. So, while the report is technically correct in saying that these 1.4 million deaths are caused by "the present carbon-intensive economy," these deaths are in no way caused by climate change. Rebranding air pollution, mostly from particulate pollution, as "carbon" appears both disingenuous and designed to confuse. It was clearly intended to convey the message that these deaths were somehow relevant for the global warming debate.
Moreover, 3.1 million deaths in 2010 were due to indoor smoke, which in no way is caused by global warming and has little or nothing to do with fossil fuels. According to the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution is due to cooking and heating with biomass fuels (agricultural residues, dung, straw, wood) or coal products, and biomass, which is entirely unrelated to fossil fuels, constitutes more than 85 percent of the total. So, while the study lumps all these deaths together as resulting from the use of carbon-based fuels, it is only true in the most exaggerated meaning of that word, in that all biomass contains carbon.
The bottom line: When the study reports that 4.975 million people die in 2010 from the "combined climate-carbon crisis", the reality is that 4.575 million have not been caused by global warming.
Essentially, the report’s authors claim that 0.4 million actually die from global warming (this number itself is very likely exaggerated, as I have described in my book Cool It, but a closer examination is beyond the scope of this article). Yet the impression clearly intended for the media was almost 5 million deaths, or a more than twelve-fold exaggeration.
The study actually honestly points out that the huge economic costs it projects are complete contradictions of the peer-reviewed literature, which in general find that current global warming has net benefits or only minimal costs to society:
The findings of this report differ from previous studies that largely understand climate change as a net benefit or minimal cost to society today (or prior to mid-century), and which inform current economic decision-making on climate change, making it easier for governments to avoid serious action.
Such admission, of course, should make us wary of suddenly accepting a phenomenally larger estimate (with a different sign) from a study that has not been published in the peer-reviewed literature.
Moreover, the large estimate mostly stems from one change in the model, namely including the impact from heat on labor productivity. This again appears to be based on a single article, lead-authored by one of the collaborators for the DARA study.
That article estimates that increasing heat causes lost productivity among workers, and this loss constitutes 51 percent of the total climate damage they estimate in 2010. (The other 49 percent are also likely to be exaggerations, but even so, they constitute a loss of less than $300 billion, a far cry from the $1.2 trillion claimed in the headlines.)
However, the background article is very clear in saying that this simplistic extrapolation is simply not correct:
The relationships in our model are theoretical and potential and may not reflect actual labor productivity losses as there will most likely be some adaptation measures in place, such as the space cooling of offices and factories. … There is a strong incentive to adapt.
Moreover, the article points out that "working hours and work practices may change" to accommodate warmer temperatures. Of course, changing work hours (e.g. so that work occurs during cooler parts of the day) would be marginally more inconvenient. Yet as losses are already assumed to be more than $300 billion, a simple change in working hours could essentially eliminate this huge, hypothetical drag on developing economies, instantly conferring them with a benefit of 3 percent of their GDP. The fact that working hours have not changed in this way seems to indicate that the costs are not real.
Other forms of adaptive measures would reduce temperatures for outdoor workers. Perhaps the cheapest and most obvious, which many economists and I have argued for, is to make cooler cities, since the most people and the highest temperatures are found in urban areas. Most cities are much warmer than their surrounding countryside because of the lack of greenery and water features (they cool through evaporation) and because of extensive black surfaces (asphalt and black roofs suck in heat). Tokyo in August is about 22.5 degrees F hotter than its surrounding countryside for this reason.
Installing more trees, water features, and lighter colored surfaces would cost about $12 billion annually for the entire world, and it would dramatically cool the areas where 90 percent of all people will live. This is a much smarter way to tackle the DARA study’s hypothetical loss of $300 billion per year now and some $2.4 trillion by 2030.
So, again, the study makes unwarranted assumptions of costs both related to an untested and likely incorrect labor hypothesis and to air pollution costs, meaning that they exaggerate the damage costs by at least three times from $300 billion to $1.2 trillion. Compared with the general scientific consensus from peer-reviewed literature, they not only exaggerate massively, but even change the sign of the impact of current global warming from a small benefit to a massive cost.
"Unless We Act"
The DARA study emphasizes that the costs it discusses are costs of inaction — when we don’t do anything about global warming — whereas it alluringly suggests that if we "take action," much of the damage will be avoided:
Continuing today’s patterns of carbon-intensive energy use is estimated, together with climate change, to cause 6 million deaths per year by 2030, close to 700,000 of which would be due to climate change. This implies that a combined climate-carbon crisis is estimated to claim 100 million lives between now and the end of the next decade. A significant share of the global population would be directly affected by inaction on climate change. [Emphasis added.]
However, this is claim is never explicitly made, and for good reason, because it is entirely incorrect. No realistic change in emissions will make any measurable impact by 2030.
We would only tell the difference after 2030, according to the very same article from which the DARA study derived its enormous labor costs (although this point is not mentioned in the DARA study itself):
The difference between impacts under the high- and low- emission scenarios is only apparent after the 2020s.
By constantly talking about action and inaction throughout the report, DARA managed to get almost all newspapers to emphasize that all of the bad outcomes described by 2030 would only happen if we didn’t take climate action. The truth is, that nothing we realistically could do about climate emissions would make any change by 2030.
Does It Matter That the Study Was Deeply Flawed?
So, we have a study that inflated deaths by at least 12 times. We have a study that has inflated the costs by at least three times — and probably much, much more. And we have a study that then suggests that to avoid this situation in 2030, we should employ policies that we know will have no measurable impact by 2030.
One could call such a study many things, but clearly not well done, truthful, or good policy advice.
Does it matter? Yes.
If we want to leave the world a better place, we need to carefully focus on the places and policies where we can do the most good. To tackle the biggest impact the DARA study identifies — to avoid 3 million people dying from indoor air pollution — people in the Third World need to have access to modern, less-polluting fuels to cook and keep warm. They need kerosene, pressurized gas, and other forms of modern energy. It is about getting more fossil fuels, not fewer.
This solution feels wrong for many comfortable Westerners, but it’s what we need to do if we want to save three million lives. Imagine what you would do if your kids were dying because your living room was chock full of dangerous pollutants from burning dung and biomass? The transition to clean gas and distributed electricity only seems wrong because it was so long ago that our grandparents changed over to heat and light at the flick of a switch.
Does it matter that the report exaggerates, when it is all for the good cause? Yes, because scaring people don’t make for good policy but encourages feel-good, do-little bad policies.
We should fix the climate, but we need to realize that it has to be through innovation, which will drive the price of green energy down below fossil fuels. (I’ve written extensively about it, e.g. here.)
The DARA study uses a worst-case scenario, is full of sloppy errors, and promotes solutions that are hugely costly, haven’t worked, and probably won’t. And it’s based on scare tactics without foundation in reality.
The climate debate deserves better.