DARA International, representing 20 nations, has released a new report on climate change estimating 6 million annual deaths and 3.2% of GDP lost from climate change by 2030. The news is lighting up with reports about this study, some critiquing it as alarmist, some welcoming it as speaking truth. Granted, these numbers seem pretty outrageous, but the numbers are not the most important part of this report. What’s most important is the general relationship of impacts to each other, the approximate magnitude of those impacts, and what those two things mean for global health.
Let’s talk a bit about models like the one used to create this report. Models don’t predict the future, and they don’t purport to. What they do show us is a potential, even likely, future given the set of assumptions the model uses. Model operators are looking to put in the assumptions that best describe the system (the earth, the economy, etc), in order to get the most informative results. What is important and useful is when multiple groups independently develop and run models trying to capture the same phenomena. Where the results of all (or most) models agree is where you can have the most certainty in the impact or change being described.
Methodology certainly still matters, and the report comes with a 100 page document detailing their methods. I have not been through all of it yet, but everything I have seen so far indicates the authors knew what they were doing. This study in particular was a fingerprint study – a study that attempts to assign causal factors to incidents already in progress by determining deviation from a baseline and accounting for other variables. These are incredibly helpful in parsing out where climate change is already happening and validating past predictions.
Regarding the numbers, let’s look at the approximate magnitude of the impacts. This report predicts 6 million annual deaths attributable to climate change – and notes that this would make it one of the leading single causes of death worldwide. It also gives a 3.2% loss in GDP. Both of these are significant, but those exact numbers aren’t particularly important. What’s important is that we are facing a future with a new suite of issues that affect global health and poverty, and that it’s likely to occur – and already is – at measurable levels that are surprisingly large. Even if we were talking about only 1 million annual deaths, that’s still more than the annual number of deaths today from malaria. The same goes for GDP. The fact that climate change will have a measurable and significant impact on GDP should be enough, whether it’s 1% or 5%. The U.S. economy is currently growing at about 1.5% and we call it bad, so a depression of 3% — or even 0.5% — is something I think we can agree is best to avoid when we can see it coming decades out, especially when conservative estimates of climate change legislation show it performing better.
The other important factor is the relative relationship of these impacts to each other and to other issues in the world. Take a look at the map shown in this article (from their report) and think for a moment about what you see in the map. The map represents vulnerability to climate impacts. Red indicates acute vulnerability and green indicates comparative resilience
Personally, I see a map of global wealth. There are some notable exceptions — I’d expect India to be a little more toward the green for wealth, among a few other countries — but generally, it follows the pattern of current wealth. Really, this map is the expected vulnerability to climate change impacts of each nation. Again, whether or not any one country is vulnerable is not what’s important. Instead, it’s crucial that we understand that the countries that are currently the most impoverished — and least able to handle instability and climatic change — are going to experience the most detrimental effects. In part, their inability to handle the changes is what makes them vulnerable, sure, but I think what this map shows is that the disparity is significant. That is, the damage experienced by those in the developing world is far higher than they can afford.
Ok, so the impacts are going to be huge. And they’re going to disproportionately affect those who least can handle it. You have probably heard that before, but this study helps provide a sense of scale to that information. It also helps provide another convergence point for similar studies that come along. This isn’t the first fingerprint study to call out existing damage as being related to climate change, and won’t be the last. Each one helps us hone in on what is happening and what to expect.
One final thing. It would be irresponsible for me to not mention what you can do about climate change. You have likely heard this before. First, you can stay informed on the science. Then you can get involved in the political side with 350.org or your favorite group. Finally, you can take it into your own life by reducing your carbon emissions – my own organization, Environmental Consumer, can help you with that.