Topic: Energy and Environment

Is Climate Change the World’s Most Important Problem? Part 2

Despite using the World Health Organization’s scientifically suspect estimates of the present-day death toll “attributable” to climate change, we saw in Part 1 that climate change contributed less than 0.3% of the global death toll. At least 12 other factors related to food, nutrition and the environment contribute more. 

Here I’ll examine whether climate change is likely to be the most important global public health problem if not today, at least in the foreseeable future.  

Once again I’ll rely on analyses done by scientists who are not part of the community of skeptics. Specifically, I’ll use estimates of the global impacts of climate change from the British-government sponsored “Fast Track Assessments” (FTAs) which have been published in the peer reviewed literature. Significantly, they share many authors with the IPCC’s latest assessment. For example, the lead author of the FTA’s study on agricultural and hunger impacts is Professor Martin Parry, the Chairman of the IPCC WG 2, responsible for the section of the IPCC report dealing with impacts, vulnerability and adaptation. 

I’ll adopt the FTAs’ estimates for the sake of argument, despite some flaws in their analyses, noted here

I’ll also consider “the foreseeable future” to extend to 2085 since the FTAs’ estimates purport to provide estimates for that date, despite reservations.  In fact, a paper commissioned for the Stern Review (p.74) noted that “changes in socioeconomic systems cannot be projected semi-realistically for more than 5–10 years at a time.” [Yes, that’s the same Stern that did a climate change analysis extending to 2200, or was it 2300? No matter.] 

In the following figure, using mortality statistics from the WHO, I have converted into annual mortality the FTAs’ estimates for the population at risk (PAR) for hunger, malaria (which is responsible for an estimated 75% of the global burden of disease due to the main vector-borne diseases), and coastal flooding. Details of the methodology are provided here

In this figure, the left-most bar shows cumulative global mortality for the three risk categories in 1990 (the baseline year used in the FTAs). The four “stacked” bars on the right provide mortality estimates projected for 2085 for each of the four main IPCC scenarios. These scenarios are arranged from the warmest on the left (for the so-called A1FI scenario which is projected to increase the average global temperature by 4.0°C as indicated by the numbers below each stacked bar) to the coolest on the right (for the B1 scenario; projected temperature increase of 2.1°C).  Each stacked bar gives estimates of the additional global mortality due to climate change on the top, and that due to other non-climate change-related factors on the bottom. The entire bar gives the total global mortality estimate. 

To keep the figure simple, I only show estimates for the maximum (upper bound) estimates of the mortality due to climate change for the three risk factors under consideration. 

This figure shows that climate change’s maximum estimated contribution to mortality from hunger, malaria and coastal flooding in 2085 will vary from 4%-10%, depending on the scenario. 

In the next figure I show the global population at risk (PAR) of water stress for the base year (1990) and 2085 for the four scenarios.  

A population is deemed to be at risk if available water supplies fall below 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year.  

For 2085, two bars are shown for each scenario. The left bar shows the net change in the population at risk due to climate change alone, while the right bar shows the total population at risk after accounting for both climate change and non-climate-change related factors. The vertical lines, where they exist, indicate the “spread” in projections of the additional PAR due to climate change.  

This figure shows that climate change reduces the population at risk of water stress! This is because global warming will decrease rainfall in some areas but serendipitously increase it in other, but more populated, areas.   

The figure also suggests that the warmest scenario would result in the greatest reduction in net population at risk.  

[Remarkably, the original source was reticent to explicitly point out that climate change might reduce the net population at risk for water stress. See here (pages 12-14 or 1034-1036).].  Thus, through the foreseeable future (very optimistically 2085), other factors will continue to outweigh climate change with respect to human welfare as characterized by (a) mortality for hunger, malaria and coastal flooding, and (b) population at risk for waters stress. 

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at a couple of ecological indicators to determine whether climate change may over the “foreseeable future” be the most important problem from the ecological perspective, if not from the public health point of view.

Is Climate Change the World’s Most Important Problem?

A 2005 review article in Nature on the health impacts of climate change provided an estimate of 166,000 deaths as the annual global death toll “attributable” to climate change. This estimate, based on global vital statistics for the year 2000, was derived from a study sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) that even the study’s authors acknowledge may not “accord with the canons of empirical science” (see here). Let’s, nevertheless, accept this flawed estimate as gospel, for the sake of argument.

Where would this rank climate change in the list of global threats to mortality?

In the year 2000, there were a total of 55.8 million deaths worldwide. Thus, climate change may be responsible for less than 0.3% of all deaths globally (based on data for the year 2000). In fact, it would place climate change no higher than 13th among mortality risk factors related to food, nutrition and environment, as shown in the following table taken from pages 355-356 of the book, The Improving State of the World.

[Notably, all extreme weather events (whether due to climate change or the normally abnormal climatic variability) contribute all of 0.03% of global deaths on average. See Table 2, here.]

Specifically, climate change is easily outranked by threats such as hunger, malnutrition and other nutrition-related problems, lack of access to safe water and sanitation, indoor air pollution, malaria, urban air pollution.

With respect biodiversity and ecosystems, today the greatest threat is what it always has been – the conversion of land and water habitat to human uses, i.e., agriculture, forestry, and human habitation and infrastructure. See,e.g., here.

Climate change, contrary to claims, is clearly not the most important environmental, let alone public health, problem facing the world today.

But is it possible that in the foreseeable future, the impact of climate change on public health could outweigh that of other factors?

I’ll get to this question in subsequent blogs over the next couple of weeks, but for those who can’t wait, the answer can be found here.

Tornadoes: Trends in US Death and Death Rates, 1916-2006

Once again tornadoes and other extreme events are in the news. Here, for perspective, are US and global trends in deaths and death rates from such events from 1900-2006.

For tornadoes, since peaking in the early decades of the 20th century, deaths declined by over 80% while death rates declined by 92% (based on 10-year moving averages for 1916-2006) . [See Figures 6 and 7.]

For other extreme events – lightning, floods and hurricanes – US deaths and death rates are also below their peak levels of a few decades ago. Their declines in annual mortality range from 62 to 80%, while mortality rates declined 75 to 95%.

Globally, mortality and mortality rates have declined by 95% or more since the 1920s. The largest improvements came from declines in mortality due to droughts and floods, which apparently were responsible for 93% of all deaths caused by extreme events during the 20th Century. For windstorms, which, at 6%, contributed most of the remaining fatalities, mortality rates are also lower today but there are no clear trends for mortality.

So contrary to what some may expect from global warming, matters are not getting worse. This is mainly due to adaptation.

Also, the linked paper (above), tells us that on average, extreme cold kills many more people directly than does extreme heat.

Ecochondria Retards Progress in Reducing Hunger

Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin outline in Sunday’s New York Times the extent to which the world’s aid agencies starved the budgets of international agricultural research institutions that worked on increasing agricultural productivity in the developing world:

Donors increasingly directed the money toward worthwhile but ancillary projects like environmental research. Spending fell on the laborious plant-breeding programs needed to improve crop productivity…. As these trends played out, the stage was being set for a food emergency… From 1970 to 1990, the peak Green Revolution years, the food supply grew faster than the world population. But after 1990, food’s growth rate fell below population growth, according to a report by Ronald Trostle, a researcher at the Agriculture Department…

Adjusting for inflation and exchange rates, the wealthy countries, as a group, cut … donations [to agriculture in poor countries from the governments of wealthy countries] roughly in half from 1980 to 2006, to $2.8 billion a year from $6 billion. The United States cut its support for agriculture in poor countries to $624 million from $2.3 billion in that period… The World Bank cut its agricultural lending to $2 billion in 2004 from $7.7 billion in 1980.

John Tierney ties all this together in Greens and Hunger reminding us how environmental groups succeeded in demonizing (my word) the green revolution and prevailed upon Western “aid” agencies, multilateral agencies (such as the World Bank) and philanthropies, specifically the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations, to reduce funding to improve crop productivity in Africa.

Looking at other explanations for today’s high food prices, the Washington Post’s Colum Lynch – a perfect name for a muckraking journalist – notes in a report titled, World Aid Agencies Faulted in Food Crisis: Failure to Support Agriculture Cited:

European governments, meanwhile, have clung to an import ban on high-yielding, genetically modified crops – thus dissuading African nations from using a technology that could increase production. “The two biggest follies are biofuels in America and the ban on genetically modified crops in Europe,” said Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford University.

Notably, all three explanations have a common denominator, namely, “well fed Westerners,” to use Tierney’s phrase, putting the environment ahead of humans in developing countries.

Without their ecochondria, the green revolution would be seen for what it is – a major advance in human well being, the lobby for subsidizing ethanol would be much less powerful, and misanthropic bans on genetically modified crops would not be respectable in a world that claims to cherish both human lives and minimization of human suffering.

Retirement and Fuel Prices: A Match Made In Heaven?

Get ready for Washington D.C.’s Mall to be filled with seniors in the not-too-distant future.

About 25 percent of seniors depend entirely on Social Security for their consumption. And for two-thirds of them, Social Security makes up the majority of their monthly income. With soaring fuel and food prices, they are beginning to complain about being unable to make ends meet — as in, having to cut down on leisure and travel activities.

The rise in gas, food, and commodity prices is unlikely to be a bubble and won’t ”burst” anytime soon. Furthermore, the Fed’s recent interest rate–cutting binge has promoted a weaker dollar and risks higher future inflation and inflation expectations. That means our itinerant seniors will soon demand a larger inflation adjustment on their monthly checks than allowed by Social Security’s post-retirement benefit formula.

No prizes for guessing whether Congress will capitulate!

The Gas Tax Holiday Explained

The commentariat (including Cato folks and friends) have spent the past couple of weeks sounding off on John McCain and Hillary Clinton’s proposals to suspend the federal motor fuels tax this summer. The commentary has been almost uniformly critical of the idea, and some of the harshest critics have been economists.

Unfortunately, a lot of this commentary seems to be value judgments disguised as economics. Also, much of the economic analysis makes assumptions about the market that may not be correct or that may be offset by other market conditions — but the commentators do not mention (and may even forget) those problems. Put simply, though the idea of a gas tax holiday may be flawed, many of the opinion and analysis pieces on the McCain and Clinton proposals appear to be flawed as well.

Peter Van Doren and I have put together this short paper on the microeconomics of the gas tax. Don’t let the figures and the talk of “elasticities” throw you — the ideas are easy to understand.

The upshot is this: Contrary to many economists’ claims, it’s quite possible that a tax holiday could give consumers some price relief on motor fuels. (This is an economic insight.) However, it’s an open question whether that savings is worth its cost. (Answering that question requires a value judgment.)

Rethinking Ethanol: A Lesson Only Half Learnt by the NY Times

Sunday’s NY Times acknowledges that:

It is time to end an outdated tax break for corn ethanol and to call a timeout in the fivefold increase in ethanol production mandated in the 2007 energy bill.

But then it goes on to state:

This does not mean that Congress should give up on biofuels as an important part of the effort to reduce the country’s dependency on imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What it does mean is that some biofuels are (or are likely to be) better than others, and that Congress should realign its tax and subsidy programs to encourage the good ones. Unlike corn ethanol, those biofuels will not compete for the world’s food supply and will deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gases…

Congress’s guiding principle should be to tie federal help to environmental performance. The goal is not just to stop the headlong rush to corn ethanol but to use the system to bring to commercial scale promising second-generation biofuels — cellulosic ethanol derived from crop wastes, wood wastes, perennial grasses. These could provide environmental benefits and reduce dependence on oil without displacing food production.

But as noted on this blog previously, this is wishful thinking. Tilting the field to help cellulosic ethanol, whether directly through subsidies or indirectly through mandates, will inevitably make it more attractive for farmers to divert land and water to grow fuel rather than food. As a result some portion – perhaps even a large portion – of the resources that would otherwise be used for food production would go toward fuel production.

It is, therefore, naïve to claim that fuel production will not compete with food production. But the NY Times seems naïve about mandates, apparently assuming that mandates don’t entail costs, especially if they are in pursuit of goals it deems laudable.

One can get an inkling of the potentially disastrous effects of tilting the field toward biofuels (such as ethanol) from the Burmese experience regarding jatropha, a bush that can provide feedstock for biodiesel. The Wall Street Journal’s James Hookway reported last week that:

United Nations World Food Program officials say the storm wiped out much of Myanmar’s midyear rice harvest and add that grain stockpiles are dwindling because of the military’s jatropha drive. That makes it likely Myanmar’s plans to export rice this year to other needy nations such as Bangladesh will be scrapped…

The most notorious example of errant policy making reflects the fascination of 75-year-old junta leader Senior-Gen. Than Shwe with biodiesel as a way to break the country’s dependence on expensive imported oil.

In December 2005, the battle-hardened commander kicked off a nationwide campaign to grow jatropha, a squat, hardy bush that yields golf-ball-sized fruit containing a sticky, yellow liquid that can be made into fuel. His drive was similar to initiatives in other parts of the world, including the U.S., which encouraged farmers to grow corn, palm oil or other crops for biofuel and which are now facing criticism for driving up the price of food. [Emphasis added]

India, China and other countries grow jatropha on scrubby land where food crops can’t survive. But researchers say that in Myanmar, some of the country’s most fertile land has been converted to cultivating the shrub…

It isn’t clear how much of Myanmar’s arable land has been converted to jatropha cultivation. Organizations such as the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned the government about the risks of farming jatropha on land that could be used to grow food. But Gen. Than Shwe’s goal was to set aside an area the size of Belgium to grow jatropha – a huge commitment for Myanmar, which is roughly the size of France.

In 2006, the chief research officer at state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise said Myanmar hoped to completely replace the country’s oil imports of 40,000 barrels a day with home-brewed, jatropha-derived biofuel. Other government officials declared Myanmar would soon start exporting jatropha oil.

Despite the military’s efforts, the jatropha campaign apparently has largely flopped in its goal of making Myanmar self-sufficient in fuel.

While this is an extreme example of poorly conceived policy, it should be kept in mind that the Burmese regime was pursuing what many consider to be a laudable goal – energy independence (with – who knows – possibly the hope of obtaining carbon credits). And what a totalitarian regime can effect with fiat (and sticks), other governments can accomplish with a combination of seemingly more benign policies, specifically subsidies and mandates (i.e., carrots and sticks), in pursuit of the same laudable goals.

The lesson from all this, which the NY Times doesn’t quite get (reiterating from the earlier post) isn’t that biomass – and farmers — shouldn’t play a role in helping meet our energy needs, but that “If farmers can profitably grow fuel rather than food through their own efforts, so be it. But we shouldn’t favor growing one over the other either through subsidies or indirectly through government mandates for so-called renewable fuels. And if anything should be subsidized or mandated, it shouldn’t be growing fuels. That would inevitably compete with food.”