Topic: Energy and Environment

Is Climate Change the World’s Most Important Problem? Part 3

In Part 1 of this series we saw that even if one gives credence to the oft-repeated but flawed estimates from the World Health Organization of the present-day contribution of climate change to global mortality, other factors contribute many times more to the global death toll. For example, hunger’s contribution is over twenty times larger, unsafe water’s is ten times greater, and malaria’s is six times larger. With respect to ecological factors, habitat conversion continues to be the single largest demonstrated threat to species and biodiversity. Thus climate change is not the most important problem facing today’s population. 

In Part 2 we saw that even if we assume that the world follows the IPCC’s warmest (A1FI) scenario that the UK’s Hadley Center projects will increase average global temperature by 4°C between 1990 and 2085, climate change will at most contribute about 10% of the cumulative death toll from hunger, malaria and flooding into the foreseeable future. It would simultaneously reduce the net population at risk of water stress. 

Clearly, climate change would, through the foreseeable future, be a bit-player with respect to human well-being

Here I’ll examine whether, notwithstanding that climate change is likely to be outranked by other factors when it comes to human well-being, whether it is likely to be the most important global ecological problem if not today, at least in the foreseeable future.  

As in Part 2, I’ll rely on estimates of the global impacts of climate change from the British-government sponsored “Fast Track Assessments” (FTAs).  

The following figure, which presents the FTA’s estimates of habitat converted to cropland as of 2100, shows that the amount of habitat lost to cropland may well be least under the richest-but-warmest scenario (A1FI), but higher under the cooler (B1 and B2) scenarios. Thus, under the warmest scenario, despite a population increase cropland could decline from 11.6% in the base year (1990) to less than half that (5.0%) in 2100: Climate change may well relieve today’s largest threat to species and biodiversity! 

One reason for this result is that higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2 might make agriculture more efficient, and this productivity increase would not have been vitiated as of 2100 by any detrimental impacts of higher temperatures.

The next figure shows that in 2085 non-climate-change related factors will dominate the global loss of coastal wetlands between 1990 and 2085.

[In this figure, SLR = sea level rise. Note that the losses due to SLR and “other causes” are not additive, because a parcel of wetland can only be lost once. For detailed sources, see here.]

Thus we see that neither on grounds of public health nor on ecological factors is climate change likely to be the most important problem facing the globe this century. 

So if you hear anyone make the claim that climate change is the most important environmental problem facing the globe now or whenever, ask to see the analysis that compares climate change with other problems. 

In future postings I’ll look at the policy implications of the results from the FTA in greater detail.

A Stagflation Sideshow: The Wall Street Journal’s Flawed Theory of Oil Prices

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal editorial “The Stagflation Show” (June 9) has a graph showing the price of oil generally rising while the fed funds rate was falling (if you don’t look too closely at flat or falling oil prices from November through February).

The conclusion is that if the Fed had not cut interest rates since last September the oil price would not have go up. Perhaps so, but the most obvious reason for any link between Fed easing and oil prices is not mentioned at all. And the stated reason (a “dollar rout and commodity boom”) is at odds with the facts. The timing is way off.

The most obvious connection between oil prices and Fed policy is cyclical.

There have been nine big spikes in oil prices since the 1950s and every one of them was followed by a U.S./world recession within a year.

Every recession, in turn, was followed by a huge drop in the price of crude oil. West Texas crude fell by 44-71% in the wake of the last three recessions.

If the Fed had left the interest rates on bank reserves at 5 ¼% – the U.S. would very likely have led the world into a significant recession long before now. And a U.S./world recession would indeed have pushed the oil price down. But that is not what the Journal editorial page seems to be suggesting. Instead, they blame the Fed for a “dollar rout and commodity boom.”

The big spike in oil prices since early March happened when the dollar was not falling and also when prices of many non-energy commodity prices were falling. There has been no dollar rout and a no generalized commodity boom since February (when oil fell as low as $87 even as food prices soared).

The Fed’s trade-weighted index of the dollar’s value against 26 currencies was 95.77 in March and 95.83 in May. The narrower index of 7 major currencies was 70.32 in March and 70.75 in May.

From March 4 to June 3 The Economist index of 25 commodity prices – excluding oil –fell by 7.8% in dollars (from 271.9 to 250.6) but by only 5.7% in British pounds. The dollar price of wheat fell by 40%, cotton by 26%, and prices have also fallen sharply for livestock, lumber and most industrial metals. This is a “commodity boom”?

It is true that lower short-term interest rates have made it cheaper for producers and “speculators” to hold crude oil off the market (e.g., in tankers or in the ground) if they expect a higher price in the near future. But speculation in the futures market can’t keep prices in the cash (spot) market higher than the market will bear. And the world does not have an unlimited budget to pay more and more for petrochemicals and fuel. As firms cut back or shut down production in energy-intensive industries worldwide (U.S. airlines are just the most obvious example) the demand for oil can drop quickly.

Oil above $130 involves a massive transfer of income away from oil-importing countries, raising their cost of living and cost of production. That greatly increases the likelihood of a significant economic slowdown or contraction in most oil-importing countries, even India and China. And that, in turn, always causes the price of oil to collapse.

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!