Spin Cycle: Is Climate Change Already Taking Lives in New England?

The Spin Cycle is a reoccurring feature based upon just how much the latest weather or climate story, policy pronouncement, or simply poo-bah blather spins the truth. Statements are given a rating between 1-5 spin cycles, with fewer cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.

The headline from a CBS News story read “Study: Climate change may be costing lives in the U.S.” The tone is in perfect keeping with the White House wanting the media to focus on the (negative) health impacts from climate change to help drive home the “moral imperative” of administration’s greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

There is one key problem: the findings from the “study” do nothing to shed light on whether “climate change” is taking lives in New England (the region that the study focused on) or anywhere else in the United States. In fact, taking the literature as a whole (including the results of the new study), the more appropriate headline would have been “Studies: Climate change may be saving lives in the U.S.”

The new study in question appears in the journal Nature Climate Change written by a research team headed by Liuhua Shi from the Harvard School of Public Health. Shi and colleagues examined how temperature and temperature variability during the summer and winter seasons impacts the annual mortality of Medicare recipients (i.e., a population aged 65+) residing in New England.

In general, Shi and colleagues found that warmer summers slightly increased mortality while warmer winters slightly lowered it. They also found that more variable temperature (in either winter or summer) led to increases in overall mortality.

Aside from the very real possibility that the statistical significance of these findings was inflated by the mythological design (over inflation of the number of independent data points), the most obvious flaw is that the study didn’t look for any trends in their results. This means, of course, that they aren’t very applicable when it comes to trying to ascertain future behavior (under climate change or not).

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that adaptation to temperature extremes (especially extreme heat) has been increasing over time such that the population of the United States (including New England) is much less sensitive to heat waves (i.e., fewer people die) now than it was, say, 30 to 40 years ago. While this adaptation is not complete—as evidenced by the results of Shi et al. and other previous studies—it is ongoing.

And partially driving this trend towards lower sensitivity to extreme heat is an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events themselves. In other words, climate change begets adaptation.

As we have shown, it doesn’t take much for the increased awareness of heat-related dangers, spawned in part by a changing climate, to overwhelm the impacts of an increase in heat events resulting from the same climate change. We wrote in a recent paper (which also was published in Nature Climate Change):

Some portion of this response [a declining sensitivity to extreme heat events] probably reflects the temporal increase in the frequency of extreme-heat events, an increase that elevates public consciousness and spurs adaptive response. In this manner, climate change itself leads to adaptation. It is insufficient to ignore this effect when compiling and discussing the impacts of climate change.

This is true state of affairs when it comes to climate change and its impact on temperature-related mortality in the United States (and elsewhere), not the one suggested by the CBS News headline.

Consequently, for the spinning inadequate and incomplete data into headlines suggesting climate change is killing us, we award a Slightly Soiled spin cycle (two spins) to CBS News.