Indur Goklany: The Times Of India’s Misleading And Uninformed Report On The Supposed Health Impact Of Climate Change

  • Date: 21/12/12
  • Indur M Goklany

Times of India article perpetrates a fraud on its readers. It takes estimates of deaths from forces of nature and then ascribes it not just to climate but to climate change.

A misleading report in the Times of India, purportedly based on the Global Burden of Disease 2010 (GBD) study published last week in the Lancet, is headlined, erroneously, Climate change deaths up 5-fold since 1970. The report’s opening paragraphs claim:

“Even as one in four deaths worldwide in 2010 was caused by heart disease or stroke[,] the top two killers that have remained constant for the past 40 years[,] human mortality caused by climate change has shown the most dangerous spurt over the last four decades.

The Global Burden of Disease Study, 2010, published by the British medical journal, The Lancet, on Thursday shows that there has been a 523% increase in mortality due to ‘exposure to forces of nature’ the highest across 235 causes of death.” [Punctuation added in first paragraph for readability. Emphases added.]

The following graphic from the  news report underscores this claim.

Source: Times of India, Dec 14, 2012 .

But neither the underlying GBD study in Lancet (authored by Lozano et al.) nor the graphic mention climate change (or global warming)!

Searches within Lozano et al., the Lancet paper, for the terms clim*, warm*, weather, flood*, temp*, and storm* result in zero hits! In other words, the underlying GBD article is silent on climate (or climate change).

What the paper provides, however, is a trend for deaths from forces of nature (or natural disasters), but that is hardly the same thing as climate change.  If one starts with deaths from natural disasters, then to estimate deaths from climate change, one has to, first, subtract the contribution of non-climatic (and non-weather-related) factors as well as the contribution of natural variability in these factors.  Then, one has to determine the fraction of the remainder due to climate change.  But Lozano et al. don’t do this.  Clearly the Times of India has conflated forces of nature with climate change.

Secondly, the Times of India ignores a cautionary flag unfurled by Lozano et al.  On page 2113, they note:

“Deaths from forces of nature, war, and legal intervention were more than twice as common than two decades earlier. Given the huge annual fluctuation in deaths from forces of nature and war, trends must be interpreted with caution.” [Emphasis added.]

Although Lozano et al. do not provide their definition for natural disasters, they obviously include earthquakes. On page 2114, they note that “Death rates from forces of nature also massively increased (by 336%) comparing 1990 to 2010 because of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.” The International Disaster Database (EM-DAT)—the source of the natural disaster data in Lozano et al.—attributes 227,000 deaths to the Haiti earthquake (or 75% of all natural disasters deaths in 2010; see the Table below).

The wild fluctuations in annual natural disaster deaths can be seen in the following table. This table uses the EM-DAT’s definition for all natural disasters which includes epidemics, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions in addition to the full range of extreme weather (and climatic) events. It shows that total natural disaster deaths were 9–20 times greater in 2010 than in 2009 or 2011.  Clearly, the 523.5% statistic is nothing but an artifact of the end-points used in the Lancet analysis.

1990 2009 2010 2011
Drought 0 0 0 0
Earthquake 42,853 1,888 226,735 20,946
Epidemic 2,207 4,875 10,487 3,174
Extreme temperature 979 1,370 57,188 435
Flood 2,251 3,654 8,446 6,154
Mass movement dry 116 0 0 0
Mass movement wet 98 0 0 0
Storm 4,623 3,287 1,498 3,103
Volcano 33 0 323 3
Wildfire 0 190 135 10
Total 53,160 15,264 304,812 33,825
Table: Deaths from natural disasters, 1990, 2009-2011. Source: EM-DAT: The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, downloaded December 18, 2012. Data are for EM-DAT’s definition of “natural disaster.”

To reduce problems related to high annual variability and reduce any bias introduced by deliberate or fortuitous selection of the start and end years of the data, it is better to examine trends using the average number of deaths for non-overlapping blocs of years for the longest period for which data can be obtained.  Figure 1 shows the average annual global deaths and death rates from all natural disasters for each decade from 1900 to 2011, starting in 1900. [Because we have data for 112 years, I grouped the two “extra” years, 2010 and 2011, with the last decade. Thus, the last “decade” actually consists of the 12 years from 2000 through 2011.]

 fig1 (1)

Figure 1: Global death and death rates from all natural disasters, 1900–2011. Note: For the last period, 2000–2011, annual deaths and death rates are based on a 12-year average. Source: EM-DAT: The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, downloaded December 18, 2012.

Figure 1 shows that deaths and, more significantly, death rates from all natural disasters are today much lower than they used to be.[1]  Since the 1920s, they have declined by 89% and 97%, respectively.  There is an uptick from the 1990s to the 2000s, but this is due mainly due to the fact that the latter period experienced numerous destructive earthquakes and tsunamis, which accounted for 60% of all natural disaster deaths from 2000-12. This period saw, for example, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 227,000 people; the 2005 Kashmir earthquake (76,000 deaths);  the 2008 Sichuan, China  earthquake (86,000 deaths),  and the 2010 Haiti earthquake (220,000 deaths).

Figure 2 shows results for a similar analysis for all extreme weather events (that is, all meteorological, climatic and hydrological events).  It indicates that global mortality for all extreme weather events has declined by 93% since the 1920s, while mortality rate declined 98%.  Figure 2 also shows that there was little or no change from the 1990s to the 2000s; average annual deaths went up slightly while death rates went down (also slightly).

Comparing the above results suggests that, over all, humanity is coping better with extreme weather events than other natural disasters (largely because of earthquakes and tsunamis). And since deaths from the latter on average outweigh the former, perhaps coping with earthquakes and tsunamis should have a higher priority globally than extreme weather events.

fig2

Figure 2: Global death and death rates due to extreme weather events, 1900–2011. Note: For the last period, 2000–2011, annual deaths and death rates are based on an 11-year average. Source: Updated from Goklany (2009, 2012), using EM-DAT (downloaded December 18, 2012).

Curiously enough, both the Times of India article and accompanying graphic claim the trends are from 1970 to 2010.  But the GBD paper in Lancet (and Table 2 within it)—the source of the 523.5% statistic—explicitly notes that the trends are from 1990 to 2010.  In fact, it says so in its title: Global and regional mortality from 235 causes of death for 20 age groups in 1990 and 2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.  However, per the foregoing discussion, this is the least of the problems with the Times of India report.

To summarize:

* The Times of India article perpetrates a fraud on its readers. It takes estimates of deaths from forces of nature and then ascribes it not just to climate but to climate change.

* Since the 1920s, average annual deaths and death rates from all natural disasters and all extreme weather events have declined by an order of magnitude or more.

* Earthquakes and tsunamis, on average, are responsible for more deaths than extreme weather events nowadays.

References

Goklany IM. 2009. Deaths and Death Rates from Extreme Weather Events: 1900-2008. Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 14 (4): 102-09.

Goklany IM. 2012. Global Warming Policies Might Be Bad for Your Health. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London.  ISBN: 978-0-9566875-7-9.

Lozano R et al. 2012. Global and regional mortality from 235 causes of death for 20 age groups in 1990 and 2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010

Indur Goklany is an independent scholar and author.

[1] Death rates automatically control for increases in population, that is, the numbers exposed to risk (from natural disasters, in this case).