A RENOWNED American journalist, David Wallace-Wells, published his book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming in February this year. It is a New York Times bestseller in its publication category.

Like much popular writing on the subject, the book has its origins in the pseudoscience that prevails in environmental fields, and it exemplifies the bizarre state of current deliberations on climate change, a discussion so strange that it is now being led by a disturbed 16-year-old school drop-out.

The Uninhabitable Earth paints a terrifying picture of how climate change could reshape the planet. The main thrust of its apocalyptic predictions is outlined in this excerpt:

‘One 2018 paper sketches the math in horrifying detail. In the journal Nature Climate Change, a team led by Drew Shindell tried to quantify the suffering that would be avoided if warming was kept to 1.5 degrees, rather than 2 degrees – in other words, how much additional suffering would result from just that additional half-degree of warming. Their answer: 150million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5-degree warmer one.’

Wallace-Wells goes on to elaborate the dimensions of this calamity as follows:

‘Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150million is the equivalent of twenty-five Holocausts. It is three times the size of the death toll of the Great Leap Forward – the largest non-military death toll humanity has ever produced. It is more than twice the greatest death toll of any kind, World War II. The numbers don’t begin to climb only when we hit 1.5 degrees, of course. As should not surprise you, they are already accumulating, at a rate of at least seven million deaths, from air pollution alone, each year – an annual Holocaust, pursued and prosecuted by what brand of nihilism?’

The figure of 150million prevented deaths during the 21st century, which Wallace-Wells exploits, can indeed be found in Shindell’s study. The paper explores the public health effects of different climate change mitigation policies and is based around the idea that elimination of fossil fuels, as part of decarbonisation efforts, will have major health co-benefits in the shape of reductions in ambient air pollution. The authors assume (without any supporting evidence or citation) that in metropolitan areas of Asia and Africa, half to three-quarters of particulate exposure will be eliminated by avoiding use of fossil fuels.[1] This assumption is entirely incorrect because in the developing world most particulate pollution – both indoor and outdoor – originates from de-centralised heating and cooking often using dirty solid biofuels; in other words, open fires inside the home, see here and here.

Moreover, the paper does not attribute any public health benefits attributable to energy sector, although these are huge. This apparent oversight is unforgivable. Even more bizarre is the paper’s assumption that use of so-called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology is a plausible strategy, despite the technology not actually existing and the fact that, even if it did, it would need up to a quarter of the world’s agricultural land, and would thus almost certainly cause mass starvation. This major concern has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO),[2] and more remarkably, by Shindell and his co-authors:

‘The primary negative emissions technology in these scenarios is […BECCS]. This faces biophysical, logistical and social constraints, and if it were to be deployed at the scales envisioned would require a substantial fraction of the world’s arable land and water resources, with potentially severe consequences for biodiversity and food security.’

As a public health scientist, I find recent announcements about climate change and public health to be deceptive, misleading and shocking. This misinformation is the work of corrupt journalists, corrupt scientists and senior UN officials. Christiana Figueres has been at the forefront, promoting the entirely false idea that aggressive carbon dioxide mitigation will bring health co-benefits. The tragedy of these misdeeds is that they have led to institutional environmental health being removed from the development agenda, despite the fact that it was a focus on these everyday issues – water supply, waste disposal and so on – that led to the public health revolution in rich countries in the 19th century.

Politically, the most appalling and repugnant aspect of David Wallace-Wells’s rhetoric in The Uninhabitable Earth is the manner in which he uses the genocides committed by communists and Nazis to add colour to his wild claims. His suggestion that climate change will bring about death on such a scale is grossly misleading. The official WHO predictions of public health consequences of climate change are that 250,000 annual deaths might be attributable to climate change from 2030 onwards.[3] This increases the global annual death rate by 0.5 per cent. My own calculations show that 250million people will die prematurely by 2050 if nothing is done about the appalling environmental health conditions in the developing countries. That is the death toll that green activists like Wallace-Wells prefer to ignore in their struggle against free-market capitalism.

Mikko Paunio, MD MHS is adjunct professor in epidemiology at the University of Helsinki.

References:

[1] PM2.5, to be precise.

[2] Ebi K et al. The 1.5 Health Report. Synthesis on Health and Climate Science in the IPCC SR1.5 Report,World Health Organization, 2018.

[3] Hales S, et al. (eds.), Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s. Report,World Health Organization, 2014.

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