Some years ago, presumably for having written books on genetics, I was elected a fellow of Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS). This was a great honour and I was even more pleased to be invited to speak at one of their annual dinners.
Then, towards the end of 2010, there dropped through my letter box a newsletter from the AMS which included an item on the academy having signed up to an “international statement” on the “health benefits of policies to tackle climate change” together with other medical science academies around the world. The newsletter said that the health “co-benefits” of tackling climate change “show that climate change mitigation strategies need not be socially and economically demanding”. Since everything I was reading at the time about rising food and fuel prices driven partly by climate change mitigation policies was pointing to the opposite conclusion – namely that malnutrition and hypothermia were being increased by such policies, outweighing any health advantages – I went online to read the statement, to find out what I had been signed up to as a fellow.
I found a four-page document, devoted to expounding the good health side-effects of fighting climate change by cutting emissions. For example:
Results for the cities of London and Delhi show that a combination of substantially increased active travel, such as cycling and walking, and lower-emission motor vehicles could lead to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of chronic diseases.
Most of the statements in the paper referred to a special issue of the Lancet, which had appeared just before the Copenhagen climate summit and which I knew had drawn a heavily critical and very persuasive reply from the independent scholar Indur Goklany. Goklany’s point was that while of course there are health benefits to climate change mitigation, there are health risks too and that any reasonable discussion must come to the conclusion that today and through the foreseeable future, many other health risks outrank global warming in terms of death and disease, and are also more easily addressed.
The IAMP statement not only ignored Goklany’s argument but failed even to acknowledge that risks might outweigh benefits. It had only a three-sentence mention of the issue of health risks that did not even address the issue of relative weight:
However, some climate change mitigation strategies have the potential to damage health. For example, if biofuels are grown on land which could support food crops they could reduce food availability and increase food prices.28 Therefore all climate change mitigation strategies should be subject to health impact assessment.
I did not think this was good enough, so I wrote to the president of the AMS, Sir John Bell, a former university friend and colleague, as follows:
I recently received through the post the Interacademy Medical Panel (IAMP) report on the health co-benefits of policies to tackle climate change. I gather this has already been signed on our behalf.
I have to say I found the document very disappointing and not up to the standards of a scientific academy like AMS.
What it lacks is balance. There is no attempt to cite evidence of the harm that may be done by rushed mitigation of fossil fuel emissions, even though these are extremely well known. There is no attempt to balance the catalogue of harmsthat can come from warming with the catalogue of harms that come from othercauses, whose mitigation might be prevented by efforts to prevent warming.
For example, the report says that `Rising temperatures may increase heat related deaths and heat stress, particularly in urban centres as a result of the urban heat island effect’. Yet there is ample evidence that cold-related deaths exceed heat-related deaths – by about five to one in most of Europe. Even the excess death toll from the 2003 European summer heatwave was dwarfed by the excess death toll from cold in most winters. Last year there were over 25,000 excess winter deaths in England and Wales alone (see http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=574) and the death toll is disproportionately high among the aged who face acute problems from fuel poverty caused in part by carbon mitigation policies such as wind power subsidies, which have increased energy prices. It follows that if the world warms by 2 degrees, and that warming is greater in the far north, in winter and at night – all of which are predicted by the GCM models – then the death toll from cold stress will undoubtedly fall. It is wrong of the report not to mention these points.
As for the health cost of carbon mitigation policies, we have a perfect example of this in recent years in the effect of biofuel policies on the price and availability of food. There is now no doubt that biofuel policies, motivated substantially by concern about climate change, have caused real increases in hunger in 2008 and again this year (not to mention destruction of rain forest). You can debate how important this is relative to the threat posed by climate change, but to ignore these arguments is negligent.
Consider the case of an African family at risk from hunger, dirty water, indoor air pollution (caused by cooking over wood or charcoal fires), and malaria. These four factors are among the greatest causes of ill health in the world, killing respectively about seven, three, three and two people per minute, far more than can be attributed to global warming. What this family needs is fertilizer, clean water, kerosene and bed-nets, not policies to slow a rise in global temperatures. Indeed, you can argue that getting kerosene cooking fuel to such families is the best way to reduce deforestation and hence carbon dioxide emissions.
Keeping climate at 1990 levels, assuming it could be done, would leave more than 98 per cent of human mortality causes untouched, and would consume resources that could be far more effectively spent on combating ill health now. You will be aware that malaria has been eradicated from large parts of the world not by cooling the world down but by combating it directly. You will be aware that death rates from natural disasters are down by 98% since the 1920s not because of policies to change the climate but because of improvements in transport, medicine, communication and technology.
I append some comments on the report from Indur Goklany, a highly respected scholar who has contributed to these debates in the peer-reviewed literature. His analysis confirms my suspicions that the paper is unbalanced and misleading.
I received a courteous but non-committal reply from Sir John saying that he would pass on my comments to his colleague Dr Robert Souhami and that he welcomed by engagement with the issue.