Climate change coverage ignores heavy impact of heat on cold deaths

Imagine the news media touting new research showing almost nobody died of influenza last year. The information would be true. In the United States, only 600 people died from the flu in 2020, down 97% from its usual level.But most people would recognize this story by itself to be phenomenally misleading because it leaves out the huge death burden from COVID-19. Similarly, reports on the global economy in 2020 would be seriously cherry-picking if they only told us about the economic boom in the health care sector. To be well-informed, we need to hear both negative and positive impacts.

Yet, when it comes to climate change, too often news stories and research focus only on the negative impacts. This makes commercial sense because stories of Armageddon generate more clicks, drive fundraising and make for better political campaigns. But it leaves us poorly informed.

Technology decreasing heat deaths

Last month, a landmark study in Nature Climate Change made headlines around the world. Rising temperatures from global warming increase the number of heat deaths, now causing more than a third of heat deaths, or about 100,000 deaths per year. 

Obviously, this is a powerful narrative to justify urgent climate policies.

But the study left out glaring truths that even its own authors have abundantly documented. Heat deaths are declining in countries with good data, likely because of ever more air conditioning. This is abundantly clear for the United States, which has seen increasing hot days since 1960 affecting a much greater population.Yet, the number of heat deaths has more than halved. So while global warming could result in more heat deaths, technological development in, for instance, America, is actually resulting in fewer heat deaths.

A coal power plant near Emmett, Kansas, in 2012. (Photo: Charlie Riedel, AP)

More important,cold deaths vastly outweigh heat deaths worldwide. This is not just true for cold countries like Canada but also warmer countries like the United States, Spain and Brazil. Even in India, cold deaths outweigh heat deaths by 7-to-1. 

Globally, about 1.7 million deaths are caused by cold a year, more than five times the number of heat deaths. 

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This matters because rising temperatures from global warming will reduce the number of cold deaths. Yet, the Nature Climate Change study scrupulously decided to only look at heat deaths by limiting its research to the four warmest months, ignoring the number of cold deaths, which were five times higher.

Cold deaths plummet as temperature rises 

In The Lancet, some of the same authors estimated recent changes in full-year heat and cold deaths from the 1990s to the 2010s. Reliably, they found that heat deaths increased, but cold deaths decreased even more for all regions and, on average, twice as much. This suggests that leaving out cold deaths flips the central message.

Global warming up to now possibly means about 100,000 more heat deaths. But the Lancet full-year research shows it also very likely means we have avoided even more cold deaths, perhaps as much as twice that, equivalent to 200,000 avoided cold deaths. 

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Climate change is still a real problem. It affects many other areas, and even for heat and cold deaths, very high-temperature rises could see extra heat deaths outweigh avoided cold deaths in the long run.

But we’re not well informed when climate narratives only tell us the negative stories. Not only does technology make us much more resilient, but for now, global warming likely saves us more deaths than it causes, possibly 100,000 lives each year.

Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.” 

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