Death and disease from climate-sensitive diseases and events are small relative to those from all causes, and getting smaller

Indur M. Goklany

Between 1990 and 2017, the cumulative age-standardized death rate (ASDRs) from climate-sensitive diseases and events (CSDEs) dropped from 8.1% of the all-cause ASDR to 5.5%, while the age-standardized burden of disease, measured by disability-adjusted life years lost (DALYs) declined from 12.0% to 8.0% of all-cause age-standardized DALYs. Thus, the burdens of death and disease from CSDEs are small, and getting smaller.

Figure 1: Climate-related deaths are a small proportion of all-cause fatalities (1990–2017). Based on data per IHME (2019).

But readers of the 2019 report of the Lancet Countdown (hereafter ‘the Countdown’), a partnership of 35 academic institutions and UN agencies, established by the prestigious Lancet group of medical journals and supported by the equally-esteemed Wellcome Trust to track progress on the health impacts of climate change, may well be left with the opposite impression, particularly if they do not delve beyond the Executive Summary, the section most likely to be read by busy policymakers or their advisors.

Not once does it mention that cumulative annual rates of death and disease from CSDEs are declining, and declining faster than the corresponding all-cause rates. The Countdown also fails to provide adequate context for the reader to judge the burdens of mortality or disease posed by CSDEs, individually or cumulatively, relative to other public-health threats. In fact, it even suggests that the health effects of climate change are ‘worsening’. But the data do not support that claim. Moreover, an analysis of the text makes it clear that the Countdown conflates estimates of increasing exposure, ‘demographic vulnerability’, and increased ‘suitability’ of disease transmission with actual health effects.

Figure 2: Burden of mortality from CSDEs, 1990–2017. The Forces of Nature group excludes deaths from geophysical causes per EMDAT (2019). Data per IHME (2019).

But readers of the 2019 report of the Lancet Countdown (hereafter ‘the Countdown’), a partnership of 35 academic institutions and UN agencies, established by the prestigious Lancet group of medical journals and supported by the equally-esteemed Wellcome Trust to track progress on the health impacts of climate change, may well be left with the opposite impression, particularly if they do not delve beyond the Executive Summary, the section most likely to be read by busy policymakers or their advisors.

Not once does it mention that cumulative annual rates of death and disease from CSDEs are declining, and declining faster than the corresponding all-cause rates. The Countdown also fails to provide adequate context for the reader to judge the burdens of mortality or disease posed by CSDEs, individually or cumulatively, relative to other public-health threats. In fact, it even suggests that the health effects of climate change are ‘worsening’. But the data do not support that claim. Moreover, an analysis of the text makes it clear that the Countdown conflates estimates of increasing exposure, ‘demographic vulnerability’, and increased ‘suitability’ of disease transmission with actual health effects.  These estimates are used as proxies, but trends in these estimates have not been verified to reflect, and do not track, long-term trends in deaths or death rates.

In addition to overlooking the diminishing overall significance of CSDEs for public health, the Countdown chooses to focus instead on CSDEs that have, contrary to the general trend, become more prevalent. As a case in point, dengue, a mosquito-borne tropical disease, was responsible for 40,000 deaths in 2017. This seems a lot, but it represents only 1.4% of the cumulative 2.8 million deaths from CSDEs or 0.07% of the 55.9 million people who died globally from all causes that year. Yet dengue gets more attention in the Countdown than malaria, another mosquito-borne tropical disease, which was responsible for fifteen times as many (620,000) deaths.

Because of its failure to provide context, the Countdown fails to give the reader or policymakers a balanced account of public-health threats and, therefore, risks distorting public health priorities. Without proper context, a molehill may well be mistaken for a mountain. Context is thus essential to help policymakers keep perspective and focus on larger and more important public health problems.

Regarding context, much of the critique examines trends since 1990. This is because the data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), on which the Countdown primarily relies, commences in that year. However, the declines in death and disease rates from CSDEs since 1990 are only a small proportion of longer-term declines across the globe. In the USA, one of the few places with good long-term data, death rates from dysentery, typhoid, paratyphoid, other gastrointestinal diseases, and malaria – all water-related diseases and therefore, almost by definition, climate-sensitive declined 99–100% between 1900 and 1970.

To summarize, we are solving our problems with CSDEs faster than we are solving our other health problems.

Read the full paper, The Lancet Countdown on Climate Change: The need for context, published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, here.

32 thoughts on “Death and disease from climate-sensitive diseases and events are small relative to those from all causes, and getting smaller

  1. Twice as many die by accident every year as have died by/from/with Covid-19.

    Are all those stupid, careless and unlucky people Trumps fault, too?

    • A decrease in road accident deaths over the last two months due to the lockdown might be expected. In fact, this last weekend, with the first loosening of stay-at-home rules, has been marked by a number of fatal car crashes in Australia. Enough for politicians and police to say, please don’t go silly now you can go out! We’ll need to wait till the longer term data is available to see if and how accident death rates have varied this year.

      BTW, there’s a major difference between car accidents and COVID19. Car accidents are not infectious. If someone I’ve been in contact with is in a car accident and dies (as had happened) I am personally at no higher risk of doing so.

        • Is that death WITH car accident or death BY car accident?”
          Exactly Robert.
          But how many died “with Coronavirus” in their bodies?
          They all had CO2 so perhaps CO2 causes ALL accidents?
          They certainly wouldn’t occur without it!?
          HAHAHAHA
          (in case readers didn’t get it)

      • Tom Foley,

        “A decrease in road accident deaths over the last two months due to the lockdown might be expected.“

        I expected this as well but it has not happened in my State of Tennessee. I checked the TN data this past week and year-to-date fatalities in 2020 were essentially the same as 2019 at the same date. This could be due to what I call the “NASCAR Effect.” When the roads here are open (little or no traffic), drivers think they are qualifying for a NASCAR race.

        • According to my calcs, the CV-19 death rate since early April in TN has been about the same as the auto fatality rate in recent years. TN has not been hit as hard as many other states.

    • In 2019 there were about 40,000 road accident fatalities in the US. There have already been over 90,000 COVID19 fatalities in less than three months.

      Yes, the overall accidental death rate in 2019 was higher, about 170,000, including falls, accidental poisoning. But that should be compared to all health related deaths or to all infectious disease deaths, not just one. Anyway COVID19 deaths are already more than half that, in a quarter of the time.

      • This is where you really need to break it down.
        France is not the same as Germany
        New York is not the same as California.

        Here in Victoria Australia, road deaths are down slightly.
        But it is disproportionate between rural and urban.
        Rural down
        Urban up.

        • todays advertiser ran a pic of a woman READING a book while driving
          truly amazing
          obviously took the dont text n drive to heart didnt she?

        • the roos and emus etchave been having a great time on the roads while theyve been less used
          as people start travelling again the deaths n damage by roo hits will rise pretty fast too
          Locls here are on their gaurd but even so..you see 20 but its always the one you dont see

  2. Do they count climate deaths of poor elderly and the unwell who can’t afford the high cost of ruinables to stay warm and cook in the UK winters?

  3. Beset as we are with insurmountable opportunities
    let us boldly tarry forth to lead from behind
    and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!

    • We’re obviously tired of winning.

      In his two latest books, Steven Pinker has pointed out that now is the best time in human history to be alive. Some folks try their level best to ignore that fact.

      Pinker identifies five causes for the massive decrease of violence as civilization evolved, including:

      Commerce – the rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization.” link

      In other words, the kind of capitalism that drives innovation and creates a win-win situation for everyone.

  4. “ …established by the prestigious Lancetgroup of medical journals and supported by the equally-esteemed Wellcome Trust to track progress on the health impacts of climate change. ” My son has a journalism degree from an institution and age that taught him to lay off the adjectives. He has a successful career in medical and related fields with handling information, kidded often about propaganda. Lancet published in its “Department of Ethics” “Principles for allocation of scarce medical interventions (vol. 373, 2009: 426)” which sounds like eugenics in its pejorative sense, but trying to be “scientific.” It’s too late when you have to establish such a department.

    As a member of Sigma Xi I have been very critical of their bandwagons and considered leaving, but have to give them credit for this. “Loose comparisons with tobacco companies have become so common that the tactic has earned its own sobriquet: reductio ad tabacum.” Discussed the 97% fallacy and an interesting consideration of Orsekes and knows about logical errors. https://www.americanscientist.org/article/reasonable-versus-unreasonable-doubt

    Didn’t adequately study your whole report, but did see the context as by noting this (page 5) about the Countdown. “Absent such context, a reader may fail to appreciate that positive trends far outweigh negative ones.” In figures 3 and 7 (3 unmarked grey 2 in WUWT post) the decrease in “Protein-energy malnutrition Burden of mortality from CSDEs, 1990–2017” looks like a very significant over 60%. Since malnutrition is so important for the others, as in immunity, and while I could easily have missed this, why is this not in, or at least obviously more often discussed, concerning models? Even if they are recently right the world has certainly gotten better fed since these epidemics, not only in the rich countries and especially so since the centuries (1+) old horrible ones.

    And as to their adjectival exaggeration type language “This data resonates..” (past participle)

    • “This data resonates…”

      “Data” is plural of datum. Should be “These data resonate…”

  5. Computerisation has lead to great leaps forward in a great many areas of human activity.

    However, progress rarely comes without a cost. As the daily media cycle reduced to a matter of minutes, quality of content has deteriorated. The barriers to fringe ideas, such as those found amongst the hard left, have fallen as well. While journalism has been a largely left-wing career for most of the electronic age, a career in the media is now an even greater beacon for the hard-left. It is increasingly difficult to tell where the activism stops and the journalism begins.

    The coronavirus coverage is a reflection of this; Trump is evil, while Adern is a Kiwi saint.

    One latest piece, almost worthy of a gender journalism award, relates the much harder time girls are having in a CV lockdown than are boys. Now, this may well be true (as a father of a girl having problems despite her being far more introverted than most, I am sympathetic). However, given the usual standards on offer from most of the Australian media, one should be wary of any piece that appears to wrapped in any semblance of woke cloth. Further, the UNICEF survey required self-reporting. Relying on boys to report such personal feelings is hardly the stuff of statistical accuracy.

    Without proper context, two molehills may well be mistaken for a mountain and a flat plain.

  6. Soon we will be able to count the climate deths caused by green perps. I hope someone qualified is looking at this. We’ve had 40 years of swamp dwellers enriching Champagne Soshulists and risking lives and wellbeing of the most vulnerable at home and abroad.

    There are millions of victims in Africa from d*nile of nutritious yellow rice, d*nile of pesticides for dealing with locusts, malaria..
    . , d*nile of cheap fossil fuel energy to raise them out of poverty and bring industry, training, clean water, sewage treatment and easier and healthier lives. Despots are harder to recognize these days, but they all bring untold numbers of millions of deths in their wake.

    At some point those who even fervently worry about climate change and CO2 have to come to the realization that they really shouldn’t be part of the manipulated horror show that it has spawned. They have to say no to killing off millions of vulnerable people, no to killing off millions of birds and bats, no to tufting and glazing millions of hectares of wilderness and agricultural land with useless, costly windmills and solar panels, no to burning millions of tons of food for energy and forests for phony green energy, no to crony capitalists (real capitalists take personal risks that benefit multitudes) who sponge up trillions in resources that impoverish multitudes. I would rather the planet be harmed than go along with this ugliness.

  7. One section seems to have been repeated:

    But readers of the 2019 rep…

    But readers of the 2019 rep…

  8. While Her Choice has demonstrated progress as a peculiar political congruence, it is still her Choice, forced by catastrophic anthropogenic climate (e.g. religion/ethics, culture) change, that is a cause celebre for excess human deaths globally.

  9. Know that neither dengue or malaria are tropical diseases. They are diseases that follow a mosquito vector and these mosquitos and thus these diseases were common in the northern latitudes, including Siberia and the USA.

  10. Hello Moderator:
    1. Jorge points out correctly that the para under Figure 1 is repeated under Fig. 2. My bad. Thanks Jorge.
    2. Looks like we lost the legend for Figure 2. It’s in the main report.
    And thanks, moderator.

    Martin — You are correct. They are probably best classified as” vector-borne diseases” or more specifically “mosquito-borne diseases.” The IHME, however, has a category, Neglected Tropical Diseases and Malaria, that lumps them together, which is where I got the data from. Thanks.

    • Indur, I do understand why you use the IHME protocol, but to do so just perpetuates the myth that malaria and dengue are enhanced with warmer weather. Temperature is but a minor factor. Mosquito control is paramount and DDT has proven to be the only persistent effective remedy. But the ban on DDT only results in ~700,000 deaths per year…

  11. Oooh, Indur Goklany! We don’t hear from you nearly often enough. Your posts are about life and death, which is the highest stakes bottom line of the whole climate debate. That and biodiversity. We need to get real geologists on more often as well, to discuss the reality that life thrives in warmer temperatures better than in today’s cold climate.

  12. I’m glad you mentioned DALYS.
    AFAIK climate damage models assume a loss of life to a heatwave to be 100 X GDP per capita.
    Heatwave like COVID impact elderly.
    The loss of DALY could be lower than 10x GDP per capita.

  13. This should be cited whenever anyone accuses sceptics of cherrypicking, or claim that they have undue influence in the media, or that climate scientists are pressured into downplaying the threats of climate change.

    I can only imagine what the response would have been if a supposedly neutral organisation put out a report claiming that climate change impacts were shrinking year by year when the data showed they were in fact trending in a diametrically-opposed way…

    • and considering the serious issue with the dengue vaccine kiiling people.. now banned for use in phillipines with good reason
      I for one am glad Aus held back a bit.

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