– May 18, 2020
THE health establishment was looking away when the coronavirus struck; it had other priorities. If you look at the World Health Organisation’s list of health threats, number one is climate change. Pandemics were down in third place, behind ‘non-communicable diseases’ such as diabetes and obesity.
Wherever you look, you will find some of the biggest names in the public health establishment declaiming on the risks of climate change to world health. On the eve of the outbreak, the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene declared that we would be seeing ‘mass migration, emerging infectious diseases such as dengue and a shortage of food’. As the first people fell ill in Wuhan, the WHO announced that in ten years we would be seeing 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress as a result of global warming. Epidemiologist Professor Andy Haines told readers of the Telegraph that ‘climate change is a threat to global and national security that is costing lives and livelihoods right now’.
Haines has made a career out of promoting the idea that global warming is going to bring about a public health disaster. As part of this effort, he was instrumental in setting up the Lancet Countdown, a coalition of 35 universities and UN agencies that produces a report to keep these ideas in the public eye. In 2018 it said unequivocally that climate change ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’. In current circumstances, this claim looks rather foolish, but a new forensic review of the Countdown suggests that it is actually worse than that. You cannot come away from reading Indur Goklany’s The Lancet Countdown on Climate Change: The need for context, published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, without concluding that the Countdown’s authors didn’t set out to tell the whole story.
For example, Goklany observes that the Countdown’s Executive Summary makes a lot of vague insinuations that climate is causing serious public health problems. It says there are ‘downward trends in global yield potential for all major crops’ and that ‘trends in climate suitability for disease transmission are particularly concerning’. Apparently ‘the number of days suitable for Vibrio (a pathogen responsible for part of the burden of diarrhoeal disease) has doubled’ and ‘families and livelihoods are put at risk from increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather conditions’. If that weren’t bad enough, ‘77 per cent of countries experienced an increase in daily population exposure to wildfires’.
But when you look at the dataset used by the Countdown, you uncover a very different story, and one that is unequivocal: climate-related mortality has collapsed, and is now less than half the level it was in 1990, when the dataset starts. This is nothing less than a public-health triumph.