Killing

Though the scientific and moral case against flying is robust, the reaction to making it has made me lose faith in the power of individual action. I think the only solution is a carbon price: see why in my new introduction.

Climate change is deadly, and its effects are already starting to be felt. The higher the temperature goes, the more extreme weather events we get, including hurricanes, flash flooding and heat waves. The less direct effects include drought, famine and an increase in infectious diseases. It’s a worldwide humanitarian catastrophe. And you can stop it by simply not jumping on a plane.

In depth

How exactly does global warming lead to death?

Increasing temperatures have a variety of impacts on human health. Though there are a few likely improvements in health as a result of these temperatures, for example that winter cold-induced deaths in temperate regions may be reduced1, the overall impact in humanitarian terms will be “overwhelmingly negative”2.

Human deaths can be caused directly by the changing weather: heat waves in summer kill children, the elderly and infirm3, in addition to increased frequency and severity of deadly and costly meteorological natural disasters, like hurricanes and flooding, destroying lives, settlements, and anything else in their path.

Famine and drought will also be major killers in a warmed world. Changing weather patterns will make agriculture unviable in some locations and change crops and farming habits worldwide. Those least able to deal with the changes will be the worst affected, as they continue to try to grow unsuitable crops in parched soil, unable to afford GM alternatives or a new, more fertile patch of land in a better location. 4

Distribution of disease is also strongly temperature-dependent. Warmer, wetter climates foster pathogens and, most especially, the vectors (like mosquitoes) which carry them5. Climate change will increase the range of many diseases, especially in the tropics, extending the range of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, for example, to higher altitudes and latitudes than they currently inhabit. Even the best-case scenario is that vectors and pathogens will in some cases not have their ranges increased, but simply moved around, and this will introduce them to populations with less natural immunity and thus increase their mortality.

The net effect, therefore, will indeed be “overwhelmingly negative”.

Won’t the effects of climate change only be felt in generations to come? The Earth has only got half a degree hotter so far. Isn’t your use of the present tense unjustified?

The effects of climate change will certainly be greater in future. Carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere for an average of 100 years, so even a total cessation of emissions right now would not stop a certain amount of inevitable climate change as what carbon is already present continues to trap heat for the next century or so. Thus, it is certainly the case with continued greenhouse gas emissions that temperatures will rise, and the deaths caused by climate change escalate, ever-more rapidly.

However, the effects of climate change are starting to be felt now. The WHO estimated that a subset of the effects of climate change resulted in 150,000 deaths in 2000. This justifies the use of the present tense. Also, this figure is probably an underestimate because it only considered a subset of the effects. And, given the relatively small amount of heating so far, the number of fatalities is bound to increase.

150,000 of course pales into insignificance by comparison to other causes of death, such as heart disease (16,900,0006), cancer (7,600,0007) or AIDS (2,800,0008). But you can have an effect on this number simply by not holidaying by plane. You could definitely save more lives if you could convince everyone in sub-Saharan Africa not to have sex, or perhaps develop a miracle drug which eradicates cancerous tumours, but somehow a change of holiday habits seems the more plausible option.

Besides this fact, morality is not a game you can play like that. If you pull someone from a burning building and save their life, you can’t use that as an excuse to take extravagant foreign holidays because any fractions of a death you cause that way would thus be balanced out. One should surely endeavour to reduce suffering across the board, rather than hope that, when you die, you’ve had a net positive effect?

The people in Africa would’ve died anyway due to overpopulation or something. You can’t attribute their deaths to climate change.

“They would die anyway” is an extremely weak argument—not least because you can say that of anyone who dies in a certain way!

Africa certainly has its fair share of problems, but a changing climate only adds to or exacerbates them. If there’s only half as much food to go round, that will clearly make a famine significantly worse than it would have been otherwise. Separating climate-induced deaths from those brought about by socioeconomic circumstances is no simple task, but the trend is clear: climate change increases human death and suffering.

If the deaths of people who would die anyway is not a measurement to your taste, however, disability-adjusted life years, or DALYs, might be. Every year before your life expectancy which you spend dead as a result of a certain phenomenon counts as one DALY, and every year spent with a disability or illness is added to this total. The WHO calculated that 5.5 million DALYs could be attributed to climate change in 20009. This figure is subject to the same caveats as the 150,000 deaths; it is based on a subset of possible effects, and, as the temperature increases, will only go up.

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