If Climate Change Is Killing Us, Why Is Life Expectancy Increasing?
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control ("Mortality in the United States, 2017"), "Life expectancy for the U.S. population declined to 78.6 years in 2017," largely due to obesity and drug addiction.
The American life expectancy trend does not reflect global trends, however.
Worldwide, the evidence continues to point toward rising life expectancy in most of the world, with the biggest gains in the poorest countries.
According to data compiled by the World Bank, life expectancy continues to grow fastest in Africa. During the ten-year period from 2007 to 2016, the largest gains were realized in Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Botswana, Malawi, and South Africa. The gains in years ranged from 13 years over the period in Zimbabwe to nearly 10 years in South Africa. Wealthy and mid-level countries saw gains during this period as well, including Switzerland and Mexico, where life expectancy increased 1.1 years and 1.4 years, respectively.
Indeed, the continued gains should surprise no one who keeps up with global trends in health. Globally, access to sanitation and clean water has improved substantially while extreme poverty, malnourishment, and child mortality have all declined. This has especially been the case in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, where some of the worst poverty can be found.
Why the Climate-Change Panic?
Oddly, however, you won't hear much about this in the context of the climate change debate.
For years — as life expectancy numbers have continued to rise — pundits and researchers have repeatedly attempted to claim that climate change has led to — or will soon lead to — declines in overall life and health.
For example, The New Republic announced in 2015 that climate change "devastates food security, nutrition, and water safety." Yet, the data shows that none of these things have been in any way "devastated" over the past decade. In fact, the indicators are all better now than where they were ten years ago.1
Meanwhile, The Lancet predicted (in a report released in November of last year) "continued progress in improving life expectancy." The biggest gains are to be found in poorer countries. The report also predicts continued life-expectancy growth through the year 2040:
Needless to say, the usual narrative we hear isn't to expect most of humanity to be living longer decades from now. The UN's secretary general, on the other hand, assures us that climate change is “a systemic threat to humankind,” and President Obama concluded nothing "poses a greater threat to future generations" than climate change. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has predicted "the world is going to end in twelve years" due to climate change. But, while we're told global temperatures are already at catastrophic levels, we're also told the net gain in life expectancy continues to be positive well into the future. Where we do see life expectancy declining — as in the United States — we see it due primarily to drug addiction and an inability to cut back on cheeseburgers.
Upon noting this, advocates for climate-change regulations might claim "well both things are true. We'd be living even longer if not for climate change!" Except here's the rub. The very things that make it possible to expand life expectancy: medical care, high quality housing, heating, air conditioning, and clean water are all byproducts of our industrialized economies powered primarily by fossil fuels. Tearing down this system in the name of preventing climate change would be devastating to life and health worldwide. In other words, taking steps to greatly increase the cost of essential resources and amenities — as carbon taxes and other anti-climate change regulations do — would only pull the rug out from under current efforts to continually fight against countless causes of mortality such as water borne diseases, cancer, and diabetes. It is not climate-change that poses the greatest threat to future generations. The real threat lies in losing the ground gained in the Global South in terms of sanitation, medical care, and housing. Thus, crippling the global economy through climate-change regulation — not climate change itself — is "the most systematic threat."
The bird-in-hand of industrial globalization has clearly delivered a higher standard of living than has ever been known before in the old "third world." The promised two-birds-in-the-bush of global climate control offers fewer plausible promises for a better life.
Realizing the need to up the ante, researchers continue trying to connect a myriad of health problems directly to climate change in order to justify more regulatory intervention. The New Republic continues:
It [a 2012 report on climate change] linked 400,000 deaths worldwide to climate change each year, projecting deaths to increase to over 600,000 per year by 2030.
But how do they arrive at these numbers? They're achieved by claiming a variety of diseases are indirectly caused by climate change. Given that most mortality is now caused by diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver failure and other chronic conditions, it's chronic disease (and not factors directly connected to climate like heat stroke) that will be the most significant drivers in life expectancy.2 Thus, a solid connection must be made to diseases such as diabetes if climate-change can be held up as a leading cause of mortality.
But even if they could show the precise degree to which, say, cardiovascular disease can be blamed on climate change — which hasn't been done — big numbers such as those used in the New Republic article don't provide a picture of net mortality.3 That is, it's easy to blame large numbers of deaths on climate change while ignoring the many ways that mortality rates and life expectancy are simultaneously being improved by our industrialized fossil-fuel powered modern society.
Admittedly, significant changes in food availability have some of the highest potential for significantly impacting life expectancy predictions. But if this occurs, it would then be necessary to connect food availability to climate change itself. After all, malnutrition issues in Africa are heavily impacted by economic and political problems caused by governments — such as civil wars and dysfunctional economies. Clearly, it would be nonsensical to point to the current situation in Venezuela and claim the current shortages there are significantly due to a climate-change problem. It's not enough to point out there are malnutrition problems. It's also necessary to show the exact extent to which climate change has been a significant driver.
Natural Disasters Are Not a Significant Cause of Growth in Mortality
Nor can much of a case be made for claims that climate change causes more deadly natural disasters.
The media has attempted to create the picture that climate-change-related natural disasters are worse than ever, but this case can only be made in terms of dollar amounts. This is because, at least in wealthy parts of the world, people are putting more expensive cars, homes, and other amenities in harm's way. A street full of flood-ruined automobiles is far more expensive today than in the past.
In most of the world, though, the cost of climate-change-related natural disasters is much lower — in terms of human life — than in the past. The evidence points toward sizable declines in deaths due to natural disasters, and these deaths are far fewer today than a century ago:
This should not be surprising since modern economies and higher standards of living make it easier for populations to take shelter and get out of harm's way. Vehicles and equipment needed for medical triage are more readily available, and there is greater surplus wealth to deal with large temporary relocations of populations.
The Lancet itself report also notes that natural-disaster related deaths are unlikely to be relevant to life expectancy predictions:
Predicted impacts in other studies on extreme weather-related deaths and heat wave deaths are not large enough to have much impact on global life expectancy.
So, while journalists like to talk about how many people climate change will supposedly kill this year, the fact remains that the net gains in life expectancy continue to be positive. Those who want to rein in economic activity in the name of climate-improvement would be destroying the very thing that's improved the quality of life for billions already. Second, the anti-climate-change research would have to show that carbon taxes and similar policies will both reduce climate-change and increase access to better medical care, housing, and clean water. This has certainly not been done. In fact, as Robert Murphy has noted, we have every reason to believe the costs of implementation of anti-climate change regimes will be very high.
- 1. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, "food insecurity" and malnutrition went up from 2016 to 2017. This is driven primarily by declines in food availability in Africa where social and political strife continue to be highly problematic. Malnutrition and fod insecurity numbers continue to decrease in South Asia, and are flat in South America, North America, and Europe. http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/FS
- 2. Recognizing this, The Lancet has attempted to connect obesity to climate-change, although the Lancet is careful to not say that climate change causes obesity. See: www.cnn.com/2019/01/27/health/obesity-climate-change-undernutrition/index.html
- 3. There are, of course, studies that attempt to use regression analysis to connect climate change to declines in life expectancy. Some show connections some do not. For example, in the Journal of Economics and Financial Issues, a study on Nigeria concluded the data "suggests that greenhouse gas (CO2) emission has not reduced the average number of years of Nigerian life." (a http://econjournals.com/index.php/ijefi/article/view/6552/0). Another recent study concluded that variations in temperature produced more mortality in chronically ill people over 65. (https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2012/5/science-temperature/index.htm), but as with so many other issues, the answer was more easily addressed through strategies that are readily available in more industrialized nations such as adding green space and use of air conditioning.