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Is it possible to do a Covid-like count of deaths due to climate change? 'It's very, very difficult'

There were a total of 71 Irish deaths from “extreme weather” between 1980 and 2019 — out of 85,000 across the EU.

DAILY ANNOUNCEMENTS OF the Covid-19 death toll were hard to avoid at the height of the pandemic, reinforcing the sense of national crisis.

The climate crisis is a slower burn, but we know it’s killing people too. Heatwaves, floods, fires and diseases claim lives, and all are on the increase because of global warming.

So can we keep a Covid-like count of how many people have died as a result of climate change in this country and across the world?

“That’s the holy grail”, says Dr Marina Romanello, lead author of a major new study on the health consequences of the changing climate. “But it’s very, very difficult to pin down”.

That’s partly because the effect of climate change on health tends to be indirect. Take extreme heat, exposure to which increases the risk of death from strokes, heart disease and respiratory conditions. Scientists can have a crack at estimating the likely climate contribution to summer-time spikes in mortality, but are wary of attributing any individual death to climate change.

“You don’t drop dead in the street from climate change”, Romanello points out. “You drop dead in the street because you had a stroke, and that stroke comes from a plethora of conditions, but it was triggered by extreme heat, and that is climate change – but we can’t say you died from climate change, you died from a stroke”.

Similarly, while we get more fires and floods nowadays, and those can claim lives, it’s hard to say that any particular “extreme weather event” wouldn’t have happened if the climate were different.

But while an exact body count isn’t really a thing, experts have plenty of stats on how climate change is bad for global health.

Heat-related mortality in people over 65, for instance, has hit a record 345,000 worldwide. 72% of countries saw increased human exposure to wildfires between 2017-2020 compared with 2001-04. Certain diseases (Romanello singles out “fleshing-eating bacteria”) can be transmitted more easily in the changed climate than the one we had in the 20th century.

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These figures come from the Lancet Countdown 2021, a huge research project by Romanello and dozens of other experts. This year’s edition, released days ago, reports an “unabated rise in the health impacts of climate change”.

The World Health Organisation agrees that “measuring the health effects from climate change can only be very approximate”, but has estimated that it’s “expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050” just from extra cases of heat exposure, diarrhoea, malaria and childhood undernutrition.

While poor countries often bear the brunt, it’s also an issue closer to home. “Deaths attributable to climate change in Europe are predicted to increase significantly, with a clear geographical north-south divide”, according to the European Environment Agency. A 2019 report by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council warned that “climate change will have effects on health within the boundaries of the EU”.

Professor Pat Goodman, who worked on the EASAC report, points out that burning fossil fuels is a double whammy. It causes both global warming and old-fashioned air pollution – as anyone who remembers Dublin in the 1980s, before coal-burning regulations, can attest to.

“One of the best things you could do in Europe is rapidly accelerate removing fossil fuel usage, because the air pollution from fossil fuel use is killing hundreds of thousands of people prematurely in Europe every year”, Goodman tells The Journal. “You get the immediate benefit of improved air quality, less mortality, fewer hospitalisations — and at the same time you’re getting the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions”.

The EASAC report also points to more exotic health impacts of hot weather, from higher crime to interrupted sleep. But it stresses that the worst affected countries will be in the Arctic and Mediterranean regions of Europe. As you’d expect, Ireland isn’t badly off when it comes to heatwaves and tropical diseases, even now.

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“It’s going to get warmer here, yes, but we’re not going to get the same extreme heat that you see in the UK or in continental Europe”, Goodman reckons. “I don’t see us getting that really severe heat that would kill thousands”.

Average deaths related to heat in Ireland hardly budged between 2000-2005 and 2014-2019, according to Lancet Countdown modelling. The European Council gives a figure of 71 Irish deaths total from “extreme weather” between 1980 and 2019 — out of 85,000 across the EU.

Cold weather, rather than heat, has traditionally been a bigger killer in Ireland. Global warming could even help with that — although Goodman says it’s not quite simple.

“We’re still going to see some extreme winters. Everybody thinks it’s going to get warmer and warmer, which it is, but you will still get extreme cold weather from time to time” – as with the Arctic temperatures in Texas earlier this year.

Besides which, hotter Irish summers have an obvious downside. “Our skin types in Ireland leave us very prone to skin cancers”, Goodman says. “It’s one thing going to the beach for the day, but if you’re getting sun exposure just doing your daily routine, people are maybe not quite as clued in in terms of putting on suncream”.

All told, then, Ireland probably isn’t going to see a big climate death toll in the short term, and keeping an exact count would be pretty much impossible anyway. Climate change will make us less healthy, but it’s not going to kill us. Other countries aren’t so lucky.

About the author:

CJ McKinney  / Legal Affairs Journalist

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