Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Arctic Ice, Maurice Newman and the arrogant dismissal of science by too many Australian elites

    If any of you get the time, go to Charctic and enter the data year by year (starting with 1979) .. the trend with time is utterly convincing. Some sceptics will say - yes, but sea ice in Antarctica is increasing (even though land ice is falling) - hence climate change is wrong .. that's a bit like saying if someone's pulse is more than 100 their heart is doing ok .. (i.e. a doctor looks at the whole patient) overall, looking at the signs and symptoms of the Earth eco-social "patient" it is clear the patient is ill .. though not yet in intensive care .. if it gets to that stage then we and the next generations have had it .. after several decades of blindness to these issues the World Bank, IMF, the Vatican, the UN, and some governments are showing signs of awakening .. and new technology too .. so it's important to not lose hope - this year - the Paris meeting is very important. But as for mainstream media, even the ABC Science show, is, I'm afraid, contaminated - eg Robin Williams gave a very soft interview to Bjorn Lomborg not long ago, despite a good story about a book called the Lomborg Deception from 2010.

    Maurice Newman and David Murray are prominent climate sceptics in Australia, with great influence. (Newman finally lost influence after Malcolm Turnbull's ascendancy in September 2015.) Despite their zero science background they are used to interpreting figures .. I wonder what they would make of these Arctic data? Unfortunately (back to the ABC) I have seen them hopelessly overwhelm interviewers (eg Emma Alberici) who lack the knowledge to really challenge them .. Q & A would be be vastly improved, perhaps, if they let Will Steffen (here's a link to great lecture by Will in memory of the late Michael Raupach) debate Newman and Murray - though, even there, the illiteracy of so many in the audience would be a problem .. but it would be better than having someone like Emma or Tony Jones question them.

    PS the Antarctic sea ice is thought to be growing due to changed ocean circulation patterns - not any cooling in the Southern Ocean.

    PPS Maurice Newman was sacked in one of the first decisions of Malcolm Turnbull's new administration.

South Asian heatwaves, climate change, development and the awakening of the great faiths to our planetary emergency

In mid-2015 there was a very severe heatwave in parts of India - soon followed by one in Pakistan. It has been worsened by its occurrence during Ramadan. The requirement for fasting during daylight hours include to abstain not just from food, but also water, though this requirement can be relaxed for health reasons.

Electricity cuts also made the Pakistani heatwave worse. The BBC reported in June that "612 people had died in the main government-run hospitals in the city of Karachi during the past four days. Another 80 are reported to have died in private hospitals." But a lot more will have died before getting to hospital - really, once at the hospital, hardly any should die .. like a lot of things from the sub-continent, this statement needs interpreting.

Heatwaves are getting worse due to climate change. In June 2015 the Lancet released a major report into climate change and health. I was invited to speak at the Canberra launch, especially on the implications for Australia from migration and conflict, but in the end couldn't. My slides, however, are available here.

Some friends in India have been affected by the heat, but I haven't heard of any that have died. But no doubt productivity has been harmed. Climate change is a slow emergency. Solutions are emerging, but one that is vastly under-recognised is of a fairer world.  Related to that is the need to reduce fertility, especially in low-income countries, not because that will slow climate change (much) but because it will promote development and reduce poverty. That will better prepare societies for the emergency that is unfolding.  The failure to recognise this is the greatest weakness in the otherwise excellent Papal encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si . The much shorter Lambeth Declaration on climate change did not mention population at all. Of interest, it was signed by representatives of several faiths, including the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Zoroastrian, several rabbis, a Buddhist and a Sikh.

PS. In late October a Buddhist declaration on climate change, calling for a cap below 1.5 degrees, was released.

adapted from a blog at BODHI US

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Climate change as a health threat: reflections on two papers in the Lancet

This is a slightly modified and longer version of an essay I wrote for Croakey, called "Climate change a great threat to health, but not as generally conceived". In the months leading to the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference the Lancet published an unusually long (41 page) article called “Managing the health effects of climate change”. The text postulated that “climate change is potentially the biggest global health threat in the 21st century” but the executive summary was subheaded: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. 

Later this month, in the lead up to the Paris climate change summit, the Lancet is to again publish a major report on climate change and health. I had no role in either commission, though in 20014 my edited book on the subject came out. (It is to be reprinted with a new chapter in a softcover version by mud-2016.)

From 2008 until late in 2009 I was part of a WHO-led team which was trying to update the earlier study on the burden of disease (BOD) of climate change. We eventually abandoned the project. There were several reasons for this which could become another essay – but thinking about this led me to develop a figure which those with access can view here. This link is to a poster I presented at an environmental health conference in 2013, and which was also included in chapter 26 of my edited book – it attempts to convey the future burden of disease of climate change, in about 2050.

The earlier study concluded that climate change could be attributed as causing about 5.5 million lost disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). This was mainly due to climate change-related undernutrition, with minor contributions from infectious diseases and perhaps disasters. That may sound a lot, but –even if the methodology is accepted as valid - it was less than 0.4% of the global BOD in 2000. In contrast, HIV/AIDS, the leading cause of lost DALYs in the “baseline” scenario for 2030, in an updated BOD study, contributes about 12% of the total – or a proportion about 30 times as much as that of climate change did in 2000. But climate change is a risk factor, not a disease, so it is likely to cause an increased BOD for several health conditions – such as heat stroke, malaria, undernutrition, suicide and violence. However, each of those conditions has multiple causes; weighing the fraction that climate change is responsible for is bound to be disputed. Tobacco smoke, closely followed by childhood underweight, was found to be the leading risk factors in an updated BOD study published in 2013, each causing about 8% of the total burden, or about 20 times as much (as a fraction) as that of climate change in 2000.

The claim that climate change will emerge as the greatest threat to global health this century calls for strong evidence, if it is to be taken seriously. But few health workers appear to do so; if they did, then shouldn’t health workers be arguing that resources should be diverted from hospitals, medicines and primary care in order to do so? Shouldn’t climate change and health be central to every medical school curriculum? But such appeals are far from mainstream. 

Outside health, even fewer experts are concerned, including among the agricultural and political science communities. Of course, some health workers do take this warning seriously. Here I suggest several explanations.
The first may lie with the Lancet paper itself. It is vague, repetitive, and in part overstated. At one point it comments “a 13-m rise [in sea level] would cause the flooding and permanent abandonment of almost all low-lying coastal and river urban areas. Currently, a third of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a shoreline and 13 of the world’s 20 largest cities are located on a coast. More than a billion people could be displaced in environmental mass migration.” That sounds plausible, except that neither the IPCC nor any other authority suggests any such extent of sea level rise is likely this century. Few if any peer reviewed articles suggest more than 2 metres of sea level rise this century is plausible. While there may be reasons that even 2 m is conservative, 13 m is surely exaggerated – not that the Lancet paper suggests this is likely by 2100. In fact no date is suggested at all. A perception of exaggeration may reduce the impact of this paper, contrary to the authors’ intention.

The Lancet paper identifies six main health effects from climate change: (1) changing patterns of disease and morbidity, (2) food, (3) water and sanitation, (4) shelter and human settlements, (5) extreme events, and (6) population and migration. However, no attempt is made to rigorously quantify the health effects for any of these. I can understand why, but this risks creating a perception of “hand waving”.

Another reason for the comparative lack of impact of this paper is that although its authors are consciously inter-disciplinary, the consensus in many other disciplines is far more conservative. This is exemplified by the issue of conflict. The possibility that climate change may contribute to violent climate was first raised in the health literature in 1989 (in a Lancet editorial), but has rarely surfaced since. A recent paper, by 26authors confirms the resistance of political scientists to this idea, although, outside this discipline, the idea is gaining more currency. The 2009 Lancet paper also reviews the literature at that time concerning food security and climate change. While not quantifying the risk, the message is consistently more downbeat than that of the IPCC reports, though the 2013 IPCC food chapter is less optimistic than its predecessors. If disciplinary specialists do not share the anxiety of the Lancet authors then why should generalists?

There is another reason that neither health workers nor the wider community takes the Lancet paper’s claim seriously: general incredulity. Conceding that our species is capable of critically undermining the environmental and social determinants that make civilisation possible appears to stretch our collective cognitive capacity. While many scientists (such as Will Steffen in this excellent recent lecture on the uncharted waters the Earth system is now in) and an increasing number of lay and business people (including Elon Musk) do understand this – and are rightly apprehensive, about “business as usual” the understanding that most of the world’s population has of climate science seems not much better than of evolution a century ago, or heliocentricity several hundred years before that. Adding to this difficulty, of course, are powerful vested interests that deliberately confuse and cloud public understanding and, to an extent, inherent scientific conservatism.

The final explanation I’d like to raise here is of causal attribution, also related to cognitive biases. The late Professor Tony McMichael coined the term “prisoners of the proximate” to encourage his epidemiological colleagues to think more deeply about cause. Of course, Tony was not the first to do this; causal theory is as old as philosophy. However, despite this vintage, many people, including scientists, get stuck with their preconceptions, and many have trouble conceding not only that there may be additional causal factors, but that these may co-exist with, rather than supplant their current causal preference. This tension is obvious concerning conflict. Military theorists are happy to conceive climate change as a “risk multiplier” for conflict, but not (yet) political scientists.

Climate change can indeed be conceptualised as the most important risk to health this century, but it is only one element in a risky milieu. Lowering the risk from climate change requires reducing the risk of many of its co-determinants of civilisation health. Among these, the most important factor may be complacency.