Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Climate change and health: Tony McMichael and an "index of existential risk"

It's another average day for me, except that that, were Tony McMichael still alive, it would be his 76th birthday. Tony was one of the the first leading figures in public health to recognize the risk to human health from climate change.

The trough in the annual cycle of carbon dioxide levels is now over 405 ppm (parts per million). The Federal President of the Young Liberals has just pronounced that Australia should not take any leadership role in tackling climate change. Even more worryingly, he has suggested that the billion or so people without electricity should be illuminated by coal burning. (But Indian President Modi does not agree (see endnote - PPS)). The lead author of a new article on ancient climate (about 50 million years ago) has just been quoted as saying that “Some climate models suggest that the tropics just became a dead zone with temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) like in Africa and South America.. but we have no data so we don’t know.” At the time he was discussing (called the early Paleogene), carbon dioxide levels may have been 1000 ppm.

I have an article under review which reports an "index of existential risk" for climate change and health, identified in the climate and health literature. I looked at 2,146 articles, editorials and news items, published in the first 25 years of this literature (1989-2013 inclusive). Each paper was given a score between 1 and 3, depending on the degree to which they recognized that climate change may pose an "existential risk" to civilization, and thus health. The average score of these papers was 1.37. 

The average score of Tony's 74 papers was 1.99 (see figure). I mentioned this last week, when I had the chance to talk at the Public Health Association of Australia's 2018 conference, after I received the 2018 award for public health, ecology and environment, named after Tony McMichael. The slides for my talk ("From life support to regional overload") are here

The press release for this award stated that I see civilization at risk, not life, if we continue the current trajectory of fossil fuel burning (and other approaches to planetary boundaries). This is not because it may become so warm that there may again be crocodiles and palm trees in the Arctic Circle, but because the chaos that will be inflicted upon human society through many processes associated with "regional overload" (of which unfavourable climate  change is but one) are likely to outweigh human coping capacity. Here are three candidate contributors, in no order: (1) drought, heat and rising food prices triggering more political instability; (2) sea level rise on the US East Coast leading to a massive loss in property values and thus worsening a financial crisis; (3) a mass human flight from north east China later this century, due to intolerable heat and humidity. 

Even now, solutions might be found. The technology for electricity and elective transport is rapidly advancing. California seeks to be 100% carbon free by 2045. Education reduces fertility (reduced fertility in many settings is important, not to slow climate change, but to reduce climate change related catastrophes in the global South). But these solutions need high level recognition by our political leaders, and that needs the global middle class to understand that rapid transition, towards sustainability, is both urgent and attainable.   

PS Later this month I am teaching, in Finland, in a short course on climate change and health, based on my edited book. (I have just agreed to edit a second edition but it will take some time.)

PPS Prime Minister Modi is reported as saying that:
1. He saw the 121 country International Solar Alliance as the future OPEC for meeting energy needs of the world
2. India would add as much as 50 GW (gigawatts) of non-hydro renewable energy to its existing 72 GW and is on track to reach its target of 75 GW of clean energy by 2022
3. That India’s solar energy increased by nine times in the last four years
4. That in the next four years as many as 28 lakh (2.8 million) solar pumps would be installed which would help avoid 10 GW generation capacity. 
5. 31 crore (310 million) LED bulbs were distributed

50GW is a lot - according to the 2018 Clean Energy Report less than 6 GW of large scale renewable energy projects were under construction or expected to start in 2018, in Australia.


Tony McMichael's 74 papers (1989-2013 inclusive) on climate change and health, scored by their recognition of existential risk.