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How many deaths do you need to call it a catastrophe?

July 3, 2013

The following is an extract from an important report from the World Meteorological Organization: The Global Climate 2001-2010, A Decade of Climate Extremes:

Tropical cyclones were reported to have killed nearly 170,000 people and to have affected more than 250 million, causing economic damage of US$ 380 billion.

More than 370,000 people died during the decade as a result of extreme weather and climate conditions – heat, cold, drought, storms and floods, according to data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. This was 20% higher than 1991-2000.

I’ve highlighted a few facts here to emphasise a point I wish to make. In climate change debates, a term intended to be ironic and derogatory is often used: Catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW). We are asked repeatedly where all these alleged ‘catastrophes’ are, the ones predicted by models and scientists who can’t do science.

Even before reading this report, I was moved to ask a simple question: how many deaths make a catastrophe? How much destruction before some qualifying criteria is met? My answers are a single death, a single lost home, but that’s just a moral metric, and is probably irrelevant now, for the missing catastrophes are not, as it turns out, missing at all. Nor are they future events.

Climate change is killing people right now. It is destroying property, food crops, livelihoods and security, right now. This isn’t something that’s only going to happen in the future, nor does catastrophe depend on exceeding an arbitrary temperature increase like 2 degrees.

Climate change is already catastrophic. Perhaps we should do something about it before many more people die?

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