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Worldwide, extreme weather disasters made worse by climate change caused more than 2 million deaths between 1970 and 2021, the World Meteorological Organization said.
Because of better warning systems, death rates from weather disasters have declined over the past 50 years. Some climate change skeptics have misconstrued this as evidence against climate change.
When Fox News debate moderator Martha MacCallum asked the Republican presidential primary candidates to raise their hands if they believed human behavior is causing climate change, Vivek Ramaswamy responded, "My hands are in my pockets."
"The reality is the anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy," Ramaswamy said. "And so the reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change."
Ramaswamy didn’t explain his evidence, and it was unclear what he was referring to — his campaign didn’t answer us on debate night or the following day. But in early August, he made a related claim on X, writing, "Fact: the climate disaster death rate has *declined* by 98% over the last century, even as carbon emissions have risen. The average person is 50X less likely to die of a climate-related cause than in 1920. Why? Fossil fuels. An inconvenient truth for the climate cult."
Although historical data does show deaths from weather disasters have declined since the 1900s, experts said that’s largely attributable to better disaster warning systems. Such data does not undermine evidence that extreme weather worsened by a warming planet has taken millions of lives.
"His answer is completely wrong," said Kevin Trenberth, a scholar at the National Center of Atmospheric Research. "I do not know of any policies that have increased risk."
A jet takes flight from Sky Harbor International Airport as the sun sets over Phoenix on July 12, 2023, a day of extreme heat. (AP)
Worldwide, extreme weather disasters worsened by climate change caused more than 2 million deaths from 1970 to 2021, the World Meteorological Organization said in a May 2023 report.
The World Health Organization said "climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity" and that "climate change is already killing us." WHO reported in November that at least 15,000 people died because of the heat in 2022.
Summer 2023 has set record temperatures in the U.S. and around the globe, with July the hottest month on record — and more than 70% of the U.S. population that month experienced at least one day with extreme temperatures. Human-caused climate change made those extremes at least three times more likely, one research group found.
"I don’t know of any climate policies that are killing people," said Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric sciences professor and director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University. "Fossil fuels, however, kill millions of people every year from air pollution."
Dessler pointed to 2021 research published by Harvard University in collaboration with other institutions that found more than 8 million people worldwide died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution. In the U.S., 350,000 premature deaths were attributed to fossil fuel pollution, the researchers found.
Damaged homes and debris are shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. (AP)
Ramaswamy has previously dismissed concerns about the health effects of fossil fuels, such as in poor neighborhoods sited near chemical plants.
"You’re more likely to be affected by restraints on fossil fuels," Ramaswamy said in a July podcast interview. "People are dying because of lack of access to fossil fuels."
His post appeared to have been parroting a Jan. 1, 2023, social media post by Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center think tank, who has long questioned conventional wisdom on climate change. In it, Lomborg shared a graphic showing deaths from floods, droughts, storms, wildfires and extreme heat have plummeted over the last century.
World Meteorological Organization data does show that death tolls fell from more than 50,000 in the 1970s to less than 20,000 in the 2010s. But climate scientists attributed that to better alert systems and disaster management — not climate change policy.
"There has been a gratifying decline in death rates from weather disasters over the past 50 years or so, and this has been misconstrued as evidence against climate change by quite a few so-called skeptics, not just Vivek," said Kerry Emanuel, a professor emeritus of atmospheric science at MIT. "This decline is very clearly attributable to rapidly improving warnings — a product of ever-improving weather forecasts — and better emergency preparation."
Although mortality is dropping, damage is increasing, even after accounting for inflation and increased concentration of wealth in hazardous places, Emanuel said. The World Meteorological Organization’s 2021 report found that while deaths are down, economic losses have increased sevenfold from the 1970s to the 2010s.
Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, said that report is consistent with another from the U.N. "in reporting large increases in the number of weather-related disasters and economic impacts, along with decreases in related fatalities."
The weather-related disasters can’t be solely attributed to climate change, she said, but "it certainly played a big role."
Meanwhile, she said, "I can’t think of a single climate policy that might have caused more deaths."
Ramaswamy said, "More people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change."
Ramaswamy didn’t explain what he was referring to, and his campaign didn’t answer our emails, but an earlier social media post seemed to refer to historical data showing a decline in weather-related deaths since the 1900s. Despite that decline, this is a fact: climate change is a worldwide killer. Better warning systems have helped reduce the death toll since the 1970s, but that comes amid extreme weather worsened by a warming planet.
Climate experts, meanwhile, told us that they know of no "climate change policies" causing deaths.
We rate this statement Pants on Fire!
Vivek Ramaswamy, Tweet, Aug. 7, 2023
Vivek Ramaswamy, LinkedIn post, May 2023
World Health Organization, Climate change is already killing us, but strong action now can prevent more deaths, Nov. 7, 2022
World Health Organization, Climate change and health, Oct. 30, 2021
World Meteorological Organization, Weather-related disasters increase over past 50 years, causing more damage but fewer deaths, Aug 31, 2021
Gavin Schmidt, X thread, May 14, 2023
United Nations, Extreme weather caused two million deaths, cost $4 trillion over last 50 years, May 22, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Extreme Heat, accessed Aug. 23, 2023
Climate Central, Fingerprints of climate change during Earth’s hottest month, Aug. 1, 2023
Harvard, Fossil fuel air pollution responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide, Feb. 9, 2021
PolitiFact, Do low natural gas prices save 11,000 lives a year? Sept. 23, 2021
Email interview, Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University, Aug. 24, 2023
Email interview, David Weiskopf, senior policy advisor at NextGen Policy, Aug. 23, 2023
Email interview, Harold R. Wanless, professor in the department of geography and sustainable development at University of Miami, Aug. 24, 2023
Email interview, Kerry Emanuel, MIT professor emeritus of atmospheric science, Aug. 24, 2023
Email interview, Jonathan Koomey, researcher and author, Aug. 24, 2023
Email interview, Kevin Trenberth, a scholar at the National Center of Atmospheric Research, Aug. 24, 2023
Email interview, Jennifer Francis, senior scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Center, Aug. 24, 2023
Email interview, Phil Klotzbach, senior research scientist at Colorado State University, Aug. 24, 2023
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