Host of deadly impacts between extremes of heat and cold
In his column in the Jan. 1 Ideas section, Jeff Jacoby (“Heat kills. Cold kills more.”) demonstrates the power of statistics to mislead. His claim that heat kills fewer people than cold may be true in a narrow sense, but people die from many other causes besides “heat” and “cold.” Storms, to name just one. Climate change has unleashed more powerful storms than ever, with dramatic increases in human deaths from drowning. Does anyone think those victims care that they did not die from the cold?
Jacoby cites the recent storm in the Buffalo area and implies that they died from the cold. However, this disastrous type of storm is caused by lake-effect snow, where cold air blows over the relatively warmer (unfrozen) surface of Lake Erie. In years past, when our climate was only just a few degrees cooler, the lake would freeze or partially freeze. The result would be to “diminish or cut off our lake-effect snow off of Lake Erie,” according to National Weather Service meteorologist Kirk Apffel.
Heat may not kill more people directly as compared with cold, but the indirect results of a warmer climate are demonstrably deadly in countless ways.
Oh, gosh, just count all those silver linings
Jeff Jacoby notes that by our continuing to warm the planet there’s a “significant silver lining” to be found in fewer cold-related deaths. In that same spirit, let’s consider a few more benefits offered by a warming planet, shall we?
Coastal inundation from sea level rise will be a boon to the construction industry. Fortifying coastal areas and even relocating entire neighborhoods or cities could be necessary. Construction jobs will soar. Fortunately finding enough workers shouldn’t be a challenge since desperate climate refugees can provide the labor.
Agricultural disruption will probably lead to food shortages, which may inspire more residential backyard gardening and (looking on the bright side) might even help people appreciate when food was more abundant.
I don’t find comfort in Jacoby’s observation. Looking for a “significant silver lining” in the climate crisis is a dangerous deflection that perpetuates inaction and more inadequate incrementalism.
Indirect effects of extreme heat must be taken into account
While I appreciated Jeff Jacoby’s column on the significant risks of cold, I feel that it underplays the effect of the extreme heat that may come with climate change. While the relative number of people who die from the direct effects of extreme heat may be lower, Jacoby does not take into account the indirect effects. Desertification, water loss, starvation, mass migrations of people and animals, and extinctions are all effects of climate change and extreme heat.
While Jacoby mentions some of this in passing, I fear that the piece will be used to justify more fossil fuel energy infrastructure.
Holistically speaking, it’s a global humanitarian crisis
Jeff Jacoby’s column “Heat kills. Cold kills more.” oversimplifies the issue of climate change-related death by reducing it to the single factor of temperature. His chosen data imply that we can sit back and be complacent because future winters are likely to be less cold.
A more holistic view of climate change would take into account the death and destruction wrought by the increasingly violent floods, hurricanes, and wildfires we are already experiencing. Drought-related famine, increases in tropical insect-borne diseases, and air pollution resulting from wildfires and the continued burning of fossil fuels also are predicted to contribute significantly to increased deaths.
Whether you choose to think of it as a battle “of good against evil” or as nature taking its course, climate change is, and will continue to be, a global humanitarian crisis. It is misleading, if not irresponsible, to characterize it as anything less.
Ellen Vliet Cohen