If you look at the major risks to human health and well-being around the world, you will quickly come to realize that climate change ranks nowhere near the top of the list. For example, the WHO and various other estimates show that something like 10 million people per year die from easily curable infectious diseases every single year, most of these concentrated among poor children. Something on the order of 5 to 7 million people die from exposure/sickness caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution.
These are out of a total global annual death total of 50 million.
What is absolutely astonishing about these figures is that as a “technical” matter, both of these are really straightforward to eradicate (this post is not a lesson about that), and would be economically very inexpensive to eradicate. While there are many other things to worry about in the world, these would seem to swamp them. Most notable, even the most dramatic estimates of the additional deaths due to climate change (WHO) are on the order of an extra 250,000 deaths per year. And these are deaths attributed to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. Note that these diseases obviously have other causes, and can and have been incredibly dealt with without worrying about climate. The number of deaths, directly, due to floods, droughts and storms (all of which will get worse under climate change) are nearly an order of magnitude smaller than this.
To put it a little in perspective, it seems like the number of suicides in China is on the order of 300,000 per year. The number of automobile fatalities in Indonesia is on the order of 316,000 per year. Combined, these swamp the accumulated global impacts of climate change on death.
Now, look – the fear (if I were an alarmist) of me making such points is that people would be inclined to dismiss the potential seriousness of climate change, especially if climate feedbacks turn out to be large, and the accumulated effects of warming, interacting with other environmental factors, push us toward an extremely bad future. And being prepared for the potential catastrophe is in fact the appropriate way to think about climate risk. My point is that exaggerating the most likely deaths and damages are undermining the point, because if this is the “best” that the models conjure up, people will not take the existential threat seriously enough.
So I get that.
But, if we need to make sure we make people aware of the possible (albeit not extremely likely) awful future climate scenarios despite the fact that it really is not going to cause many deaths (malaria can and will be eradicated despite climate change, so how does that change our thinking about it), then how come we are not consistently making people aware of even more likely threats and in areas where the current and historical death tolls are orders of magnitude greater.
Take socialism. Now, we can have a talk about what “optimal” socialism or even better communism looks like. We can talk about what corruptions of socialism there were in the past, and ignore the fact that if you want to use those arguments you need to use them in regard to other -isms too, or that they are fanciful. The point being is that historically, socialism has led to the direct murder, maiming, beating, torturing, dismemberment, burial-alive, poisoning, etc. of well over 100 million people. So, if those were evenly spread over a century, it killed directly 1 million people per year. And the dirty little secret of socialism that does NOT get discussed in these figures is the obvious fact that socialism made people poorer than they otherwise would have been – even if living conditions in many of those places was “acceptable.” Look at Soviet life expectancies for example. Now, no one I know would argue against the general idea that one of the greatest risks to life and health is poverty. And we can conjure up all kinds of epidemiological tables demonstrating how every $1,000 less of income or wealth correlates with worse health outcomes.
Then …. socialism probably killed hundreds of millions more than even Uncle Joe or Pol Pot executed directly. Why is this never talked about, especially when folks mention the idea that capitalism, despite massively increasing overall wealth, also seems to lead to inequality and hence (it is assumed) more death for the folks “left behind?” This is not a case of “whataboutism.”
Furthermore, if folks get nervous about “normalizing” the idea that climate change won’t kill hundreds of millions of people and that is reason enough to speak more cautiously of the numbers I cite above, then why is there ANY serious conversation about implementing even the soft socialisms of today? They are not just historical death machines, but the “risk” that the present to us is at a scale no less than the existential risks that climate change poses. This is not some pie in the sky guess. We’ve already seen it dozens of times.
So, what is the difference? If we are going to wrap our civilizations in bubble wrap, it would seem to me that the first thing that needs to go is any appeal to central planning and property abolition. Somehow I don’t think we can ever have that conversation.