“400,000 People Every Year” – A Closer Look At A Climate Claim

Denial. It is a word we fear association with, yet choose to adopt for the betterment of our psyche. It is a trait of survivalism and a human biological mechanism that is inclined to help us thrive in less than welcoming circumstances.

Conventional ways of living bring joy and certainty and we align ourselves with the comforts they bring avoiding the unease and risk beyond them, especially if we fear turning the next page will be an unwelcome chapter.

Denialism. It can either be for these reasons, to belong or for profit. But what cannot be denied are the facts, whether or not one accepts them is beside the point. The facts can either help you or decay you.

Extinction Rebellion’s new video narrated by Kiera Knightley argued that “climate breakdown is already killing 400,000 people every year”. And though the claim was struck from the final draft, this estimate might be accurate. Just not annually. We will look at two examples of high death tolls caused as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change.

Researchers at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded in a study that human-driven climate change was responsible for the conditions that influenced the 2011 Syrian war which continues to this day.

There is evidence that the 2007−2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. It was the worst drought in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers”.

The study concluded that natural climate variability was less likely to be a factor and that results demonstrated a century of an increasing trend in drought.

“…Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 2 to 3 times more likely than by natural variability alone…”.

If anthropogenic climate change was the primary driver for the 2011 conflict in Syria, then to date the continuing war has claimed 400,000 lives. Whether considered direct or indirect, climate change was an influence for fighting in the middle east

A 2011 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that significant economic stress would be inflicted upon the Syrian people in the coming years as a consequence of climate change, including lower crop yields and increased food prices. In the report they say that “…while there is some evidence that droughts may become more frequent in the future, it is clear that even without an increase in frequency, drought impacts will continue to put a significant burden on Syria’s economy and people”. They go on to say that up to 57% of rainfed crop yields will be affected between 2010 to 2050. This could further stress a population with already decreasing domestic food supplies and could prompt further economic issues.

The war affected many parts of the world and a consequence of this was mass migration creating a crisis not seen for nearly a century. In 2014, it was estimated more than 600,000 refugees applied for asylum in the European Union. Iraq hosts 253,000 Syrian refugees and the Turkish authorities have registered 3.6 million refugees according to UNHCR.

In Sudan, increasing temperatures and rapidly expanding desertification triggered erosion of grazing patches in fertile land. A research paper by Brookings indicated a decline in water availability and caused “changed rainfall patterns resulting from climate change contributed to the conflict in Darfur”. Although the study can be challenged, many agree that at least in part, climate change accelerated the conflict though the primary factor remains political and ethnic divisions. More than 300,000 people are estimated to have been killed.

Taking into account the two conflicts, a direct consequence are hundreds of thousands of deaths. Is it every year? Of course not. Even though the claim of 400,000 deaths per year is not true, high death tolls are not out of scope for the future when considering the possibility of drought, famine and natural disasters.

This brief overview does not account for other parts of the world that have not been studied carefully, such as Somalia. And arguably, motivations for the Iraq war (oil), which although, not ascribed to climate change, its spoils do increase greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, including air and water contamination. 4.6 million deaths per year are estimated to be caused by air pollution and 826,000 die every year resulting from contaminated water.

But the inclusion of these figures will largely depend on defining death by climate change, and to date, no such definition exists. To determine these parameters may prove useful in elevating the importance of the climate emergency, but who decides this will require a notable uptake in concern. Although campaigning and public programming exist to educate the public, it is still a status we’re woefully far from achieving.

Climate change will undoubtedly increase food prices, poverty, conflict, extreme weather patterns, disasters, sea level and with that, loss of life is an unfortunate certainty.