By Dr. Indur Goklany
Polarisation is the curse of the global warming debate. “Experts” who, in the name of science, forecast imminent climatic apocalypse are pitted against others—reviled as “sceptics” and “deniers”1 —who denounce them as false prophets, corrupters of science and latter-day Savonarolas. Scientists who enter the fray risk being tarred with the brush of one group or the other. For this reason, most retreat to the shadows, enfeebled spectators in a bar room brawl.
Public health has centre place in the arena. To the lay person this may seem reasonable: infectious disease and hot climates appear to go together so the hotter it gets the more dysentery, malaria, famine, deadly hurricanes and all the rest. And indeed, for nearly 20 years, time and time again, the message from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other United Nations’ bodies, plus governmental agencies, prominent politicians and high profile advocacy groups, has been unequivocal: global warming is a real and present danger, particularly in (currently) temperate regions but also in the hottest parts of the world, and human health will be a key casualty. Their literature is rife with
reviews that are rich in intuitive but speculative statements—evidence for events that have yet to occur is hard to come by—whereas arguments based on hard science tend to be more important to sceptics than to soothsayers.
A deplorable feature of the debate is that “experts” who write such reviews are poised to seize on current events as portents of the future. A single example from the UN camp will suffice. In the summer of 2007, a man with a fever flew from India to a tiny village in northern Italy where an alien mosquito, the “Asian Tiger”, had recently become established. It has long been known that the mosquito, an accidental import from Japan, can survive subzero temperatures and can transmit an unpleasant febrile disease called chikungunya. Within a week, members of the man’s family fell ill and the virus (it was chikungunya) began to spread. There was nothing really surprising about this: the Asian Tiger survives the Korean winter; why shouldn’t it enjoy the Italian summer? Moreover, summer temperatures in that village were higher than in many tropical countries where the virus thrives. Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the WHO office in Rome told the press: “We cannot say that the disease was caused (my emphasis) by climate change, but the conditions in Italy are now suitable for the Tiger Mosquito”. Her Director in Geneva was more forthright: “This is the first case of an epidemic of a tropical disease in a developed, European country. Climate change creates conditions that make it easier for this mosquito to survive…this is a real issue… it is not something a crazy environmentalist is warning about….”
The allusion to environmentalism is beguiling because environmentalists, crazy and otherwise, consistently quote the IPCC, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the WHO to vindicate their claims. The latter confer freely with environmentalist groups (the IPCC refers to them as “NGOs and other interested parties”) in writing their reports. To the exasperation of many scientists, their conjoined groups are intransigent, a firewall against rational dialog.
Indur Goklany’s study is a breath of fresh air. His objective is to offer perspective on the significance of (claimed) global warming health threats in the context of public health as a whole. For this he has dissected, analysed and summarized thousands of pages of articles, reports and UN documents. His conclusions, rigorously based on these sources, are indisputable: “the threat of global warming…is now and through the foreseeable future outranked by numerous other health threats”. There is no need for “denial”: the rankings are unequivocal, as is his statement: “Many of these higher ranking threats are diseases of poverty”. His conclusion is pragmatic and fair: “Exaggerating the importance of global warming seriously risks misdirecting the world’s priorities and its resources in its efforts to reduce poverty and improve public health”. It will be interesting to see whether his effort moderates the debate or kick-starts more exaggeration.
1 This epithet is surely beneath contempt, a clear allusion to “holocaust deniers”, people who claim that the Nazi extermination camps are a political myth.
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