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Climate Change and Weather Extremes: Both Heat and Cold Can Kill
By Garth Heutel, David Molitor and Nolan Miller
Climate change is increasing the frequency and strength of some types of extreme weather in the U.S., particularly heat waves. Last summer the U.S. Southwest experienced life-threatening heat waves, which are especially dangerous for elderly people and other vulnerable populations.
More recently, record-setting cold temperatures engulfed much of the country during the first week of 2018. This arctic blast has been blamed for dozens of deaths. Some scientists believe that Arctic warming may be a factor in this type of persistent cold spell, although others question this connection.
In a recent working paper, we studied the effect of temperature extremes on elderly mortality, using comprehensive data from Medicare covering about 35 million beneficiaries. Analyzing daily patterns at the ZIP code level, we estimated how daily temperature changes affect elderly mortality as a way to predict how people may adapt to climate change.
Our key finding is that both heat waves and cold snaps increase mortality rates. For example, the mortality rate from a day with average temperatures between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit is higher by about one death per 100,000 individuals than a day with an average temperature between 65 and 70 degrees. Deaths also increase, by about one-half per 100,000 individuals, on days when the average temperature is less than 20 degrees.
Heutel et al, 2017, CC BY-ND
Shivering in Florida, Sweating in North Dakota
People and communities have many options for adapting to climate change. They can install air conditioning, or change the urban environment—for example, by planting trees to cool city streets. They may improve readiness at health care facilities, or modify public health strategies—for example, by raising public awareness of risks associated with extreme weather.
As regions adapt, one might suspect that hot places like Miami deal well with heat but struggle with cold, while cold places like Fargo, North Dakota, are ready for deep freezes but less prepared for heat waves. This is exactly the pattern we found when we separately analyzed the hottest, middle and coldest thirds of all U.S. ZIP codes.
In hot places like Miami, cold days have a very large impact on mortality, while the impact of hot days is smaller. In contrast, hot days in Fargo have a very large impact on mortality, but an additional cold day has little effect. In fact, the effect of the hottest days (90 degrees or higher) in the coldest places is about two to three times larger than the effect of the coldest days (less than 20 degrees) in the hottest places.
Heutel et al., 2017, CC BY-ND
Next we considered how people and communities may adapt as climate change intensifies. We used predictions of temperatures in 2080-2100 from a set of climate models called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5, which uses 21 different climate models and assumes that global carbon emissions continue to rise through the end of the century.
Using these projections, we predicted how many extra deaths would be caused by temperature extremes across our hot, moderate and cold zones under three different assumptions.
- First, we assumed that no future adaptation occurred and that temperature had the same effect on mortality in all regions of the country.
- Second, we assumed that no future adaptation took place, but that temperature had a different effect on mortality for each ZIP code.
- Lastly, we assumed that temperature effects on mortality varied and that communities took steps to adapt to climate change. We did not explicitly model specific adaptation strategies; instead, we used the current differences in temperature effects across regions to predict future responses to climate change. Roughly, if Chicago's future climate starts to resemble current conditions in Miami, then we expect temperature effects on mortality in Chicago to begin mirroring the effects we see now in Miami, as Chicago employs better strategies to cope with high temperature extremes.
Heutel et al., 2017, CC BY-ND
In our first scenario, with no adaptation and uniform temperature effects, we found that climate change would increase death rates in the hottest regions by about 2 percent, but would reduce death rates in the coldest regions by a tiny 0.02 percent. This outcome supports the logical expectation that global warming could be less harmful or even beneficial for cold places, since it will reduce the number of very cold days.
Recall that in reality, however, cold regions deal well with cold weather but are less able to deal with extreme heat. In our second scenario, with no adaptation and temperature effects varying by region, we found that warming would increase deaths everywhere. Cold places would experience fewer very cold days, but they would experience more very hot days, for which they are not adapted. Consequently, we estimated that deaths would rise by about 3.7 percent in the coldest regions.
On the other hand, very hot places would see smaller mortality increases in this scenario. Hot places are harmed less than cold places by additional hot days, and benefit more from experiencing fewer cold days than the national average would suggest. In the net, we estimate that deaths due to weather extremes would increase in the hottest places by only 0.97 percent.
Finally, in our third scenario, which allowed for future adaptation to global warming, we found that mortality rates from extreme temperatures decreased for the middle and hottest regions and for the U.S. overall. This result indicates that when people and communities are allowed to adapt fully to temperature increases, they will do so in ways that more than offset the negative effects of climate change.
Is Adaptation the Answer?
Taken at face value, these simulations suggest that we don't need to worry about harmful effects of climate change on elderly mortality, because we can adapt through steps such as installing air conditioning and setting up short-term emergency shelters such as warming centers. But this conclusion would be overly optimistic for several reasons.
First, our study ignores the costs of adapting. Steps such as weatherizing homes can be expensive for both individuals and governments. President Donald Trump's 2018 budget request proposed eliminating the Department of Energy's Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps increase the energy efficiency of low-income homes.
Second, our results do not consider other possible policy responses, such as action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or geoengineer the climate, which may be more effective than relying on adaptation alone.
Our results suggest that there is room for steps that could substantially reduce heat-related elderly mortality due to climate change. Whether to take those steps is a social and political decision. But Americans should consider the temperature extremes that our nation has experienced over the past year as they weigh these choices.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.
"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."
The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.
The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.
The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.
"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."
Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.
"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."
Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.
"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."
- Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change ›
- How working less could solve all our problems. Really. | ›
- Needed: A shorter work week – People's World ›