round figures, and depending on how you calculate it, 10 million people die every year in connection with
poverty (hunger, curable disease, preventable disease) and most of them
are children. This is the largest death rate from any single
On this point there is some good news and some bad news. The good news
is that this death rate has been falling gradually for decades, largely
as a result of development aid projects including the Millenium
Development Goals. The bad news is this: given the world's growing
wealth, the problem of premature death in connection with poverty could
largely have been solved by now--for example, by targeting tax havens,
regulating international markets to prevent exploitation of developing
countries, reducing corruption, financing development aid at the
internationally agreed rate of 0.7% GDP, and so on. None of these
strategies have been taken seriously enough.
But there is a second piece of bad news, and it is the most serious of
all. In coming
change will gradually and sustainably increase the death rate in
connection with poverty. It is very likely that this will happen (feel
free to expect a miracle) and the reversal may already have begun.
global mean temperature rises by 3°C by 2100, which is
considering the continuing failure of the international community to
get a grip on the problem (even if the Paris agreement was fully
implemented it would not limit warming to 2°C), and if
the predictions of mainstream science come true (sea level rise,
oceanic acidification, killer heat waves,
frequent mega-storms, floods, droughts, and forest fires, extinction of a large
proportion of all species, mass
migration, wars over natural resources especially water), then the
death rate in connection with poverty will certainly at least double.
can happen? Even if the temperature increase is "only" 2°C,
is widely regarded as a "dangerous" limit, the death rate in connection
with poverty could double, reaching 20 million per year by 2100, of
which half will be attributable to climate change.
If we accept the most basic assumptions about human rights, namely that
the right to life is the most important right, and every
human being has the same value regardless of age, gender, skin color,
disability and so on, and if we accept that the value of a human life
is our most important value--certainly more important than money, and
important than the natural environment itself--then the death rate in
connection with poverty and climate change in coming decades
is the most important issue in the world today.
What other issue could be more important? In the past few years, the world has been deeply shocked by
violence in Syria, Iraq, and many other countries. But the death rate
connection with violence is roughly an order of magnitude (ten times)
smaller than the death rate in connection with poverty. Other
candidates for "the world's most important issue" include the risk of
nuclear war or a pandemic caused by artificial genetic
manipulation, but the probably of such catastrophes is low by
comparison to the probability that the death rate in connection with
poverty will double by the end of the century. Given what we know about
global warming and our failure to stop it, a doubling of the biggest death rate toward the end of the century is likely,
whereas the other mega-threats are relatively unlikely.
If this really is the world's most important issue, is it also the
most important issue in
academic research? Be prepared to be disappointed. It is just another
topic, and no more important than any other. I entered the words
"climate poverty death" into
Scholar and here is the first page of hits:
Thornton, P. K., Jones, P. G., Owiyo, T., Kruska, R. L., Herrero, M.,
Kristjanson, P., ... & Omolo, A. (2006). Mapping climate
vulnerability and poverty in Africa. (not published in a regular
Hardoy, J., & Pandiella, G. (2009). Urban poverty and
to climate change in Latin America. Environment and Urbanization,
Pogge, T. (2005). World poverty and human rights. Ethics &
International Affairs, 19(1), 1-7.
Hertel, T. W., & Rosch, S. D. (2010). Climate change,
and poverty. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 32(3), 355-385.
Barrett, C. B., Barnett, B. J., Carter, M. R., Chantarat, S., Hansen,
J. W., Mude, A. G., ... & Ward, M. N. (2007). Poverty traps and
climate risk: limitations and opportunities of index-based risk
Shackleton, S. E., & Shackleton, C. M. (2012). Linking poverty,
HIV/AIDS and climate change to human and ecosystem vulnerability in
southern Africa: consequences for livelihoods and sustainable ecosystem
management. International Journal of Sustainable Development &
World Ecology, 19(3), 275-286.
Thornton, P. K., Jones, P. G., Owiyo, T., Kruska, R. L., Herrero, M.,
Orindi, V., ... & Omolo, A. (2008). Climate change and poverty
Africa: Mapping hotspots of vulnerability. African Journal of
Agricultural and Resource Economics, 2(1), 24-44.
Pettengell, C. (2010). Climate Change Adaptation: Enabling people
living in poverty to adapt. Oxfam Policy and Practice: Climate Change
and Resilience, 6(2), 1-48.
The results are similar if you enter "climate poverty mortality".
According to my argument above, these studies belong to the most
important academic studies ever carried out, because they have
life-and-death-implications for a billion people--if not
for the entire planet. But they are hardly high-profile papers, and
they are not being cited more often than papers on other topics. The
citation rates are typical (in the range 40 to
There is another problem. Although the word "death" evidently
occurs somewhere in each paper (otherwise Google Scholar would not have
found them), that word does not appear in the titles or the
abstracts of these papers. In fact, these authors tend to
avoid the question of death rates in connection with climate change
altogether--although this, if my argument is correct, is the biggest
problem facing humanity today.
Why is the most important
issue of all being ignored?
see two main reasons.
- It makes us
feel guilty. We academics and our
funding agencies are contributing to the problem with our
own high-carbon lifestyles. We don't want our colleagues attracting
attention to our guilt. For this reason,
who do good research on this topic and publish it fear
for the careers. They are afraid that their papers and grant
will be mysteriously rejected.
in this area,
many academics are still in partial denial about the implications.
They may not say it, but they may think it: It's a beautiful day today
and sun is shining, so it cannot really be that bad, can
it? Besides, we are all surrounded by passive climate denial. Our
families, friends and professional colleagues my be very diverse, but
they have one thing in common: they are not taking climate change
seriously. It's hard not to be infected by their indifference.
I don't know which of these two is the main reason, or if there is
another reason that I have missed. But I have had
personal experiences that are consistent with both.
years I have been writing about this issue at parncutt.org and got
almost no response. I know that a lot of people out there are reading
my texts, and I am easy to find and contact, but hardly anyone is
Perhaps they think I am crazy? One would have to be crazy to care about
the right to life of a billion people, right?
Occasionally I have tried to find just one local academic colleague in
relevant discipline (climate science, climate economics, human rights,
ethics, global studies) who would co-author a paper on this topic with
me. I really need a co-author, because my expertise lies in a quite
different area. Besides, I should really be invited to speak on the
topic. Time is running out. But my attempts to make contact with
contrasting disciplines have generally failed. People are friendly
until you address the main topic directly, and after that they stop
answering emails. In conversation, they try to change the topic or
suggest gently that I might be exaggerating.
I'm not exaggerating. Nothing can be
more important than the right to life of a billion people. If ever
there was a fact, that's it. If ever there was a reason to invest much more money in research on climate and poverty, that's it.
In an increasingly untruthful and dishonest world, academia may be our last
bastion of truth and honesty. If there is a smug,
middle-class tendency within academia to deny the
true human costs of climate change, I hope it can soon be recognized
When that happens, the issue might at least get the attention it
deserves. It might for example at last become issue no. 1 at
every national election (rather than being completely ignored on those
occasions, which is the usual tendency), so that the problem can finally be solved by democratic