Climate Death Calculator

Richard Parncutt
8 April 2014, revised June 2016

Abstract. In round figures, humans have so far burned half a trillion tons of carbon, which has caused global mean temperature to rise by 1°C. Burning another half a trillion tons will cause a further 1°C increase. Meanwhile, roughly ten million people (mainly children) are still dying every year as an indirect consequence of poverty in developing countries; the main direct causes of death are hunger, preventable disease, and/or curable disease. A global 2°C increase will raise sea levels, rendering enormous areas uninhabitable and unfarmable. The severity of killer storms, floods, and droughts will increase. Food and fresh water supplies will be reduced by desertification, deglaciation, ocean acidification, and species extinction. These catastrophic developments will combine to significantly increase the global death rate in connection with poverty. If the death rate increases from 10 to 20 million per year over a period of century, a billion deaths will be attributable to global warming. This is a conservative prediction, given the long-term effects of greenhouse gas emissions (thousands of years) and the real possibility that hundeds of millions of climate refugees will die as they try to reach and enter rich countries that are surrounded by hi-tech defenses and governed by extreme right-wing political parties. If burning a trillion tons of carbon causes a billion deaths, we kill one future person every time we burn a thousand tons of carbon. This order-of-magnitude estimate means for example that Australian coal exports are killing 100 000 future people every year. In the light of this imminent and unprecedented catastrophe, current UN plans (e.g. Paris 2015) are merely scratching the surface. The seriousness of the problem is routinely underestimated. Global warming is a massive human rights violation. We must stop burning all fossil fuels now, except where burning is necessary to save lives. It is time to recognize the truth of this statement and stop avoiding or denying it. The window of opportunity is gradually closing and there will be no second chance. We must urgently implement fair, transparent, effective economic measures to rapidly and sustainably reduce emissions. Apart from ending all fossil-fuel subsidies immediately, the most obvious solution is a globally harmonized carbon tax (and meat tax) that is steadily increased until global communities of climate scientists agree that the problem is under control. Economic arguments against such taxes are generally invalid, because saving human lives is always more important than purely economic considerations. Proceeds from such taxes are urgently needed to fund research and development in sustainable sources of energy, climate-friendly agriculture, and energy-efficient housing and transport. New tax revenue is also needed to help countries to develop without fossil fuels and deforestation.

The current global death toll associated with poverty
The additional effect of global warming 
How much CO2 does it take to kill one future person?
The monetary value of a human life: Rich versus poor
How evil are ordinary human beings?
What about academic conferences?
Psychic numbing

After the terrifying confirmation of scientific predictions in the 2013-2014 IPCC report, you would think the world would be reeling. There would be protests everywhere, people blocking motorways, sabotaging airports, cutting power supplies to major industries.

Instead, we are continuing to pump massive amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every hour, every second of every day, as if there was no tomorrow. We are not even taking Sundays off! Who cares if this is the last century, the end of history? Who cares about our children and grandchildren? Hardly anyone, apparently.

Our greenhouse gases are killing people in the future, and this is not mere conjecture. In a 2011 paper entitled "How harmful are the average American's greenhouse gas emissions", the philosopher John Nolt calculated on the basis of accepted mainstream scientific findings combined with some simple, uncontroversial assumptions that "the average Ameican causes through his/her greenhouse gas emissions the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people" (p. 9). Although many criticized his approach, there can be no doubt that his conclusion was approximately correct: in the middle classes of the rich countries, each individual is living at the expense of two future people. The number of future deaths per current life is higher, possibly much higher, for the upper/owning class--the more money you have, the more future people you are effectively killing. Nolt also clarified that his estimate could be "wrong by an order of magnitude", meaning that the average American could be causing the deaths of between 0.2 and 20 future people. But experts in climate science who carefully read Nolt's paper will presumably agree  that his estimate cannot be out by more than a factor of ten.

Nolt's conclusion can be reached more simply. If global warming increases the current death toll in connection with poverty from 10m to 20m per year for a century, which is a reasonable estimate given the various negative effects of global warming that will in turn negatively affect the death rate in connection with poverty, then at the end of that century global warming will effectively have killed 10m x 100 = 1bn people. In other words,
global warming will kill roughly 10% of the projected global population of 10 billion, but the deaths will be spread out over a century, The main reason for global warming is human emissions, and the main people responsible for those emissions are those living in rich countries. Very roughly (given the uncertainly of defining "rich") there are about a billion of us richer people. Seen that way, every one of us is effectively killing one poorer future person. That may be a conservative estimate, given that the effects of greenhouse gas emissions will last for much longer than one century. If the words "kill" and "death" seem too strong, one can say instead that global warming will significantly shorten the lifetimes of a billion people.

Whichever way you look at it, this is a deeply shocking relevation, and a good reason to stop all burning of all fossil fuels as soon as possible. Not in 20 or five years, but right now. Nolt's conclusion should have been headline news in every newspaper in the world--after all, we are talking about the future of all of humanity. Everyone will be affected. Instead, beyond some academic discussion (the paper has been frequently cited in the research literature), the public response to the paper was stony silence. Almost no-one is talking about it, and you won't find a word in the mainstream media (correct me if I'm wrong).

From an objective scientific or philosophical viewpoint, the truth content of Nolt's conclusion is hardly distinguishable from that of statements such as "the earth is rotating around the sun and not vice-versa" or "humans and monkeys have a common ancestor". There is some doubt about such ideas, to be sure--maybe we only believe the earth is rotating around the sun because it makes the mathematics easier, and we have no direct evidence of the said common ancestor--but for practical purposes they might as well be completely true.

Why, then, aren't we throwing up our arms in horror? Why is this absolutely central moral question being suppressed? Rather than answer this question, allow me to approach Nolt's question again, by a different route. How many future people are we really killing with our greenhouse emissions?

The current global death toll associated with poverty

The current death rate from hunger, preventable/curable disease and violence in developing countries is roughly 10 million per year. That is the mother of all current scandals, because most of these deaths could have been prevented by now, had the rich countries lived up to a number of promises
for the past two decades, or had done some things that obviously need doing, and urgently. These things include spending 0.7% of GDP on official developmental assistance, getting rid of tax havens, reducing protectionism in rich countries so developing countries can reasonably compete on global markets, reducing the exploitation of natural resources in developing countries by multinationals, and taxing international transactions, environmental damage, and wealth (preferably based on global agreements). As long as most rich countries fail to regulate global markets in such obvious ways, and instead tolerate the chaotic wild-west globalisation that is causing the gap between rich and poor to rise, slowly but surely, this shocking death rate could remain roughly constant for a long time. That is in spite of the partial success of the chronically underfunded Millennium Development Goals, and more recently the Sustainable Development Goals.

Over a normal human lifetime of 70 years, 700 million avoidable deaths can be attributed to poverty and our failure to alleviate it. That's one in ten people whose life is ended pointlessly. If most such deaths happen in developing countries, and hardly any in industrialised countries, you can imagine what this means for developing countries. Today, 700 million people are living in extreme poverty, and at least 200 million of them are children. The chance that poverty will indirectly cause the death of any such child is shockingly high.

The additional effect of global warming 

Global warming will gradually and increasingly affect food and fresh water supplies. The process is complex and involves many uncertain factors such as reduced biodiversity, ocean acidification, changed rainfall patterns (desertification or flooding), deglaciation, and reduced ground water. In many parts of the world, water shortages will become increasingly common and severe. In ways such as these (and there are many such processes), global warming could easily double the global avoidable death rate
during this century, other things remaining equal. Let's suppose for the purpose of argument that the death rate increases linearly from 10 to 20 million per year over 100 years as a result of global warming. That's an average rise of less than 1% per year, which seems realistic and possibly conservative. That would mean that an additional half a billion deaths  attributable to global warming over the course of a century. Note that this result may be approximately true even if the death rate without global warming gradually fell.

My estimate of a 100% increase in the death rate is consistent with evidence from diverse sources. Since first publishing this idea on this page in 2014, I have found no evidence to contradict it. In April 2016, the World Bank decided to spend 28% of investments on climate change projects (more), based on the assumption that climate change will increase the number of people in extreme poverty from 700 million to 800 million, an increase of 14%, in the next 15 years (more). The death rate in connection with extreme poverty will increase by the same amount. The gradual increase in global mean temperature will continue throughout the century, even if emissions are drastically reduced. The increase in the death rate due to poverty will not be linear; it will accelerate for a few decades before the rich countries are shocked enough to  end carbon burning altogether. On this basis, a 100% increase in the death rate due to poverty by the end of the century is a reasonable estimate.

Global warming will kill in many different ways. I am assuming that hunger and disease will be the biggest contributors. Other causes of death will include extreme weather events and wars over diminishing resources such as fresh water supplies. With a temperature rise of 3 or 4 degrees Celsius, which is where we are probably heading even if international leaders commit to 2.7° (given the difficulty governments have had enforcing such agreements in the past), we can also expect millions of climate refugees to die or even to be violently killed as they try desperately to invade the rich countries. Maybe that will happen at only 2 degrees. Just look at the predictions for Bangladesh - and there are many other similarly vulnerable countries.

That's only considering one century - the 21st. The effects of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will be felt for further centuries if our descendants don't manage to get those greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. At the moment, scientists have little idea how that could be done. The scale of the problem is enormous. Geoengineering solutions could have terrible side effects. We can pray for a miracle, of course.

Assuming “only” a 2°C rise in global mean temperature, which at the moment seems politically quite out of reach, and beyond which there is a risk that things could get out of control, global warming will still kill hundreds of millions of future people. If it kills 10 million per year for 100 years, that will be a billion people whose lives were cut short by the effects of climate change. 

Those readers who have studied some physics will know what I am doing here. I am working with order-of-magnitude estimates. For the purpose of this discussion, they are accurate enough. The number of people that climate change will kill is certainly much greater than 100 million and much less than 10 billion, the long-term future world population in the absence of global warming, assuming that humanity will somehow manage to get this problem under control. (Deep down, as you can see, I am still a somewhat naive optimist.)

How much CO2 does it take to kill one future person?

According to the IPCC in 2013, if we burn altogether a trillion tons of carbon (that’s a million million, or 1012), and then stop, there will be a 2°C increase in mean global temperature. If that in turn causes a billion deaths (a thousand million, or 109), spread out over the next century, we can estimate how much carbon it takes, on average, to kill one future person: 1000 tons of carbon, or 4000 tons CO2 (the exact ratio is 3.667). Of course these figures are very approximate, but the true value surely lies between 100 and 10000 tons of carbon. I showed elsewherethat the number is smaller (so the situation is even more serious) if we assume that humanity is already heading toward extinction, which is certainly not impossible (I would guess that the probability is 10%). For the moment  I will stick with a rough estimate 1000 tons carbon and explore the implications.

Let's first consider the global situation. Globally, humans are burning over 10 billion tons of carbon per year (which is producing 40 billion tons of 
CO2). If it takes 1000 tons of carbon to kill one future person, we are currently killing 10 million future people per year by burning fossil fuels. The number of seconds in a year is about 30 million, so one future person is being killed every three seconds. The number of children dying of hunger is less: one every five seconds. Of course these are only rough estimates and may change depending on the underlying assumptions. (Readers please let me know if your calculations give different results.)

My country, Australia, proudly exports 100 million tons of coal yearly from Newcastle NSW - and wants to double this figure in coming years. If we export 130 million tons of coal yearly, of which 100 million tons are pure carbon, and all of that is burned, we indirectly cause some 100 000 future deaths (or between 10 000 and 1 000 000) every year.

If you don't believe me, let's calculate it differently. The global carbon budget for a 2°C rise is a trillion tons of carbon (which would be like 100 years at the current rate of 10 million per year - but remember, humans have been burning carbon for a long time). Australia is producing 1/10000 of that every year. One ten thousandth. That does not seem like very much, but if global warming of 2°C is going to kill a billion people during the coming century (which as I have explained is possible given the many negative effects of global warming, their unpredictable interactions, and the effect all of this will have on the death rate in association with poverty, which is currently roughly 10 million per year), Australia is now killing 1/10000 of a billion each year. That's 100 000 people per year. That's the Melbourne Cricket Ground, full of screaming football fans. Australian Rules Football, of course. If you prefer soccer, it's Wembley Stadium.

The Atlantic slave trade stole the freedom of over 10 million people, and killed maybe 3 million altogether, spread out over three centuries. If Australian coal exports were maintained at the current rate for a century, they would kill 10 million people in just one century.

Is anybody reading this? I just calculated that Australian coal exports are killing 100 000 future people per year! The only response can be: STOP EXPORTING COAL. The whole industry must be wound down as soon as possible. The number of unemployed will be far less than the number of people we are killing every year. They should get fair benefits, of course. But it is more important to save lives than save jobs. Am I making myself clear? You cannot compare taking away someone's job with killing someone, or - said more politely - indirectly causing a future death.

The same applies to all fossil-fuel industries. All of them, in every country.

People will say to me: "What about all those unemployed people! Do you care?" Then I will say: "What about all those dead people? Do you care?" The reply will be: "But those people don't exist!" And I will say: "Look into the eyes of a child. Here is the person you are killing in the future. She or he is here right now. We are destroying the future world of our children. They will suffer enormously after we die, as a result of our negligence." After a short silence, the reply will be: "But that is only a matter of probability!" And I will say: "If that is the case, why do you buy insurance policies? And what would you think if your child was forced to play Russian Roulette?" Hmm. The next excuse will be: "But probably those deaths will only happen in developing countries! That is not our problem!" And my answer will be: "The  economy is increasingly globalised. We are constantly taking advantage of global trade relationships. Now it is time to take responsibility for human rights in countries with which we are in constant contact. Besides, if we don't care about the deaths of non-white people, that is racism."

This is the kind of conversation that might really happen, because people are very creative at finding excuses not to take responsibility for global warming. Just imagine what would happen if we put that kind of creativity into solving the problem itself.

In fact, winding down the fossil fuel industry will not cause unemployment. Quite the opposite: there will be a lot of work to do to convert to sustainable energy, and there will be a lot of money available to pay people to do that work. That is because the simplest solution to global warming is it to tax all greenhouse gas emissions at globally agreed rates, and then gradually raise those rates until it is clear that we are on track to long-term sustainability. The idea is to make people pay the true environmental cost of their purchase or activities. The additional tax revenue can be used to finance research and development of alternative sources of energy, which will create a lot of jobs.

Incidentally, while I am fundamentally opposed to nuclear energy, the implications of global warming make coal even worse.
If we have to choose between coal and nuclear, then nuclear is the lesser of two evils. China for example burns about 4 billion tons of coal per year, which according to my calculations is causing 3 million future deaths per year. The USA is even worse. Nuclear power stations could also cause millions of deaths, for example if there is a more serious accident than ever before, or if terrorists get the chance to make nuclear weapons. The probability that something like that will happen this century is high; the probability of dangerous global warming is similarly high, but I guess the likely resultant death toll is higher in the case global warming (hundreds of millions rather than tens of millions). Even ignoring the fate of future generations, one could argue that coal is more dangerous than nuclear because merely mining the stuff kills thousands ever year (maybe 1000 in China alone, recently 300 in Turkey), whereas Fukushima had a death toll of zero. These points seem like good reasons to promote nuclear power as a solution to the climate crisis. But that would be a logical fallacy; it does not necessarily follow from the arguments I have presented, no matter what the nuclear power industry says. Why risk nuclear fallout, nuclear attacks or even nuclear war if we have a realistic chance of reducing the probability of such catastrophes? Why leave future generations with enormous stockpiles of nuclear waste? If we care about future generations, we should be urgently developing all forms of sustainable energy, and financing that development with new globally harmonised environment taxes - because human lives are more important than money. If during this transition we find that we don't have enough sustainable energy, the solution will not be to promote nuclear energy. The solution will be to increase environment taxes and use the additional revenue to increase sustainable energy subsidies until the problem is solved. From that point of view nuclear power should never be necessary. Countries that are heavily dependent on nuclear power should be following Germany's lead and planning to get rid of it in the long term.

Here’s another example. The fuel capacity of a modern jumbo jet is well over 200 000 liters. Jet fuel or kerosene produces about 2.5 kg CO2 per liter. So one long flight produces 500 tons of CO2. That initially suggests that 8 flights are enough to kill one person. But the total global warming effect of aviation is 2-3 times the effect of the CO2, at least according to the IPCC paper "Aviation and the global atmosphere" (1999). This number is very approximate because it mixes long-term and short-term effects, but we are working with approximate numbers anyway. On that basis, only three long flights may be enough to kill one person.

There is only one rational solution to this calculation, and that is to STOP FLYING. If that will cause the economy to collapse, then we need a compromise solution. That solution can only mean an enormous increase in taxation on jet fuel and kerosene. I guess that is a kind of death tax: if you have enough money, you can afford the right to kill a future person.

Have I made clear how urgent this is? We are killing people in the future. Do people reading this text know what the word "kill" means? It means to end the life of another person, by whatever means.

The monetary value of a human life: Rich versus poor 

How valuable is the life of a rich person by comparison to the life of a poor person? You would think that the answer to this question is: they are equal. Every human life has the same value, surely. That is the foundation of human rights, which almost everyone agrees with.

In reality, the rich countries are behaving as if the life of a rich person were at least 100 times more valuable than the life of a poor person. That is the outcome of the following analysis, which is based on the following two questions. First, how much money is spent on airport security to reduce the chance of a few hundred people dying in a plane crash caused by a suicidal hijacker, or a few thousand in a repeat of 9/11? Second, how much is being spent, or should be spent, on international development cooperation to reduce the future death toll in developing countries by hunger, preventable disease and curable disease?

These questions can be answered by making some rough estimates and performing some simple calculations. Let's say in a first approximation that there are 1000 airports in the world that spend a million dollars each on security per year. That would be a billion per year for airport security. In fact, airport security costs much more. In 2012, it was reported that the US Transportation Security Administration had an annual budget of over $7 billion. That's in the US alone. So I guess the world budget for airport security must be something like
$20 billion.

How does that compare with  money spent to alleviate poverty in developing countries? Global development assistance would be costing 0.7% of the total GDP of the rich nations, if the rich countries were keeping that oft-affirmed agreement, which most are not. The GDP of rich nations is presumably most of gross world product, which is about $80 trillion. Let's assume it is
$50 to 60 trillion; 0.7% of that is $400 billion. According to these approximate figures, we are spending about 20 times more on development than on airport security.

That sounds promising at first, but not if you compare the number of lives potentially saved in the two cases. In the case of global development, we could save 
50 million lives over a period of ten years by universally increasing development aid to 0.7% of GDP (cf. Sachs, 2005). That would be 1 in 20 of the one billion people now living in poverty, or half of the 10 million who currently die every year in connection with poverty (hunger, preventable disease, curable disease) multiplied by 10 years. Compare with that the number of people who might die when a hijacked plane crashes, which is about 200. If we can prevent five such accidents in a ten-year period, that's 1000 lives saved. If we are trying to prevent a repeat of 9/11, which cost 3000 lives, we could claim that airport security can save 10 000 lives over a ten-year period.

Comparing these figures, we could save 
5 000 times more lives if we invested at the internationally agreed level in global development, by comparison to airport security, and we could do that for 20 times the amount of money. We are treating the life of a rich person as 250 times more valuable than the life of a poor person. Just imagine: 250 people dying so that you can live, or you dying so that 250 can live.

I have tried to avoid exaggeration, but just in case I have unintentionally distorted one of more of these estimates, allow me to moderate my conclusion and make the more conservative claim that we are treating the life of a rich person as at least a hundred times more valuable than the life of a poor person.

What are the implications of this conclusion? First, we should not deny it, chuckling and saying it cannot be true. Second, if we accept the truth of this claim, the obvious solution is to study all possible strategies to reduce the future death toll due to poverty (considering also climate change, which is increasingly involved in such deaths), prioritise those strategies according to their efficiency in terms of saving lives, and invest big money in them. The funding can come from new globally harmonized taxes on wealth, transactions and fossil fuel consumption.

How evil are ordinary human beings?

After the 2nd World War, American psychologist Stanley Milgram did a famous experiment in which he showed that ordinary people were capable of killing if urged to do so by an authority figure. Those were not brainwashed, desensitized Nazis, but ordinary people. When I read that, somehow deep down inside I thought it could not be true. Not me, not my friends. We would not do that.

Now I know it is true. I guess hundreds of kind, warm-hearted people will read this text, and not take it seriously. The only reason I can think of is that they don’t care that our emissions are killing future people. They will invent arguments to explain that it is not true or hopelessly exaggerated. They will laugh it off and change the subject.

Given that the warnings of scientists are still being blatantly ignored, allow me to propose that every fossil fuel operation be clearly labeled with the number of future deaths it will probably cause, just as cigarette packets are labeled with health warnings. And if that doesn't work, there should be photographs of piles of dead bodies, just as Australian cigarette packets carry pictures of people dying from lung cancer, or the terrible state of their lungs. Because it is the truth.

Instead of that, Emirates Airlines is advertising with the slogan "Hello tomorrow". Perhaps "Goodbye to tomorrow" would be more apt.

The only possible response to this situation is: STOP BURNING FOSSIL FUELS, regardless of the economic cost. Money is not more important than human lives. Like doctors taking the Hippocratic oath, our first obligation when treating a sick planet must be to save human lives.  "The question I cannot ask often enough is: who speaks for the victims? How do they get justice?" (Kofi Annan, Guardian Weekly, 8 November 2013).

What about academic conferences?

The key to stopping global warming is not to expect someone else to stop their emissions. The key is first to stop or severely reduce your own emissions, and then put pressure on others to do the same. This is as true for individuals is it is for countries. The USA made the biggest contribution to climate change in the past, and China is now making the biggest yearly contribution. But we can't reasonably expect the USA or China to do anything about it if we are doing little ourselves.

I am an academic, and I have flown to an awful lot of conferences. So I had better start by looking at my own contribution to global warming before accusing other people. As Michael Jackson sang, it is time to look at the man in the mirror.

How much CO2 does an academic conference produce? Websites such as allow these calculations to be made easily. A 5-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles and return generates about 700 kg of 
CO2 per economy-class passenger (Wikipedia November 2015). If you take into account the other warming effects (shorter-term high-altitude climate forcing), the total warming is at least double - that's 1500 kg CO2 per person, or 400 kg of carbon. For a 13-hour flight from LA to Berlin (Germany), one passenger might generate 1800 kg CO2 which is effectively at least 3500 kg ( - that's a ton of carbon. To burn 1000 tons of carbon and kill a future person, you would need a confererence of 1000 people in which the average person flew a distance equivalent to US to Europe or 2500 people who flew only within the US or Europe. I am personally involved in a conference called ICMPC; the last time it was held in Europe, over 400 people traveled from another country to the conference, mainly by air. There were 93 participants from North America, 58 from Asia, 16 from Australia and 298 from Europe, most of whom flew. According to these calculations, between five and ten such conferences would be enough to kill one future person. Of course these are only rough estimates; the point is that this is not only about CO2, it is also a matter of life and death.

Speaking of my personal contribution - during my life, I may well have produced enough greenhouse gases to kill one future person (or at least a significant fraction of that amount). That is possible if one counts up all the times I flew between Europe, North America and Europe, and adds all the electricity that I used that was produced by coal, all the car driving, and all the indirect carbon consumption (e.g. shopping). The same applies to many of my colleagues.
That does not make us murderers, but it does put things in perspective. For many years we had no idea how serious the problem is. From about the 1990s the problem should have been obvious to any academic who reads newspapers, but the topic was also being systematically suppressed by early climate deniers as described in the book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. For the past ten years it should have been clear to anyone who has ever taken part in a peer-review procedure that the climate scientists are right when they say global warming is happening and human-produced CO2 is the main culprit. If our actions before that time caused future deaths, we cannot be held accountable. If our actions now and in the future cause future deaths, we can be accused of indirect murder. Ignorance is no excuse, especially if one has enjoyed the luxury of public education up to and including a PhD in any discipline. Like Adam and Eve as they ate from the tree of knowledge and "fell from grace", we can no longer claim to be innocent.

The implications are clear. The party is over. It's time to stop flying to conferences. As long as flying is producing greenhouse gases and contributing significantly to global warming, there is no other solution. Biofuels are unlikely to become a viable alternative as long as people are dying of hunger in developing countries. It is still a long way off before hydrogen produced by splitting water using sustainable energy will become commercially viable.

Stopping flying is easier than you think. Many successful academics agree that there are too many conferences and we should spend more time at home getting our research done. The solution is to focus on regional conferences that you can reach by train, and spend the time on the train to work on those papers that urgently need to be written. We can present at other conferences by  teleconferencing (e.g. WebEx). I have tried this both as presenter and organiser and it worked well.

There is no excuse for not finally arriving in the 21st century. Obama is not always right, but the following is surely true: "We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it." Over a decade ago, we managed to stop using plastic transparencies and overhead projectors, remember those? Change is possible.

We all know how important personal contacts and networking are at conferences. Conferences are a great way of keeping up to date. They also boost our productivity and creativity. But we are hopefully also smart enough to realise that saving human lives is more important than going to conferences. Even if you disagree with that, you will surely agree that the situation is urgent and can no longer be ignored.

Incidentally - it is rather odd, isn't it, that nothing happens if I accuse myself, as I did above, of indirectly causing the death of a future person by burning lots of carbon (e.g. by flying to a hundred conferences)--a statement that implicitly accuses millions of other unnamed people of indirect murder. That can stay in the internet for years, and there will be no response. But if I explain in a blog that I am totally opposed to the death penalty in every conceivable case and then apply widely held beliefs about the death penalty to the case of unnamed influential climate deniers, some of whom may be indirectly causing millions of future deaths each merely by expressing an opinion, and if I then come to a logical conclusion, there is a public outcry. The deathly silence in the first case and the enraged reaction in the second have the same function: to ensure that the elephant in the room is ignored. The underlying message is this: "Whatever you do, don't mention that we are killing future people with our emissions!" When we finally realise that we are sending this message and stop doing so, we will also realise how urgent the global energy revolution is.

Psychic numbing

Well-meaning people have told me that it is unwise to state clearly the magnitude of this problem, because it might cause psychic numbing. The logic of the climate deniers runs something like this:  If warming is real, I am partly responsible. The consequences are grim, so I should feel guilty. I don't like feeling guilty, therefore global warming isn't real.

If that is true, texts like this might encourage climate denial. That is a shocking thought.

I have thought about this long and hard. What other option do I have apart from trying to tell the truth? None, it seems. No matter what strategy we choose to counter global warming, the task will be difficult. My policy, therefore, is first to try to tell the truth, however bad it may seem, and even if this policy might backfire in the short term. Because in the long term the truth can only be the best strategy. It is surely the only way to defend the those whose rights are being most severely violated.

Humankind has never come close to eliminating poverty before, so of course this is not easy. Stopping global warming may be even harder. But the night is sometimes darkest just before dawn, as I once noticed on an Australian beach. It was beautiful, it was wild, and it was 4am. When the sun rose, I could have discovered I had been thrown back in time by a thousand years. What would that have been like? Or I could have been thrown forward in time by a thousand years. What would that have been like?

This is our world, and it's the only one we are going to get. It's time for the penny to drop.

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at gmx dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage