round figures, humans have so far burned half a
of carbon, which has caused global mean temperature to rise by
Burning another half a trillion tons will cause a further 1°C
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.
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,
species extinction. These catastrophic developments will combine to
significantly increase the global death rate in connection
poverty. If the death rate increases from 10 to 20 million per year
period of century, a billion deaths will be attributable to
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
person every time we burn a thousand tons of carbon. This
order-of-magnitude estimate means for example that Australian
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
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
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
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
How much CO2
does it take to kill one future person?
The monetary value of a human life: Rich
How evil are ordinary
What about academic
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. To make the
extent of this unprecedented scandal clear, allow me to present some
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
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
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
developing countries, and hardly any in industrialised countries, you
can imagine what this means for developing countries. Today, 700
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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%).
moment I will stick with a rough estimate 1000 tons
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
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
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
The same applies to all fossil-fuel industries. All of them, in every
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
taxes on wealth, transactions and fossil fuel consumption.
How evil are ordinary
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.
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
The key to stopping global warming is not to expect someone else to
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
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
myclimate.org 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 (myclimate.org) - that's a ton of carbon.
To burn 1000 tons of carbon and kill a future person, you
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
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
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
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
plastic transparencies and overhead projectors, remember those? Change
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.
According to my analyses,
climate change will cost hundreds of millions of lives. Even if you
disagree with that, you will surely agree that the situation is urgent
and can no longer be ignored.
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.
is true, texts like this might encourage climate denial. That is a
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
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.
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