VIDEO: Professor Richard Parncutt – The Human Cost of Climate Change

The Environment Institute recently hosted Professor Richard Parncutt, from University of Graz, Austria when he visited the University of Adelaide as he toured Australia, delivering his lecture series. Whilst travelling, he aimed to leave low-carbon footprint and declared this would be his last international trip.

Although quite a grim presentation at times, Professor Parncutt advised on what to expect with the onset of climate change with regards to the human death toll and displacement of peoples worldwide. His perspective on climate change including “global climate change is a matter of life and death for enormous numbers of people — especially in developing countries”.

Abstract: Greenhouse-gas emissions are indirectly causing future deaths by multiple mechanisms. For example, reduced food and water supplies will exacerbate hunger, disease, violence, and migration. Predicted death tolls are crucial for policy formulation, but uncertainty increases with temporal distance from the present and estimates may be psychologically biased. How will anthropogenic global warming (AGW) affect global mortality due to poverty around and beyond 2100? Roughly how much burned fossil carbon corresponds to one future death? What are the ethical, legal, psychological, medical, political, economic implications? Order-of-magnitude estimates can be made by comparing literature from diverse relevant disciplines. The carbon budget for 2°C AGW (roughly 1012 tonnes of carbon) will indirectly cause roughly 109 future premature deaths (10% of projected maximum global population), spread over one to two centuries.

This zeroth-order prediction is relative and in addition to existing preventable death rates. It lies between likely best- and worst-case scenarios of 3 x 108 and 3 x 109, corresponding to plus/minus one standard deviation on a logarithmic scale in a Gaussian probability distribution. It implies that one future premature death is caused every time roughly 1000 (300 to 3000) tonnes of carbon are burned; therefore, any fossil-fuel project that burns millions of tons of carbon is probably indirectly killing thousands of future people. The prediction may be considered valid, accounting for multiple indirect links between AGW and death rates in a top-down approach, but unreliable due e.g. to the uncertainty of climate change feedback and interactions between physical, biological, social, and political climate impacts (e.g., ecological cascade effects, co-extinction).

Given universal agreement about the value of human lives, a death toll of this unprecedented magnitude must be avoided at all costs. As a clear political message, the “1000-tonne rule” can be used to defend human rights, especially in developing countries, and to clarify that climate change is primarily a human rights issue.

More information about Professor Richard Parncutt


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