Addressing the threats of climate change and terrorism

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

As WHRC prepares for the United Nations climate change conference in Paris next month, the terror attacks there jolt our attention away from the minutiae of climate policy to more fundamental issues: life and death.

Even as we mourn the victims of the Paris attacks, some climate change deniers are using the attacks to argue that we should ignore climate change in order to focus on combatting terrorism — as if one precludes the other. Luckily, we can address both threats, and I hope for the sake of humanity that we do. A few years ago I wrote a piece called “Climate change kills more people than terrorism,” and while this may not be the moment to revive that discussion, I hope it is not insensitive to point out that climate change is also a very dangerous threat, even now.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the present annual mortality from climate change at around 150,000; this is projected to increase to 250,000 in the next couple of decades. Most of this comes in the form of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress, but extreme heat is also associated with higher rates of violent conflict from street crime to large-scale warfare and everything in between. In a recent report, the Department of Defense describes climate change as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security.” So, among the benefits of stopping climate change would be reduced levels of violence.

If this isn’t enough, fossil fuel use is also very deadly. For example, WHO estimates that particulate pollution from coal kills 1,000,000 people per year globally; this includes over 10,000 Americans, according to the Clean Air Task Force. (The mortality per ton of coal burned is about 20 times less in the US than in China, because of the Clean Air Act and other “job-killing regulations.”)

Even this partial accounting makes it clear that the death toll from climate change and fossil fuel use combined is enormous. Nearly all of that would be eliminated by substituting renewable energy for fossil fuels. As with many of the societal impacts of climate change, the health impacts are here already, even if they are not widely recognized. Climate change kills, and, like terrorism, it could get much worse unless we act to stop it.

At moments like this, when the world seems crazy and dangerous, reason and fact-based policies are more important than ever, whether the issue is climate change or security.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.