This story includes details about the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.
A recent study has arrived at a striking new form of measurement for the true cost of burning fossil fuels: the number of people who will die annually from rising heat, and the number who won’t once emissions are scaled back.
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Just published in the journal Nature Communications, the study “draws on multiple areas of research to find out how many future lives will be lost as a result of rising temperatures if humanity keeps producing greenhouse gas emissions at high rates—and how many lives could be saved by cutting those emissions,” reports The New York Times.
Focusing solely on heat-related mortality, Columbia University PhD candidate R. Daniel Bressler calculated that adding about a million tonnes of atmospheric CO2 above 2020 levels—a mere quarter of the output of just one coal-fired power plant—for just one year would kill 226 people.
Taking that single power plant offline and replacing it with clean energy would save 904 lives over the course of a century.
Bressler also determined that “the lifetime emissions beyond 2020 levels of a handful of Americans (3.5, to be precise) will result in one additional heat-related death in this century,” the Times says. By contrast, “it would require the combined CO2 emissions of 146.2 Nigerians [to produce] the same result,” while “the worldwide average to cause that single death is 12.8 people.”
The new study draws on the latest version of the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) modelling system, which is used to calculate the social cost of carbon. This calculation, which calculates damage to the planet and its people in dollars per tonne of carbon, is a “crucial part of policy debates over the expense of fighting climate change, because it is used to calculate the cost-benefit analysis required when agencies propose environmental rules,” explains the Times.
Simply put: “the higher the social cost of carbon, the easier it is to justify the costs of action.”
This dollar figure is easily buffeted by political winds, however, falling to as little as US$1 per tonne while Donald Trump occupied the White House. The Times writes that President Joe Biden’s administration is currently at work on its own calculation, to be released early next year, with preliminary figures roughly matching the Obama-era estimate of $50 a tonne.
New York University School of Law professor Richard Revesz said Bressler’s study “could well have a significant impact on climate change policies,” affirming that the “social cost of carbon” is by no means the fullest measure of the ravages being delivered by the climate crisis.
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