Fifty times more deaths by weather

VTM news August 5, 2017: fifty times more deaths by weather

The hyperbole level was high in this news item from the VTM news of last Saturday: Fifty Times More Deaths By Weather. This is how it is introduced (translated from Dutch):

South and Central Europe are moaning under a heatwave these days and this has consequences. In Italy, for example, is it up to 46 degrees and there are already three deaths. It is an example of what will happen much more by the end of this century: people who die from extreme weather. That is what researchers of a working group of the European Commission say. According to their study, there will be about 152,000 deaths by weather-related phenomena per year between 2071 and 2100, mainly caused by climate change.

That 50 times more is compared to the weather-related deaths in the reference period 1981→2010 and projected into the future with demographic and climate models. The study at issue is titled Increasing risk over time of weather-related hazards to the European population: a data-driven prognostic study and is written by Giovanni Forzieri et al of the Joint Research Center of the European Commission.

The authors acknowledge that there is “inherent uncertainty in the observation data and in the climate and hazard projections”. I think it is logical that there is quite some uncertainty involved in a study that is basing itself on such a small observation period, totalled with modelling/assumptions/projections.

They wrote that those 152.000 deaths “could” (conditional tense, if the many conditions/assumptions are fulfilled) occur by the year 2100. While the news item claimed that those deaths “will” occur (with certainty) in the period 2071→2100. The uncertainty displayed in the paper just went poof in the news item.

According to the paper, 99% of those deaths will be heat-related fatalities. When I add the numbers from the table “Weather-related risk by region calculated for the reference period and the period 2071-100” together, then the result is even 99.56%. The other 0.44% are coldwaves (0.0036%), wildfires (0.046%), river floods (0.095%), coastal floods (0.2%), wind storms (0.1%) and much to my surprise droughts with 0%. Which is unlike anything that I have seen until now.

The three deaths in Italy are rather intriguing. My first thought was that this number is rather low. The heatwave of 2003 with similar temperatures caused 20,000 deaths in Italy, so 3 deaths could be seen as a huge improvement (unless the bulk of deaths are yet to come).

There is however more to it. I became rather curious about those 3 deaths. Who died and what was the reason of their death? Apparently, two people died in a forest fire and one woman died after her car got swept away by a flooded river (Dutch).

All three are non heat-related fatalities, so according to the paper these would be part of that 0.44% of deaths to be expected. So I doubt very much that these 3 deaths are somehow an example of what could happen by the second half of this century.

Okay, I guess that the journalist probably didn’t read the paper and most likely meant that those 3 deaths (no matter what their cause was) were examples of what could happen in the second half of this century (many more deaths than what we currently see).

If what they found in that reference period was the signature of global warming (predominantly heat-related deaths), then they are in fact atypical for their signature of climate change deaths. That is not a good start for their projections.

Anyway, I don’t think the falsifiability of that claim will matter very much to the authors. I don’t know who Giovanni Forzieri is (I did not find him on the people list of the Joint Research Center website), but it seems that he is publishing since 2012. Even if this publication was the first thing he did after getting his PhD, he probably will be retired by the first time his projection could be falsified in 2071.

Projecting so many years in the future is tricky though. The paper seems to project the climate change signal from 1981→2010 thirty to more than eighty years in the future. This is okay if everything, except our emissions, stays the same as in the reference period. Which is guaranteed not the case. Even if we would not “take action on climate change” in the next 30 – 80 years, things could evolve very different than we expected.

This is for example how the French at the beginning of the 20th century envisaged life in 2000:

Last time I have been in France was in June of this year, but I remember traffic there slightly different.

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