Zeus: Climate change - the silent killer

In a world where data rule everything, there is no way to measure deaths by climate change. If Covid-19 teaches us anything, it should be how to forecast the next threat.

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — Joseph Stalin nailed it.

“One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic,” said the murderous Russian dictator, who would know. As the U.S. passed the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths Wednesday, up from 2,000 just two months ago and zero just 100 days ago, we have become immune to the tragedy that has engulfed us, and the world.

Daily death counts from Johns Hopkins or Worldometer no longer cast the dark shadow they did in early April, as we sat in our homes wondering what we would do if we or a loved one suddenly got sick and had two weeks to live. 

With economies opening more each day, and masks becoming political statements, these soaring family tragedies — each heartbreaking — have morphed into statistical battlegrounds. What is the value of a human life in terms of economic loss, some ask. It's only a small percentage, others say. Not for the families, I imagine. 

A post from the World Economic Forum caught my eye the other day. It was a report by VisualCapitalist, one of the more effective users of data to tell stories. It marks the daily number of deaths worldwide at about 150,000, and breaks them down by cause. Heart disease is by far the leader, followed by cancer. Covid-19 is in the mix but not especially prominent. Somewhere between dementia and diabetes.

Climate change is nowhere. Which begs the question, how can we mobilize against the threat of climate change if the loss of 100,000 people over two months — 350,000 worldwide — is simply treated as the cost of doing business? In a world of seven billion people, what will it take to move us?

Part of the problem may be that death records don't list climate change as a cause anywhere. Some records mention heat. In fact, heat is listed as a minor cause in the graphic linked above. Above terrorism and natural disasters, but still small.

Some think heat should be given a lot more blame. A recent study in The Lancet, written up by Science Alert, estimated that in Australia authorities are under-counting heat-related deaths by a matter of 50-fold.

Let's face it, Covid-19 got our attention because it was killing our neighbors and was in our stores and restaurants. Climate change is still regarded, at least here in the U.S., as something that might make you need to move in a few years.

Sure, we evacuate when hurricanes or wildfires come up, but not until the last moment. As these disasters become bigger and more frequent though, and larger parts of the earth become uninhabitable, the idea of climate refugees and climate victims will become more apparent.

If the coronavirus has collectively taught us anything, it's how to coalesce around data. Death rates, infection rates, pre-existing conditions. All part of our new lexicon. A hierarchy of important data was established almost immediately after the pandemic hit, even if not everybody agreed they were accurate. 

The battle to adapt to climate change is filled with data, but there is no such hierarchy. CO2 levels, maybe. Carbon footprints. All nebulous in many ways.

The challenge for innovators is to build technologies and financial strategies that can leverage the data to create real solutions for governments and societies. The challenge for the rest of us is to develop scorecards, for lack of a better word, to reflect the importance and immediacy of the data being thrown at us. We know that Venice is sinking 1 to 2 millimeters per year, so we can see the threat. If we knew how much our company's carbon footprint was growing each month, we might better visualize what is happening. And what we can do to stop or offset it.

The quest for climate solutions is technological, financial, political and moral. It is also mortal. We are not statistics. Look at the names on the front page of the New York Times or the photos on USA Today. A better reckoning of how temperature changes affect each of us right now is needed.

As Henry David Thoreau, the American writer and naturalist, reflected years before Stalin was even born:

“Even trees do not die without a groan.”

Above, Angel of Grief, a 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story in a Rome cemetery. Photo: Einar Einarsson Kvaran/Wikimedia.