Published on Sunday, July 16, 2000 in the London Observer
100,000 Killed By Global Warming
by Anthony Browne
Global warming may already have killed 100,000 people in the past three years and threatens to lead to mass migration, disease, poverty and even war.
The extreme weather caused by global warming has had the greatest impact on poor countries which may soon be accusing the West of 'carbon aggression'.
The forecasts are made by historian David Keys in a new book that analyses how past climate change has affected human civilisation, and what that means for the future.
There is scientific consensus that the Earth's atmosphere is heating up, probably as a result of carbon dioxide emissions causing the 'greenhouse effect'. The warming is disrupting the weather systems, resulting in more and more extreme weather, including droughts, torrential rain and hurricanes.
The record year for climate disasters so far is 1998, when melting snow killed 4,000 people in China, 1,400 in India and 1,000 in Pakistan. Typhoons killed 500 in the Philippines, and monsoons killed 1,300 in Bangladesh. Last year torrential rain in Venezuela caused floods that killed 30,000 people, and this year thousands have died in flooding in Mozambique.
'There have always been severe weather events, but the number and severity has increased in recent years,' says Keys, who adds that exceptionally severe weather events have claimed between 50,000 and 100,000 lives since 1997. In addition, up to 300 million people have been displaced and made homeless.
In his book Catastrophe, he predicts that climate disturbances will lead to mass migration as people move from affected areas; increasing disease as viruses become more prone to jump species barriers; and an increase in poverty as agriculture and economies are disrupted.
The forecast is based on an in-depth analysis of the impact of a massive volcanic eruption in AD535 which prompted a rapid cooling of the global climate. The ensuing extreme weather conditions and disruption to agriculture eventually led to plagues and population movements. The end result was that the Roman Empire lost half its territory, paving the way for the rise of Islam.
'Climate disruption will take at least 100 years to play through - it takes that long to see permanent irreversible change as a result of climate change,' predicts Keys, who believes the pattern is already emerging. There has been an increase in population movement across borders in West Africa as a result of drought. Mozambique's economy has been set back years by massive flooding.
The rise in extreme weather conditions will guarantee these problems get worse. A major inundation in Bangladesh, for example, could displace millions of people, and put the Bangladesh-India border under pressure. The result, predicts Keys, is increasing conflict: 'When you get scarcity of resources, population movement and poverty you almost inevitably end up with conflict and destabilisation. It will make the world a more conflict-ridden place.'
Despite the forest fires in southern Europe, the extreme weather events have been having a far greater impact on developing nations. How ever, Keys predicts that the West will not get away unscathed. Although it may have the technology to deal with new diseases and extreme weather, it will not be unaffected by the demise of developing nations.
'As the Third World descends into chaos, the West is likely to want to disengage and become more isolationist,' said Keys. He believes that trade agreements will break down and supplies of commodities and cheap manufactured goods will dwindle, resulting in higher inflation in industrialised countries.
Developing nations, which produce only 20 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide but suffer the majority of the problems, are also likely to become increasingly resentful of the West. Some countries - such as the Maldives - could disappear under the sea as a result of the West's unwillingness to reduce its production of carbon dioxide.
'It will be seen as carbon aggression. Without doubt, the rest of the world will come to see our action - or inaction - as hostile to their interests,' said Keys.
In the eye of the storm
CHINA:Melting snow 4,150 dead
INDIA: Melting snow 1,400 dead
PHILIPPINES:Typhoons 500 dead
BANGLADESH:Cyclones 1,300 dead
INDIA/NEPAL: Monsoons 3,250 dead
CARIBBEAN/ CENTRAL AMERICA:Hurricanes 14,000 dead
INDIA: Cyclones/floods 30,000 dead
VENEZUELA: Rain/floods 50,000 dead
CHINA: Floods 800 dead
MOZAMBIQUE: Rain/floods 700 dead