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Do heat waves and malaria really kill people?

February 28, 2010

They say guns don’t kill people; people do. This tired ploy in the debate over gun regulation asks us to think about the social problem of murder, rather than the physical weapon itself. (as Eddie Izzard says, “yes, but I think the gun helps!”) But in the context of climate adaptation, a conceptual shift from the physical to the social is much needed. Hans von Storch has posted an article which makes exactly this point:

A closer inspection of … climate impacts reveals that in all cases climate plays a certain role – but that social, technological and economic factors play an equally if not more important role.

Von Storch uses two examples to demonstrate his case: heat waves, and malaria. Both of these calamities kill many people each year. But does the physical phenomenon really explain these deaths? No. People die from heat waves and malaria because of inadequate socail institutions. Here’s more background on the two examples:

The heat wave of 1995 in Chicago was analysed in detail (Klinenberg, 2002). It caused many deaths. The people died because of heat stress, but they would not have died if the city would have been properly prepared for the situation. The people who perished were not a random sample of the population; they were old, poor and lonely people; they did not dare to leave their insufficiently ventilated apartments because of real or perceived dangers of being assaulted by criminals. In the 1950s people would sleep during heat waves in the parks of the city, but in the 1990s people were afraid of visiting the parks after dark. Other cities are prepared for such a situation; endangered individuals are contacted when extreme temperatures are expected, and brought into air-conditioned shopping malls. It was the failure of social mechanisms, the absence of adequate adaptation which made the extreme temperatures lethal. “Climate” may even serve in this situation as a perfect scapegoat for the city administration – the killer was the heat wave. “We did not make the heat; we were not responsible”. Or, as Berthold Brecht’s Johanna is saying: “The calamity comes like the rain; made by nobody“.

Malaria (e.g., Reiter, 2001) – lay people widely believe that the spatial distribution of malaria a determined by the air temperature. But malaria was common in Europe up into the first half of the 20th century. In wetlands of The Netherlands and England, life expectancy was only half of that in other regions. That people in these regions no longer suffer from malaria is not to be explained by lower temperatures – but by modern hygienical and medical standards and better land usage. The return of malaria in some parts of the previous Soviet Union is also not related to a warming of climate but to the troubled medical systems in those parts of the world.

We are always adapting to climate impacts. Understanding that process will help us to deal with climate change. Both of these examples help to explain why it is not enough to study the physical impacts of climate change, because those are not enough to explain how we will be affected. Put differently, it’s not climate change that harms us; it’s our vulnerability to climate change.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    March 1, 2010 7:22 am

    Yeah, this is pretty obvious. Scholars looking at natural hazards (e.g., White, Kates, and others’ seminal work in the risk-hazards field), and those studying vulnerability (whether as an outgrowth of White et al.’s R-H work, or political ecologists who take a Marxist position and consider more top-down structural factors), have been saying this for decades now. Different populations have different vulnerabilities to the same stressor or hazard. No one disputes this and folks have been saying this in a much deeper, more thought out manner than Von Storch. Thanks for stating the obvious, Hans.

    • March 1, 2010 10:38 am

      Thanks for your comment, Joe.
      I won’t argue with your substantive point. Yes, this has been demonstrated by many people working in those fields for a long time.

      But you need to understand why it is important to continue making such a simple point, especially in venues such as the blog where Hans’ post originally appeared. Climate change science has long been dominated by physical scientists whose work ignores social factors. Social scientists have had a difficult time gaining a foothold and being taken seriously in this area, where the majority of funding goes toward satellites and computer models. Even in cases where the social factors are taken into account, they are often tacked on after expensive complex studies of the biophysical components of the system that might not have even been necessary.

      This is why I think research policy is such a central issue when it comes to adaptation: decisions about how to frame the question are crucial to whether or not the research is of any use to anyone. Hans is not writing because of a sudden epiphany about the world. He is using his platform within the climate science community to try to encourage a much needed shift toward more useful science.

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