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Everybody knows: heat is the biggest weather risk in the US

24 Aug 2022 | Science Notes

In our new series “Everybody knows” we invite CDN readers to send us (via admin@climatedn.com) a climate truism so universally repeated that nobody bothers to check if it’s true, even though chances are it isn’t. And be sure to send a link to where you see the item you want us to examine. This week, a reader points us to NBC news where we learn that the US National Weather Service is claiming extreme heat kills more Americans than any other weather-related factor, including floods, cold, tornadoes, wind, winter and hurricanes. Everybody knows warming is the deadliest thing, and it’s getting worse and worse. Wait a moment, since when has the National Weather Service been a source for research on public health? And if warming is getting worse, why are heat-related deaths plummeting? Glad you asked.

There have been lots of studies by public health experts of cold- and heat-related deaths around the world, and one of the most persistent findings is that extreme cold is more deadly than extreme heat. As a review in Environmental Health Perspectives put it, while:

“isolated heat waves pose a major health risk and grab headlines when they occur, recent research has uncovered a more complex and perhaps unexpected relationship between temperature and public health—on the whole, far more deaths occur in cold weather than in hot... An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of U.S. temperature-related deaths between 2006 and 2010 showed that 63% were attributable to cold exposure, while only 31% were attributable to heat exposure. In Australia and the United Kingdom, cold-related mortality between 1993 and 2006 exceeded heat-related mortality by an even greater margin—and is likely to do so through at least the end of the century. Researchers who evaluated 74 million U.K. and U.S. deaths reported in May 2015 that low temperatures are associated with 7.3% of all deaths versus just 0.4% for high temperatures, a ratio of more than 18 to 1.”

A 2003 study in the same journal showed that the risk of heat-related mortality in US cities fell by 75% from the 1960s to the end of the 1990s. And a follow-up study in 2015 by a different team of authors estimated the risk associated with heat waves in US cities had fallen by 90 percent from the 1960s to the early part of the last decade. Analysts attribute this to the availability of technologies like air conditioners. And experts say that when adaptation is taken into account, warming in the US over the next few decades is not expected to have any effect on mortality. Which, we add, means that warming itself doesn’t translate into increased risk of death, but bad climate policy that makes energy less affordable does.

A 2021 Report from the UK government also found that cold is much more deadly than heat, and even concluded the slight warming of the past 20 years had saved over half a million lives:

“Over a 20-year period the estimated change in deaths associated with warm or cold temperature was a net decrease of 555,103, an average of 27,755 deaths per year (Table 1). A decrease in deaths from outcomes associated with cold temperature greatly outnumbers deaths associated with warm temperature.”

One thing NBC does get right is that the worst effects of heat waves fall disproportionately on native and predominantly Black communities. But what they don’t get right is why. It’s not because heat looks at the census and decides to pick on some areas more than others based on people’s ethnicity. The causal factor is low income.

People in poor areas have more difficulty affording air conditioning units and the electricity needed to run them. Which brings us back to the real issue that heat, and even rising heat levels, is not the problem, high energy costs are the problem. The issue isn’t climate change, it’s climate policy.

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